Armed with red paint brushes and a bucket of glue, the activists marched through the streets of Parrot Hill pasting urgent warnings on to the walls of what has become the frontline in the fight for Brazil’s future.
“Bolsonaro hates the poor,” read one poster. “Bolsonaro speaks nothing but lies. He’s the father of falsehoods,” declared another, asking residents of one of Belo Horizonte’s largest favelas: “Are you really going to vote for him?”
Nil César, one of the fly-posting campaigners, said the president’s contempt for the poor and dramatic loosening of gun laws meant their pre-election operation was quite literally a matter of life or death for the community’s disenfranchised youth.
“I fear this will end in bloodshed … and the problem is that the blood will be black, favela blood,” the 46-year-old activist said as his team plastered Parrot Hill’s redbrick homes with their notices. “We are trying to ensure our survival.”
Belo Horizonte is the capital of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second most populous and fourth largest state. And as the South American country prepares to hold its most important election in decades on Sunday, the south-eastern region has become ground zero for the scrap between the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and his leftist challenger, the ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
No president has won power without prevailing in Minas Gerais since Getúlio Vargas did so in 1950 and observers expect this year to be the same.
“It’s Minas that will determine which direction Brazil takes,” said Felipe Nunes, a political scientist from the state’s federal university.
Nunes, who runs the polling company Quaest, said it was clear from the election’s recent first round – which Lula won by 6m votes – that the leftist would triumph in Brazil’s north-east while Bolsonaro would prevail in the midwest, south and south-eastern states of Rio and São Paulo.
“So there’s only one place where we still don’t know who will win, which is Minas Gerais,” Nunes said of the bellwether state, whose demographic diversity ensured the first round result almost perfectly mirrored the national outcome.
In Minas, Lula beat Bolsonaro by 48.29% to 43.6% while nationwide the tally was 48.43% to 43.2%.
“Minas has always shown Brazil the way. Minas is a mini-Brazil,” said Lula’s regional campaign chief, Reginaldo Lopes, predicting his leader, who governed from 2003 until 2011, would triumph there by upwards of 900,000 votes.
Alert to the vital importance of the state’s 16 million voters, both campaigns have been blitzing Minas, roaming thousands of kilometres across a vast, mountainous state nearly 2.5 times the size of the UK.
One scorching morning last week, Lula jetted into Teófilo Otoni, a commercial hub in the state’s impoverished north-east, to a hero’s welcome.
“He’s the best president Brazil has ever had,” Bruno Gomes Pereira, 30, bellowed as the 76-year-old politician waded into the adoring, sweat-drenched crowd around him.
“He brought us water. He brought us electricity. He brought dignity to the people – and he is going to win!” shouted Gomes, who had come from one of Minas’s most deprived regions, the Jequitinhonha Valley, to see his leader.
Accompanying Lula were two women central to his attempt to attract non-leftist voters: the centre-left ex-minister Marina Silva and the centre-right senator Simone Tebet, who endorsed Lula after coming third in the election’s first round.
Tebet, who some tip as a future president herself, told the Guardian Bolsonaro’s relentless attacks on Brazil’s institutions meant the 2022 vote was a referendum on her country’s young democracy. “We aren’t choosing between two democratic candidates here. There’s only one democrat – and without democracy we will lose our rights,” she warned.
“We are going to remove this inhuman president who doesn’t love Brazilian families and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people because he delayed the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines,” Tebet vowed.
As Lula and his allies paraded through town on an open-back truck, Tebet castigated Bolsonaro’s handling of a coronavirus emergency that killed nearly 700,000 citizens. “Minas Gerais, I’m here because I love democracy, I love Brazil and I love the Brazilian people,” she said. “I’m supporting Lula so that Brazil can once again be a generous and inclusive country for 210 million Brazilians.”
The throng in Teófilo Otoni roared in approval – but 85 miles south, in the heavily pro-Bolsonaro city of Governador Valadares it was the president’s photogenic evangelical wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, who was wowing the crowds.
“The Bible is so wonderful that it says the wise lean to the right while the foolish lean left,” she told thousands of Bolsonaristas who had gathered to see her, wearing the yellow football shirts that symbolize her husband’s nationalist movement.
