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Bolsonaro still has followers in Brazilian business

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With less than two weeks until the Brazilian elections, it may seem like companies have abandoned President Jair Bolsonaro. Despairing over his attack on the integrity of Brazil’s voting system and fearing a Trumpian uprising if he loses, executives seem to have grown impatient with the far-right former army captain.

An open letter in defense of democracy was seen last month as an attack on Mr Bolsonaro, and was criticized by Brazil’s traditionally conservative banking association Febraban, the powerful São Paulo industry lobby group Fiesp, and numerous unions and NGOs. united the

Another declaration pledging to defeat attempts to overturn the election included Pedro Moreira Salles and Roberto Setubal, co-chairmen of Brazil’s largest bank Itaú Unibanco, and Walter Sharka, CEO of pulp and paper giant Suzano. More than 100,000 signatures have been collected.

However, the reality is different. In a soft whisper, many Brazilian business executives and bankers still prefer Bolsonaro to the front-runner, leftist former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

“We expect the majority of executives to vote for Bolsonaro,” said Oliver Stenkel of the Getulio Vargas Foundation think tank. “But the strength of the support has decreased.”

Many executives like the Bolsonaro administration’s free-market tendencies, despite the pre-election surge in welfare spending. They cite central bank independence, some privatizations, relatively sound public finances, and legislation to cut public sector pensions.

Rio shopping center owner José Koury has been investigated by police after he told a WhatsApp group that he preferred a coup to the return of the Lula’s Workers Party (PT) – comments the businessman said were removed. of context. But many business owners are enjoying an unexpectedly strong economy. Economists expect GDP to grow by at least 2.5% this year. Foreign direct investment rose 78% last year to reach $50 billion, according to UNCTAD.

Bolsonaro’s indifference to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest may surprise the West, but the country’s powerful soybean and beef farmers see defenders of their interests instead.

Brazil’s elections are largely publicly funded, businesses are prohibited from donating, and individuals can only donate up to 10% of their annual income. Brazil’s Electoral Commission’s latest figures still show the leading agribusiness figures in favor of Bolsonaro. Among them is his Oscar Luiz Cervi, a large soybean and corn farmer who donated 1 million reais ($190,000). His Odílio Balbinotti Filho, one of Brazil’s largest seed producers, donated 600,000 reais. Lula, by contrast, relies mostly on public funding given to the party.

Many Western investors and multinationals want Lula back in charge. They largely accept the former president’s assurances that he will govern in moderation.

In contrast, during his presidency from 2003 to 2010, Lula is remembered as an international celebrity celebrated for reducing poverty and promoting conservation of the Amazon rainforest.

Brazilian business executives have different memories. They recall his tenure coinciding with a massive corruption plot centered around state oil company Petrobras in what the U.S. Department of Justice called “the largest foreign bribery case in history.” The bribery conviction that put Lula in jail has been reversed, but a corruption scandal has overshadowed his administration (Lula has always claimed innocence, but admits the failure of the PT government).

“Almost everyone I know would vote for Bolsonaro,” said a private equity executive in Sao Paulo. “They won’t say it publicly, but they are doing well under Bolsonaro and they don’t trust Lula.”

Bolsonalista Executives are likely to be disappointed. Almost all the polls show Lula won her second-round runoff vote at the end of October by a wide margin. But conservatives have one consolation: polls show that the veteran left will not win a majority in the new Congress.

FGV’s Stuenkel said: “There really isn’t much room on the ultra-left economic agenda.”

michael.stott@ft.com

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