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BRASILIA (Reuters) - Far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro went out on a limb to support a truckers strike that paralyzed Brazil and forced the government to reinstate costly fuel subsidies, and the strategy may have helped his chances of beating one of several pro-business reform candidates in October's election.
The scale of the truckers' stoppage overwhelmed President Michel Temer's unpopular government, which was pressured into granting truckers' demands as airports ran out of fuel, grocery shelves emptied and drivers waited hours to fill their tanks.
Despite these disruptions, truckers won support from many Brazilians angry at a surge in diesel prices since state oil company Petrobras scrapped subsidies under Temer. An opinion poll on Wednesday found that 87% of Brazilians supported the strike.
Centrist candidates such as former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin and ruling party candidate Henrique Meirelles did not come out in support of the truckers when they blocked Brazil's main highways. There has been no poll on voter intentions yet to show whether lack of support for the strike hurt these politicians, who back further fiscal belt-tightening that many voters oppose but investors would like to see.
Bolsonaro, 63, a former army captain turned congressman running on an anti-graft platform, praised the truckers in social media messages for fighting "extortionist" taxes levied by Temer’s “corrupt” government. Ahead of the Oct. 7 election, Bolsonaro had just under 20% support, giving him the lead in polls that exclude jailed leftist ex-president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who received 32% support in one poll even though he cannot run due to a graft conviction.
Bolsonaro's strong support in a crowded field has alarmed moderate politicians and unnerved some investors. But with Brazil slow to recover from its most painful recession in decades, many voters believe Temer's government has ignored the hardships of ordinary people. This has led analysts and politicians to say this year's election may come down to a choice between the far left and the far right.
During the strike, many truckers displayed placards expressing support for Bolsonaro. "The government handled this strike so badly," said Lorivan Carvalho, a federal employee who spent two hours waiting in a line of cars at a gas station in Brasilia. "Bolsonaro gained points by backing the truckers."
The protest, which wound down this week after Temer reintroduced subsidies, demonstrated the unpopularity of Temer's efforts to liberalize Latin America's largest economy.
Many Brazilians, tired of violent crime and corruption among mainstream parties, have been drawn to Bolsonaro's hardline pledges. For instance, the candidate said he would appoint five generals to his cabinet and would give police "carte blanche" to kill delinquents who shoot at them. Brazil has some 60,000 gun-related deaths a year.
Congressman Major Olimpio, one of Bolsonaro's campaign managers, told Reuters the strike was a vote winner for his candidate who had emerged as "the only credible politician," whereas Temer's free-market policies were blamed for the crisis.
If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, a runoff between the two leaders will be held on Oct. 28.
Even political rivals conceded that Bolsonaro's odds are improving.
"If he continues with this level of support and the center remains divided, Bolsonaro could reach the runoff," said Congressman Fabio Sousa of the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).
Lesser of two evils?
Bolsonaro holds nationalist views of economic development of the kind implemented by Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship and has opposed the privatization of state companies. He also has been indicted by federal prosecutors on hate-speech charges.
Yet in an overture to the business community, he picked investment banker Paulo Guedes as his economic advisor, a free-marketeer who would sell off everything from Petrobras to state banks and the post office. Some business leaders in the world's eighth-largest economy may view him as the lesser evil if he is in a runoff with the leading leftist candidate, fiery former state governor Ciro Gomes.
"The market likes Guedes but doubts he can apply his ideas in a Bolsonaro government," said the manager of a Brazilian investment fund, speaking on the condition he was not identified. "The market does not prefer Bolsonaro but might have to accept him."
Frustration with how the Temer government handled the strike added to popular anger at a political establishment discredited by graft investigations. More than 120 powerful politicians and businessmen are now behind bars.
The truckers protest weakened Temer more than anything else since he took power more than two years ago following the impeachment of leftist Dilma Rousseff. Temer, 77, is the first sitting Brazilian president to be charged with corruption.
His approval ratings have sunk to around 4%, even lower than that of President Nicolas Maduro of neighboring Venezuela, hit by hyperinflation and food shortages.
This has dashed hopes that Temer’s lame-duck government can push through Congress business friendly measures such as the privatization of Brazil's largest utility, Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras SA, known as Eletrobras.
"That was a already a tough sell. Now it becomes almost impossible," said Lucas de Aragão, partner at the political consultancy Arko Advice.
Former Ceará state governor Ciro Gomes has emerged as the most likely standard bearer for Brazil's left, with just under 10%. Aragão believes many voters view Gomes as part of the establishment, while Bolsonaro will gain ground from the truck crisis because he is perceived as an outsider.
"The truckers' strike knocked down the last pillar of hope Temer's government had of electing a successor that will continue its policies," said Rafael Cortez, chief analyst at Tendencias consultancy, who sees little chance of a moderate like Meirelles winning. "This climate of radicalization benefits the extremes," Cortez said.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Ana Mano and Eduardo Simões in Sao Paulo; Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio)