ROME – As fake news and WhatsApp messages influence Brazilian elections this year, the population is divided, including Catholics and their bishops, while the campaign itself is being shaped largely by religious voters.
One week before a run-off election on October 28, Brazilians are split between two presidential candidates: the extreme-right Representative Jair Bolsonaro (Social-Liberal Party, PSL); and the center-left former education minister Fernando Haddad (Workers’ Party, PT).
While Bolsonaro appears a comfortable leader in all opinion polls, a recent report published by the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo accuses him of receiving undeclared support from big companies – a practice that is common in Brazilian politics, but technically illegal.
Several businessmen allegedly hired marketing agencies to spread fake news and accusations against his opponent through WhatsApp messenger. Contracts could total $ 3.2 million, the report says.
“If people are really doing this, I cannot control them,” Bolsonaro told journalists in response to the report. As opponents contest his candidacy, Brazil’s High Electoral Court says it will investigate the case. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is accusing Haddad of being a bad loser, a communist and a threat to traditional Christian values.
In this context, both candidates are struggling to persuade Catholic and Evangelical voters, who make up a significant share of the country’s population. For Catholic bishops it’s a bit of a dilemma, since both Bolsonaro and Haddad have proposals that explicitly contradict Catholic Church teaching.
On October 12, Haddad attended a mass for Our Lady of Aparecida and received communion, although he is not known as a practicing Catholic. His vice presidential candidate, Manuela D’Avila (Communist Party of Brasil, PCdoB), did the same.
Images of the event spread on social media caused a revolt among many Catholics.
One day before, Haddad had a private visit with the Secretary General of the Brazilian Episcopal Conference (CNBB), Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner. In a press release, Steiner said that the candidate did not come to ask for support, and the CNBB has no party and no candidate.
“He presented his proposals and his concerns. I discussed with the candidate the issues of concern for the bishops of Brazil: the legalization of abortion, the protection of the environment, special attention to the indigenous and quilombola issues [afro-descendants], the defense of democracy and the strict fight against corruption,” the bishop said.
He added that this kind of visit is “normal” during the campaign, and they did not appear together in public. Haddad committed himself to the pro-life agenda: “All of my actions are in line with the principles presented by the CNBB. I am open to receive new suggestions from them,” he said.
Despite those assurances, the CNBB is seen as excessively liberal by many Brazilian conservatives, and is accused by Bolsonaro and his online supporters of being “the rotten part of the Catholic Church.”
A few days later, on October 17, the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, Cardinal Orani João Tempesta, openly received Jair Bolsonaro in his office and allowed himself to be photographed with the candidate.
In the past, Tempesta has received different candidates during local elections. However, he is known among Catholics as a vehement critic of the Workers’ Party. The meeting, therefore, was mostly received by Catholics as a not-so-veiled demonstration of support for Bolsonaro.
However, the Archdiocese of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro informs that “it does not support any candidate.”
Side-by-side with the cardinal, Bolsonaro said: “I came much more to hear him than to speak. We are committed to the defense of the family, the innocence of the child in the classroom, in defense of religious freedom, contrary to abortion, contrary to the legalization of drugs. Those commitments are in the heart of every good Brazilian.”
Photographs of the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo show employees of the archdiocese making signs of guns with their hands in front of a statue of Jesus – a sign used by Bolsonaro in his campaign against crime.
This race is being described by many Brazilian analysts as an “anti” election.
Some voters are fiercely anti-PT and its mentor, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is now in prison following a conviction for corruption. Critics say Lula is the mind behind Haddad’s campaign. Haddad’s PT is known for supporting leftist governments in Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela, but also as being more committed to social justice issues.
Others are extremely anti-Bolsonaro, whose “hard line” rhetoric praises the military dictatorship that governed the country for 20 years and shows signs of authoritarianism. He defends torture practices “in some cases” and easier access to guns, but he presents himself as pro-life when it comes to abortion and he is ferociously against same-sex unions and “gender ideology.”
In the first weeks of the campaign, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the stomach by a man that seems to have no relation with any political party. Although now he is now mostly recovered, his campaign has been conducted largely through social media.
The elections also have been swayed and distorted by repeated cycles of rumors and sensational reports that have turned out to be false. Research by the fact-checking agency Lupa shows that, during this electoral season, only 4 out of 50 images that have gone viral on WhatsApp have been based on truth.