Two candidates remain in the Brazilian elections. One is a centre-left moderate, and former Mayor of Sao Paulo. The other is a former army captain, who has been a congressman for 28 years in nine different parties, has been quoted saying a female politician wasn’t worth raping, and dedicated his 2016 impeachment vote against Dilma Rousseff to the man who oversaw her torture.
If this was not enough he went on the record on how to change Brazil in 1999 and said: “Voting won’t change anything in this country. Nothing! Things will only change, unfortunately, after starting a civil war here, and doing the work the dictatorship didn’t do. Killing some 30,000 people, and starting with FHC [referring to then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the Brazilian Social-Democratic Party]. If some innocents die, that’s just fine.”
This latter man is Jair Bolsonaro, an ardent apologist of the former military dictatorship and in the first round of voting, he won 46% of the vote, the opponent in the run-off, Fernando Haddad, won only 29%. It would be easy to characterise Bolsonaro’s supporters as a blinkered minority who agree with his outdated denunciations and provocative rhetoric, but the sheer proportion of Brazilians who support him means he has managed to appeal to ordinary citizens as well. The question therefore is why would so many Brazilians support such a controversial, provocative figure.
The parallels to Donald Trump are easy to draw
In order to understand the reasons which led to the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, we need to go back to 2014’with the onset of Operation Car Wash, the biggest anti-corruption investigation in the history of Latin America, over structural economic and political corruption, which has led to the impeachment of one president, the imprisonment of another and over half the Brazilian Congress being investigated for corruption. It is easy to understand why 70% of Brazilians have lost confidence in their politicians and political parties right now, (all the candidates boast very high disapproval ratings).
The parallels to Donald Trump are easy to draw but in this case, may be erroneous. Bolsonaro has been in politics for 28 years and represents a small party, rather than having the machinery the Republican party had available. However, the most relevant comparison is that both have presented themselves as anti-establishment figures to countries sick of the political establishment.
Bolsonaro may have been aided in the start of his campaign by the attempted run of Lula, the former President and hero of the left who is currently in prison for corruption and thus was not allowed to run. His replacement Haddad (both representing the Workers party), has also been charged with corruption linked to Operation Car Wash, giving Balsonero easy targets to rail against corruption.
However, Bolsonaro is not just the non-corrupt candidate, he has been in politics a long time and maintained (in one area at least) a consistent message. As a former army captain, it should come as little surprise that he emphasises law and order. For a country facing a crime epidemic, with a murder rate having hit record levels two years running (63,880 deaths per year, which makes 175 a day, as disclosed by the New York Times) a strongman promising iron fist law and order measures hold an appeal, one made even more relevant after he was stabbed on the campaign trail, which has only served to raise his profile and allow the “them and us” rhetoric to grow even more noticeable.
60% of his supporters are under 34
The economy has been another of Brazil’s woes in the past few years. Under the stewardship of Workers Party Presidents (to which Haddad belongs), Brazil has had an economic recession ongoing costing roughly 3 million jobs and reducing some people back to poverty. Bolsonaro has taken a free-market approach which distinguishes him from his opponents and endears him to financial elites. As a right-wing candidate, his social conservatism also makes him the “least bad option” to some groups who feel their interests align more with him than Haddad, even if they are not wild about him.
Also, Bolsonaro has managed to appeal to the youth; 60% of his supporters are under 34, not old enough to remember the brutal dictatorship he reminisces so fondly about, but are able to clearly see the corruption of the current regime.
However, it is worth noting whilst Bolsonaro had 46% of the vote in the first round, he has alienated so many people, particularly those on the left and minority groups that think Haddad may have a chance as the least worse option. A number of his policies are vague, unknown or unworkable, but the real question for the people of Brazil seems clear: just how fed up with the ruling Workers Party are they? Is their situation really dire enough to risk electing such a man as Balsonero, just to ensure a change?