At her president husband’s campaign rallies, Michelle Bolsonaro paces the stage, invokes the power of God and embraces the crowd with hugs and handshakes.
Jair Bolsonaro’s third wife, 40, has become an asset in his re-election campaign as he tries to galvanize evangelicals and attract women. The president, who is behind in the polls ahead of the first round of voting on Oct. 2, was “God’s chosen one”, Michelle told a jubilant crowd at his campaign launch in Rio de Janeiro. “This man has a pure heart, a clean heart, in addition to being handsome.”
She’s not the only wife to take an active role ahead of what is expected to be a highly polarized election. Rosangela da Silva, the wife of the race leader, former leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is also increasingly in the spotlight.
“Campaigns weren’t always like this,” said Vera Chaia, a politics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. “Today, the role of wives becomes more important.” Michelle Bolsonaro “uses the style of a pastor,” she said.
Born in Brasilia, Michelle met her then lawmaker husband while working as a congressional secretary and later joined his office. Although Michelle barely made an appearance in his 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro regularly invoked his wife’s father, a bus driver from northeast Brazil, to boost his image with voters in the populous and impoverished region. .
This year, he put it forward. “The most important person at the moment is not the president of the republic. He’s not the presidential candidate. This is Ms. Michelle Bolsonaro,” he told supporters last month, with the first lady at his side.
Political analysts say his goal in the campaign is to help reduce his rejection rate among women, who dislike his overt machismo and history of misogynistic language.
Among female voters, Bolsonaro leads Lula by 18 percentage points, compared to a deficit of 15 percentage points among all categories of voters, according to a Datafolha poll.
Bolsonaro did little to dispel perceptions of sexism when he berated a reporter who asked a question during a recent presidential debate. He also insulted another candidate, Simone Tebet, who asked: “Why so much anger towards women?”
Another goal is to shore up support for Bolsonaro among evangelical voters, who make up around 30% of the electorate. Although these voters tend to sympathize with the president’s rhetoric about traditional family values, Lula is increasingly vying for their support.
Malu Gatto, professor of Latin American politics at University College London, said: “As an evangelical herself, Michelle speaks the language of evangelicals. She knows how to convey the issues in a more authentic way than Bolsonaro, who does not naturally know how to use the language used in evangelical circles.
“[With women] what Michelle is doing is softening Bolsonaro’s image with those who might be hesitant to support him given his background and the way he talks about women,” she said, referring to his past misogynistic statements.
Sóstenes Cavalcante, leader of the evangelical caucus in the lower house of Congress, said Michelle’s involvement in the campaign was also important in attracting people from the northeast of the country given her family background.
“We emphasized to the president the importance of the first lady in these areas. And we are already starting to see good results,” he said.
Rosangela da Silva, meanwhile, took a different approach. Known widely as Janja, the 56-year-old sociologist has been an activist in Lula’s Workers’ Party for decades. They started dating after the former president was widowed in 2017 and married shortly after Lula’s election campaign kicked off in May.
Lula presented the wedding as a symbol of his commitment to “love”, which he wants to return to Brazil after years of what he calls Bolsonaro’s “hate”. But political analysts saw the move as a way to fend off growing conservative attacks that the former president, who supports LGBT+ rights, does not believe in traditional families.
UCL’s Gatto said: “[The wedding shows] Lula is also part of a family; he has a traditional wedding. It’s to reinforce this idea of Lula as someone who values family.
Janja is a visible presence on the campaign trail, often singing at events and caring for Lula, who tends to lose his voice after suffering from throat cancer a decade ago. She is also seen as influencing Lula’s thinking on the environment and social causes, such as women’s rights.
“For me, Janja is the opposite of Michelle. She has another way of seeing the world, on issues like machismo and patriarchy, which Michelle doesn’t have,” said 29-year-old artist Fernanda Barcelos. from São Paulo and supporter of the Workers’ Party. “I see Michelle as a pawn and Janja as an activist. For me, they are quite the opposite.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza
Jair Bolsonaro deploys evangelical bride in Brazil’s polarized presidential race