The first round of the presidential election will be held on Oct. 7. For now, there’s only one politician who most expect to qualify for the two-candidate runoff on Oct. 28: 63-year-old Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist whose ascent echoes the rise of right-wing populists across the West, including that of President Trump.
Brazil has been wracked by years of tumult: A vast corruption scandal has caused presidential impeachments and rolling political feuds. Economic havoc has led to a recession and millions of Brazilians are backsliding into poverty. Meanwhile, crime rates have soared.
Despite the mounting public anger and waves of mass protests that have hit the country’s major cities, little has fundamentally changed. While some establishment politicians are now in jail, dozens of others implicated in allegations of graft may win reelection to their seats in Congress. A poll last year found that only 13 percent of Brazilians were satisfied with their democracy.
That backdrop has given Bolsonaro, a former army captain who eked out most of his career on the fringes of politics, his moment to shine. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has marshaled widespread disaffection to build a viral, anti-establishment movement. He, too, promises sweeping, bludgeoning reform — including the privatization of major state-owned companies — while pandering to a socially conservative base of voters, particularly an increasingly influential bloc of evangelical Christians. His campaign has, at least informally, sought the counsel of former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon. And Bolsonaro himself has welcomed comparisons to the U.S. president, whom he hails for challenging “political correctness” and the “rotten media” elite.
Bolsonaro’s supporters see him as a “messiah” who will make Brazil great again. Others are not so convinced. A new cover story in the Economist branded the populist front-runner as “Latin America’s latest menace.”
Two weeks ago, Bolsonaro survived a near-fatal stabbing attack while on the campaign trail. The ordeal added to his sense of epochal purpose. “What’s at stake? It’s not my future,” said the wounded candidate, speaking from his São Paolo hospital bed. “We live in a time when the future of more than 200 million Brazilians is at stake."
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s critics — and there are many — point to the rather unseemly side of his politics. Brazil’s top court recently ruled he would not have to stand trial for racist remarks he made during a speech in 2017, during which he said “that members of rural settlements founded by the descendants of slaves, called ‘quilombolas,’ are ‘not good even to procreate,'” according to the Associated Press. “He also talked about the weight of those slave descendants using a measure that Brazilian farmers apply to animals.”
Bolsonaro does still have to go to court over accusations of slander and incitement to rape, dating back to a 2014 incident when he attacked a left-leaning congresswoman, saying he would not rape her because she was ugly and “didn’t deserve it.”
He’s also well-known for his disparagement of LGBT Brazilians: Bolsonaro has said he would prefer a dead son to a gay one and has likened the right of gay couples to adopt to pedophilia. He has attacked immigrants as “scum” and has proposed selling off the lands of indigenous Brazilians.
Unsurprisingly, Bolsonaro’s backers have framed his grossly offensive rhetoric as plain-speaking banter meant to cut through the platitudes of the corrupt and out-of-touch political class.
Arrayed against Bolsonaro is a cast of centrist and center-left challengers. One potential opponent in the second round is Fernando Haddad, a former mayor of Sao Paolo and a key figure within the left-leaning Workers Party. Haddad was tapped to run by popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who languishes behind bars on a corruption conviction his supporters insist is politically motivated.
A Bolsonaro vs. Haddad showdown raises the prospect of a bitter left vs. right clash. “Many thought that by the time we got close to the election, some middle ground would be found, and that is not what we are seeing,” said Monica de Bolle, director of Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, to Reuters.
To the alarm of his opponents, Bolsonaro has spoken admiringly of Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship, which ruled for multiple decades and disappeared and tortured countless leftist dissidents. His running mate, retired army general Hamilton Mourão, has even floated the idea of a coup against the judiciary and rewriting Brazil’s constitution to constrain civil liberties.
“Bolsonaro represents a new brand of populism in Latin America, one that returns to its fascist origins across the world,” wrote Federico Finchelstein, a historian at the New School. “Bolsonaro’s rise should serve as a reminder that we are experiencing a worldwide crisis of democracy, one not limited to Trumpism or the rise of the extreme right in Europe.”
“If Brazil falls, if Brazil goes authoritarian, I would worry a lot about the rest of the region,” Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky said to HuffPost. “People in Latin America ― militaries in Latin America, demagogues and democrats in Latin America ― will be paying close attention to Brazil. It would have devastating regional consequences.”
Like far-right leaders in Europe, Bolsonaro could still stumble at the final hurdle, with a critical mass uniting against him in the second round. “The ‘outsider’ option seems particularly attractive to many citizens. In Brazil, the ‘outsider’ candidate will probably make it to the second round,” noted Felipe Krause and Andre Borges in The Post’s Monkey Cage blog, before pointing to centrist French leaders who beat back far-right challenges. “But the nation’s constraints on extremists suggest whoever else reaches that round will be Brazil’s Jacques Chirac or Emmanuel Macron.”
Still, in an era of virulent nationalist rage, it would be naive to count Bolsonaro out.
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