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Brazil's President Bolsonaro is trailing in his campaigning for reelection

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has launched his campaign for reelection. Bolsonaro has been called the South American Trump for his similarities with the former U.S. president. In fact, fears are growing in Brazil that if Bolsonaro loses the October election, he may follow Donald Trump's example and refuse to accept the results. John Otis is in Rio de Janeiro for NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting, inaudible).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The crowd went wild on Sunday when Jair Bolsonaro kicked off his campaign at a Rio de Janeiro sports arena.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: "You know who's on your side," Bolsonaro told the crowd in an hourlong speech. "Today, you have a president who believes in God, who respects the military and police and who defends the family."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: His conservative message combined with his promise to stamp out government corruption helped Bolsonaro, a former army captain, win the 2018 election and build a loyal following. Among those who plan to vote for him again on October 2 is lawyer Daniela Carvalho.

DANIELA CARVALHO: He made a lot of things good for Brazil. He's not a fascist. He is a good man and a religion man. Bolsonaro is the best president that we ever had.

OTIS: However, polls show Bolsonaro trailing his main rival, the left-wing Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Known as Lula, he's a hero to many Brazilians for reducing poverty during his two terms as the country's president in the early 2000s. By contrast, the economy is now stagnant. Inflation, unemployment and poverty are on the rise. What's more, critics accuse Bolsonaro of promoting the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and badly mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: In this 2020 speech, for example, Bolsonaro called the disease nothing more than a cult. He badmouthed vaccines and refused to get jabbed himself. Brazil ended up with the second-highest COVID death toll in the world after the U.S. Mauricio Santoro teaches international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

MAURICIO SANTORO: The last years have been of broken dreams, of forsaken plans, of lost relatives and friends because of the coronavirus. It's lots of sad things that happened in Brazil.

OTIS: To claw his way back into the race, Bolsonaro is ramping up government spending with direct cash transfers to poor Brazilians. But there is growing concern that Bolsonaro appears to be setting the stage for a Brazilian version of Donald Trump's big lie about the 2020 U.S. election. He constantly questions the electronic voting system, even though it's worked fine for 25 years, and he wants his allies in the armed forces to monitor the vote count. Bolsonaro cast more doubts on the election in his speech on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OTIS: He declared that his supporters, whom he referred to as an army of the people, would not accept electoral fraud. Brazilians take Bolsonaro's rhetoric seriously because they've lived through numerous coups while an abuse of military dictatorship ruled between 1964 and 1985.

PEDRO DORIA: There were people invading the Capitol in the U.S. The U.S. does not have a history of military coups. We do. And he's doing exactly what Donald Trump did.

OTIS: That's Pedro Doria, a Rio de Janeiro writer.

DORIA: Why should we not be scared? We should be scared for the democracy here in Brazil.

OTIS: John Otis, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.