Portuguese friends ask me, somewhat alarmed, about what is happening in the Brazilian electoral process. The reason: the leadership in all the polls, for the first round of the presidential elections, of retired Army captain Jair Bolsonaro, lawmaker for the inexpressive PSL.
Strangeness is justified. Thirty-three years after the end of the military regime, a considerable part of the population seems willing to elect an apologist of that dictatorship, a denialist of the torture it undertook, and supporter of politically incorrect positions - for saying for example, that a congresswoman did not "deserve to be raped" by him.
As repellent as this description may be, Bolsonaro is an unlikely outlet of a process of dissatisfaction with the political system set up by the Constitution of 1988, which generated poor public services, systemic corruption and cronyism.
The years of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's PT (Workers' Party) in power (2003-2016), despite moments of economic boom, deepened these characteristics to the paroxysm. And the PT introduced the "Kulturkampf" as an element of tension with electoral purposes highligting divisions.
Seen as exoticism a year ago, Bolsonaro ended up benefiting from this cultural environment. To add unpredictability, he suffered a knife attack that took him out of the street campaign and gave him an unprecedented exposure as a victim.
Until 2014, the pillars of the system were the PT and the PSDB, party of ex- president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002). However, the PSDB ended up swallowed by corruption allegations that, even if smaller in scope than those associated with the PT under Operation Lava Jato, were enough to give the party the "same-as-all-the-others" label.
Bolsonaro occupied this centrist space, with the radicalization of an unsatisfied electorate and the country's economic paralysis.
Paradoxically, the PT, virtually dead two years ago, was reborn for this campaign. The impeachment of unpopular president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 saved the party. With the failure of the Michel Temer's interim government, the party embraced a narrative of victimization.
This was crowned with the conviction, arrest and disqualification of Lula to run for the presidency. This made it possible for Lula's replacement in this year's race, Fernando Haddad, to emerge as second in the polls.
For the financial market and for many Brazilians, it is a scenario that resembles the crossing the Strait of Messina in Homeric times. On the one hand, Cila. On the other, Caribdis. Not by moral equivalence, but by disruptive potential.
Some predict the economic apocalypse, especially if the PT returns to power - the the party's platform for the economy is chilling. Others fear an authoritarian escalation that would lead to a coup d'etat, should Bolsonaro succeed. His background and statements from the generals he brought into his campaign did not help dispel such suspicions. Full inexperience and lack of structure seems a greater risk.
In practice, if one of the two ends up elected president, unless surprises occur, the trend will be adaptation. Anyway, it will be unpleasant to many, since the country is split. Going back to the beginning of this text: Bolsonaro is not a cause but a symptom of a greater malaise.