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Evangelical bishop Marcelo Crivella ,centre, walks with his wife Sylvia Jane Hodge as he greets voters during the first round of Rio’s mayoral elections on Oct. 2. Round 2 of voting is on Sunday.


Rio de Janeiro, a city with a self-image rooted in hedonism and indulgence, is poised to elect an evangelical bishop as its new mayor on Sunday – perhaps the strangest repercussion yet from Brazil's ongoing political turmoil.

Marcelo Crivella, a craggy-faced leader in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and sitting federal senator, has a 20-point lead in the polls over his rival Marcelo Freixo, a left-wing human-rights activist whose appearance on the second-round ballot was also a surprise.

Mr. Crivella, 59, is the nephew of Edir Macedo, who founded the Universal Church, now an international enterprise, and became immensely wealthy and influential overseeing its empire of publishing and media outlets. Mr. Crivella converted from Methodism as a youth, became a gospel singer, and worked for 10 years as a missionary for the church in Africa, where it now has a vast membership. At his uncle's urging, he entered politics in 2002 – part of a political expansion by the evangelical movement.

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In this mayoral race, Mr. Crivella has been at pains to distance himself from his church role, keen to appeal to the broadest possible swath of voters. He has repeatedly said that he believes religion does not belong in politics. But liberal voters wary of the growing power of the evangelicals here have not been reassured by remarks he has made in the past. He has suggested homosexuality likely results from failed abortions, or from demon possession. He called Catholicism and other Christian denominations "demonic," and suggested that the public-health system ought to include exorcists. In a book he wrote while working in Africa, he said that Hindus drink the blood of children – and that African religions were based on evil spirits, that "African tradition allows for all kinds of immoral behaviour, even with infants." Those views raised eyebrows in Rio, where about half of the residents are Afro-descendant.

Mr. Crivella apologized repeatedly when the contents of the book became debate fodder during the election; he said it was the work of an "immature" missionary. (He was 42 when it was published.) "I love the Catholics, spiritualists, evangelicals, everyone," he said. "If ever I offended anyone, I ask forgiveness. The same in relation to homosexuality."

This country is still home to the world's largest population of Roman Catholics, but today 22 per cent of Brazilians are evangelical Christian, and together the evangelical churches are the fastest-growing religion in the country. Megachurches have created a number of small political parties, with an agenda that focuses on social issues such as reversing the legalization of equal marriage and further criminalizing abortion (which is already nearly impossible to obtain in Brazil.) In the 594-member Congress, where they now have a "bloc" of 190 deputies and senators, they vote with the traditionally conservative agro-business and law-and-order caucuses. They vociferously backed the impeachment of ex-president Dilma Rousseff and her replacement with right-leaning President Michel Temer.

Mr. Crivella has polled most highly in the city's poor west and north zones, where his church has its widest following, and in an election where a new campaign finance law has reduced the flow of donations from private business, his access to Mr. Macedo's array of television and radio shows helps, too. Evangelical leaders, much more than the Catholic church, provide their congregations with specific candidates to support.

But his strong electoral showing in Rio likely has as much to do with this strange moment in Brazil's political life as it does with the church. "To the outside world, it is very hard to understand how this city that is synonymous with debauchery could have an evangelical mayor," said Roberto Dutra Torres Jr., a sociologist at the State University of the North Fluminense. "But you have to understand that Rio cultivates this image, but it's very ambiguous, it's not that liberal … but in this case, the probable election of an evangelical has more to do with a realignment of the electorate and other factors."

Brazil's economy has cratered, with unemployment estimated around 12 per cent. The Workers' Party, the dominant force in politics for the past 12 years, was trounced across the country in these municipal elections, in punishment for the vast Lava Jato graft scandal that has left Brazilians' faith in politicians at a historic low. Mr. Temer's Brazil Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the largest party in the country, has many of its leaders arrested or implicated in Lava Jato and is also deeply unpopular. And the PMDB controls the government of Rio de Janeiro state; it is in default, utterly broke, no longer paying its civil servants or putting gas in its police cars.

Rio has been led for the past eight years by Eduardo Paes, a smooth-talking PMDB princeling who oversaw his city's hosting of the World Cup and Olympics. He, and many observers, believed his anointed candidate Pedro Paulo had a lock to replace him – but Mr. Paulo faced repeated allegations of domestic violence from his former wife (he was never convicted and denies that he beat her), and that, combined with frustration at his party, meant he did not even make the second round of voting.

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The surprise challenger to Mr. Crivella is Mr. Freixo, a state congress member who is perhaps best known for leading the fight against militias of corrupt police who control many of Rio's favelas. The boyish Mr. Freixo inspired a character in the film Elite Squad 2, one of Brazil's biggest-ever box-office hits. He has the backing of cultural heavyweights such as the singer Caetano Veloso, and he appeals to the city's upper middle-class and intelligentsia. But he trails Mr. Crivella by such a margin that it seems highly unlikely he can pull off an upset on Sunday.

Mr. Crivella has focused his platform on health and education, vowing to reduce waiting times in the public system and use a public-private partnership to nearly double daycare spaces, with the slogan "It's time to take care of people."

"It's paternalistic, but in the present circumstances, that sounds good in the ears of people who are unemployed and struggling," said Ricardo Ismael, a political scientist with the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio. "They are interested in hearing about plans for their specific problems and goals – transportation, education and health. So the idea of 'caring for people' plays well."

Rio remains a city of sharp inequality; the beachfront neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Leblon have some of the highest income levels – and the most expensive real estate – on the continent. But the most recent government statistics for the city show that average monthly income is $522 (Canadian), and more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

Mr. Crivella has sought to soothe liberals by promising he will do nothing to interfere with the city's annual gay pride parade or the legendary Carnaval celebration, which features dancers in just stilettos and feathers, plus oceans of beer.

Paul Freston, an expert on politics and religion in Brazil who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University and at the University of Sao Carlos in Sao Paulo, said Mr. Crivella seems to have found a way of transcending his denominational affiliation, which in the past (two previous runs for mayor and for governor) has hurt more than it helped.

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"Part of the question for people is – who else? The demoralization with the political class is so wide, the evangelical tie doesn't work out as a disadvantage any more," he said. Mr. Crivella, a middle-class engineer who speaks well and has cultivated an image associated with social projects, has the potential to be the transcendent evangelical candidate, even for president, Prof. Freston said.

"He's benefiting from a unique situation but also from all the investment that he personally and the church have made over the last 15-20 years to mainstream their image."

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