By Pilar Olivares and Sergio Moraes
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – In Brazil’s most polarizing election in decades, women have long held the decisive swing vote, with a quarter of the female electorate up for grabs just a month ago — twice the undecided rate among Brazilian men.
Days ahead of Sunday’s deciding vote, however, right-wing front-runner Jair Bolsonaro has pushed them off the fence, splitting Brazilian women along deep fault lines.
On one side, he has won the backing of women fed up with crime, corruption scandals and economic recession under the leftist Workers Party, represented by his rival Fernando Haddad.
On the other, women say they cannot bring themselves to vote for a man with a track record of offending minorities and women, including telling a fellow lawmaker she was too ugly to rape and defending the gender pay gap.
The latest survey from pollster Ibope shows a close divide, with 44 percent of women supporting Bolsonaro and 40 percent for Haddad. Men have broken overwhelmingly for Bolsonaro, who has the support of 56 percent, against just 36 percent for Haddad.
The largest demonstrations against Bolsonaro in recent months have been led by women, gathering tens of thousands of protesters under the slogan “elenao” or “not him.”
Yet their campaign on social media and in the streets of major cities spurred a backlash from Bolsonaro supporters declaring “ele sim” or “yes, him.”
Many women shrug off the feminist arguments against the seven-term congressman, arguing that crime and political graft have gotten so bad that his promises on those fronts come first.
“I am really worried about violence. I have nine children and I am a grandmother. It’s hard to think what kind of life they’ll have in this unsafe city,” said Rose Nascimento, a 50-year-old businesswoman in Rio de Janeiro.
“I hope Bolsonaro will do something about it,” she said, adding that the lawmaker is “a man that respects family values.”
Yet Mohara Valle, an activist on behalf of black women, said she was worried about minority rights under Bolsonaro.
“We don’t want to go backward,” said Valle, 28. “We have to keep fighting for more policies to let us not only live, but live well with full rights to our own bodies.”
Maira Fernandes, a 36-year-old attorney, pointed to comments by Bolsonaro’s vice presidential candidate, retired General Hamilton Mourao, who described homes run by women as “factories for misfits.”
“Nothing would be worse for women than a victory for Bolsonaro and Mourao,” said Fernandes. She added that Haddad’s choice of running mate, feminist Manuela D’Avila, gave her confidence that they would combat violence against women.
Still, for women such as Sandra Nicacio, a 54-year-old lawyer, Bolsonaro’s tough talk on crime is more assuring, such as a proposal to chemically castrate convicted rapists.
Bolsonaro’s praise for the country’s 1964-1985 military government also inspires hope for Brazilians who long for a time when violence was less widespread.
“My memories during the military dictatorship are that I had a good education and nothing was missing,” Nicacio said. “What I am now professionally, I owe to the dictatorship.”
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(Reporting by Pilar Olivares and Sergio Moraes; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Brad Haynes and Jonathan Oatis)