Is Jair Bolsonaro the Man for Brazil?

Brazil heads to the polls on October 28, with Jair Bolsonaro widely tipped to become the country’s next president.

There can be no doubt that Jair Bolsonaro entered Brazil’s presidential campaign as a rank outsider. When it comes to populist anti-establishment politicians making their mark across Latin America, the far-right congressman and former army captain is certainly in good company. Take, for example, the rise of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president-elect. Like Bolsonaro threatens to do in Brazil, López Obrador has broken the center-right’s traditional dominance of Mexican politics.

But there the similarities end. In stark contrast to López Obrador’s leftist message, Bolsonaro has consistently highlighted his authoritarian sympathies and illiberal social views over the course of the election campaign. Brazil’s likely next president is a long-time defender of the country’s former military dictatorship and a supporter of the armed forces, a point underlined by the selection of retired general Hamilton Mourão as his running mate. Some of Bolsonaro’s more controversial statements include his preference for a dead rather than a gay son, and his declaration that it would not be worth raping Congresswoman Maria do Rosario because she was “very ugly.”

Not that such choice words have affected his popularity among ordinary Brazilians. Indeed, support for Bolsonaro increased after he was stabbed at a political rally in September. During the first round of presidential elections on October 7, Bolsonaro won a spectacular 46% of the vote, with his closest rival, Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, polling at 29%. Datafolha predicts that Bolsonaro will receive 52% on October 28 against his challenger’s 41%.

Tapping into Popular Anger

So what explains the meteoric rise of someone like Bolsonaro in a country where memories of the last military dictatorship remain relatively fresh? Many Brazilians are weary of the interchange between PT and Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) governments. Despite the remarkable achievements of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s PT — rapid economic growth and an expanding middle class — things were far from plain sailing for his predecessor Dilma Rousseff. Under her leadership, Brazil fell into a deep recession in 2014 due to economic mismanagement and a decline in global commodity prices. And while economic growth has since returned, conditions remain grim, with more than 12% of the population unemployed, and millions living back below the poverty line. Put simply, trust in the PT is at an all-time low, with many Brazilians holding the party responsible for economic hardship and much more.

Jair Bolsonaro has effectively tapped into this anger and desire to disrupt the status quo, particularly when it comes to corruption and high levels of street violence. Brazil continues to struggle with the repercussions of 2014’s “Lava Jato” —“Car Wash” — the country’s biggest ever corruption scandal. The revelations contributed to the impeachment and eventual removal of Rousseff from office in August 2016, as well as the Lula’s imprisonment earlier this year.

As things stand, Brazil remains the home to 17 of the world’s most violent cities, with an annual homicide rate of 30 per 100,000 people. According to Latinobarometro, support for the police has declined by almost 20% over the past few years, from 53% in 2010 to 34% in 2017. Neither do Brazilians have much faith in their democratic institutions. A 2017 poll suggests that only 13% of the population were satisfied with the state of democracy, way below the Latin American average of 30%. Further polling suggests that 97% of Brazilians think that the country is governed by an elite that only has its interests at heart. The polls also make for grim reading for Brazil’s incumbent president Michel Temer and his Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), with an approval rating of just 5%. His cause has hardly been helped by his arrest and charging with obstruction of justice (a charge which he categorically denies) and a narrow brush with impeachment.

The Man

Finally, there is Jair Bolsonaro the man, a passionate and charismatic individual who stands apart from the relatively dour Haddad and Temer. Many Brazilians have also warmed to his backstory — a devout Catholic from a small town and working-class background. Bolsonaro has proved particularly adept at using social media on the campaign trail, a significant development given his small budget and the absence of major party backers. His Facebook page currently has 7.8 million followers, five times as many as Fernando Haddad (1.5 million), and knocking President Temer’s paltry 628,000 into the long grass.

Bolsonaro’s popularity has also been boosted by his decision to choose the free-market economist Paulo Guedes as his potential finance minister. This is a remarkable development, given that he has advocated economic nationalism throughout his political career. Thanks to this change of heart, Bolsonaro received more votes from investors and wealthy Brazilians than he perhaps expected in the first round of the presidential election. Many believe that he will curtail social spending and implement much needed market-friendly reforms.

Jair Bolsonaro is adamant that he is the man to make Brazil great again. The task at hand should not be underestimated. Far-reaching reforms are required to boost the country’s weak economic growth, including the consolidation of public finances and reform of the pension system. Brazil’s next president also needs to restructure a business environment that hampers foreign investment. Without such measures the country will continue to teeter on the brink of one fiscal crisis after another. Fighting corruption and improving public security will also be at the top of the to-do list.

In the absence of party support, Bolsonaro will have to quickly learn the art of coalition building and managing the different factions that make up Latin America’s most fragmented congress. This will be no mean feat, with the next parliament consisting of 30 parties in the lower house and 21 in the senate. Regardless of each candidate’s ambitions, plans and expectations it will undoubtedly be difficult for the incoming president to make Brazil great again.

While is’st true that Bolsonaro’s right-wing politics could pose a danger to Brazilian democracy, it does not necessarily mean a collapse or a slide into tyranny. First, it may be simply that Brazilians are hungry for a strong and charismatic leader — one that would resemble Lula. Second, Brazilian politics are about coalition building, so Bolsonaro won’t find it so easy to push his ideas through congress. Finally, Brazilians are known for impeaching their presidents when they cross a red line, so Bolsonaro will have to watch out as he navigates his political path.

*[GLOBSEC is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Kinga Brudzinska