“It’s not me saying it – it was God,” added Brazil’s first lady, who is playing a lead role in trying to win back millions of female voters alienated by Bolsonaro’s misogynistic and violent rhetoric, which was this week blamed for a headline-grabbing grenade and gun attack on police by a close Bolsonaro ally.
“Don’t look at my husband, look at me,” Michelle Bolsonaro told one recent rally in Rio. “I’m a servant of the Lord.”
Among the congregation in Valadares was Paulo Rogério Silva Moreira, 38, an administrative assistant who claimed Bolsonaro was the only person who could stop Brazil becoming an authoritarian basket case like Venezuela or Nicaragua under what he called Lula’s corruption-riddled Worker’s party (PT).
“I voted for Lula in 2002 and in 2006 – and because of him I voted for Dilma [Rousseff] in 2010 and 2014 – but I was tricked … by this party of darkness,” said Moreira.
Dhennis Wheberth, a Baptist preacher rejected media criticism of Bolsonaro’s Covid response and his portrayal as “an executioner, a sleaze-bag and a genocidal bum”.
“He’s an honest conservative who loves and defends the homeland, the family and God,” Wheberth argued during an interview at the Valadares base of a pro-Bolsonaro group called “HQ Bolsonaro”. On the desk before him a copy of the Bible lay open at the Book of Ezekiel. “The day of the Lord is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations,” it said.
The group’s president, a conservative historian called Adolfo Pinto Magalhães, said he was convinced support from Minas Gerais’s recently re-elected governor, the multimillionaire businessman Romeu Zema, would help Bolsonaro overtake Lula in Minas and win a second four-year term. “It won’t be a massive swing … It’s going to be extremely close,” Magalhães said, forecasting a 51%–49.5% victory for Bolsonaro.
Polls suggest the election is more likely to go the other way, however, with Lula currently boasting a four-to-eight-point lead.
“If Bolsonaro manages to turn it around in Minas he can turn the national race around,” Nunes said. “[But] I don’t think he’ll pull it off – I think the best Bolsonaro will manage is a draw in Minas … and this tells you a lot about how I feel about the election overall. This is going to be a tight race but it’s one where Lula remains favourite.”
In Parrot Hill, a favela Lula toured 20 years ago before his historic 2002 election, locals said they would celebrate Bolsonaro’s eventual downfall with fireworks and a barbecue.
“This isn’t an election between the left and the right. It’s democracy versus dictatorship,” said Júlio Fessô, a 47-year-old community activist who has spent recent weeks producing silkscreen T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “We are Lula because Lula is us.”
As Fessô and his fly-posting comrades advanced through the hillside community, several locals invited them to paste Lula posters on their homes.
Fessô said he believed most of his neighbours would back Lula, who was born into rural poverty in Brazil’s drought-stricken north-east, when 156 million citizens returned to the polls on Sunday.
“The favela’s with Lula because Lula’s one of us,” he said, predicting the working class would rescue Brazil from its authoritarian-minded leader.
But even here there were hints of Bolsonaro’s formidable political reach, particularly among evangelical voters who overwhelmingly prefer the rightwinger to Lula.
A yellow and green Brazil flag indicating support for Bolsonaro hung beside the altar of one local place of worship, the International Church of God’s Grace, whose leader, RR Soares, is one of several powerful televangelists backing Bolsonaro for his fight against “gender ideology”.
Further up the mountainside in Belvedere, one of Belo Horizonte’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, luxury condos and millionaires’ mansions were decorated with the same flag. “If 70% of people here vote Lula, up there it’s 70% Bolsonaro,” Fessô said of his favela’s rich neighbours who he suspected wanted one of three things for Brazil’s poor: “Prison, slavery … or death.”
Those moneyed elites helped Bolsonaro beat Lula in Belo Horizonte in the election’s first round, with 46.6% of votes to Lula’s 42.5%.
Cristiano Silveira, a local PT congressman, said fake news bore some blame for Bolsonaro’s enduring grip on voters. “But the overwhelming majority of them identify with everything that this guy is, which is even more troubling.
“It’s surreal … just look at the image the world has of us and at what we have become,” Silveira lamented, arguing that the only way to be sure of change was for people to get out and vote.
“This is a question of civilization or barbarity … This election will decide what Brazil is going to be from this point on,” he said, sending a message to the swing state voters who now had the fate of one of the world’s largest democracies in their hands. “If you don’t vote, Lula won’t return.”