He came on horseback and wore a scowl as he spoke, telling thousands of yellow-clad believers they faced a momentous battle of good versus evil.
“Good has always triumphed – and this time it will be no different. Good will prevail!” the outsider bellowed as his followers encircled the stage that had been erected to welcome him to this sweltering satellite town in north-east Brazil.
The speech-maker was Jair Bolsonaro, the Bible-quoting, far-right populist championed in almost celestial terms by his supporters.
“I love him. He’s my warrior,” said Diego Rodrigues da Silva, 27, an evangelical Christian who had ridden to the event on a bicycle painted with the word “Jesus”.
“Wherever he goes, I go too,” said Rosaria Valente, 65, from the Amazon city of Belém. She called Bolsonaro “the only real president I’ve ever seen”.
Minutes later, the throng erupted in euphoric cheers as their trailblazer arrived on a white horse with his country’s yellow and green flag draped over its neck. “Brazil above everything,” Bolsonaro shouted. “God above all,” they screamed back – the slogan of Bolsonaro’s illiberal administration since his shock 2018 election win.
That administration will seek to extend its stay in power in October when 150 million Brazilians choose the next leader of Latin America’s biggest democracy.
With the struggle for power intensifying, Bolsonaro has been touring the country in an effort to project strength and popularity and win back millions of voters who abandoned him as a result of his bungled response to Covid and the consequent economic and social pain. “All of us have a mission here on Earth and my mission was one of the thorniest a head of state could face,” Bolsonaro told the Parnamirim rally, defending his handling of a disease which has killed more than 660,000 Brazilians and against which he claims not to have been vaccinated.
At the start of this year some Bolsonaro opponents hoped his chances of a second term had evaporated, with polls showing a yawning gap between the former army captain and his leftist rival, the ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Bolsonaro remains the underdog, abhorred by millions of citizens and shunned by much of the international community for his assault on Brazil’s environment and democracy. More than half of Brazilians say they would never vote for him. But in recent weeks Bolsonaro’s polling has improved, dashing progressive predictions that he was out for the count.
“I don’t think the election is won – far from it,” said Jairo Nicolau, the author of a book exploring Bolsonaro’s astonishingly resilient support base.
Nicolau still considered Lula the clear favourite thanks to his popularity among female voters, north-easterners and the poor. But the election is still six months away and the spell Bolsonaro has cast over many conservatives – a “cultural phenomenon” Nicolau likens to Trumpism – meant he was no ordinary foe. Barring economic meltdown, millions of Bolsonaro voters would stand by their man.
“It’s truly remarkable. He has established a rapport with part of Brazil that’s really rare for a politician. It’s almost as if he’s a footballing idol … They see Bolsonaro as a hero,” Nicolau said.
Such veneration is obvious in Parnamirim, a conservative city that grew around an airbase built to support allied efforts in the second world war and is home to many military officials.
“He’s a visionary,” said Marcelo Chianca, 73, who cruised to the airport to greet Bolsonaro on his three-wheeled motorcycle. White, well educated and well-off, Chianca, a wine-loving retired economist, is a typical representative of Bolsonaro’s base. But he also enjoys support on Parnamirim’s dilapidated outskirts, partly thanks to billions of pounds in welfare payments being dished out ahead of the vote.
“He has a real connection to the poor,” said Ana Paula da Silva, an evangelical 29-year-old who is pregnant with her fourth child and survives on an £80 monthly government allowance called Auxílio Brasil.
Logic suggested her husband would support Lula. Ronaldo Cavalcante was born into rural poverty in the same town, Garanhuns, as Brazil’s first working-class president. He once worked for one of Lula’s cousins.
But Cavalcante, a 38-year-old gardener, was also a Bolsonaro fan and said he would consider giving their unborn child the president’s second name, Messias. “It’s a beautiful name, isn’t it?” he said. “To tell you the truth, of all the politicians we’ve had, the one I’ve most admired is him.”
The potentially tight nature of what looks set to be a two-horse race between Bolsonaro and Lula has left many bracing for a fraught and possibly violent period. Adding to those fears are the tens of thousands of firearms that have gone into circulation under a pro-gun president who has dramatically loosened gun laws.
Critics accuse Bolsonaro of inviting disorder with his confrontational language. “An armed population will never be enslaved,” he told supporters in Parnamirim, several of whom wore T-shirts stamped with images of revolvers or assault rifles.
Elisangela Silva da Costa Palombo, a leftwing activist and teacher who lives nearby, voiced outrage at the divisive “good and evil” rhetoric being used by Bolsonaro. “No matter how many times he says he represents good, he’s actually evil disguised as good – and people are waking up to this,” she said.
Lindomar Alves de Sousa, a softly spoken evangelist who was part of Bolsonaro’s reception committee, recognised the president’s “brutish style” but said it was necessary as he was striving to save Brazil from what he called communist totalitarianism. “He’s not a polished guy – but he’s doing what we want done,” the 58-year-old preacher said after evening worship in his church, Heal Our Land.
The next morning Sousa joined Bolsonaro on stage in Parnamirim wearing a yellow jersey symbolising his loyalty. “God lifted up this man and no one touches those lifted up by God – no one!” the evangelist proclaimed, urging supporters to raise their arms in prayer. “Our dear father, we thank you for the life of our president. It was for this moment in history that you raised him up – and you, Lord, will sustain him.”
As Bolsonaristas streamed out of the event they passed the right-wing activist Wagner Sabino, who was hawking copies of a self-published book denouncing a supposed leftwing media conspiracy against the president.
“Why did I write this?” Sabino asks in the introduction to ‘Bolsonaro v The Press: Distortions, Lies and Fake News’. “Simple: because I believe in my country and I do not want it to be seized by the left again … I believe I’m one of millions of cogs God is using to rescue this nation.”
Sabino, 39, claimed Bolsonaro was being unfairly demonised by leftist infiltrators in the media: “They paint him as a monster … but increasingly people realise he’s nothing of the sort: that he’s a simple, common, good person.”
Suddenly, Bolsonaro devotees spotted their captain departing via light railway and Sabino’s voice was overwhelmed by their exhilarated chants.
“Do you really think a person like this will come second?” the author wondered as his compatriots howled in delight. “No way! It’s a lie!”