The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bolsonaro’s rise is a new blow for liberal democracy

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The once-unthinkable nearly became reality Sunday. Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician sometimes likened to President Trump, nearly won an outright majority of the vote in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. Had he succeeded, he would have clinched the presidency. Instead, he is the clear favorite in the runoff scheduled for Oct. 28.

It wasn’t long ago that the bruising and divisive Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old ex-paratrooper, was a fringe figure with little hope of winning power in Brasilia. Even in the weeks running up to Sunday’s vote, experts suggested that the country’s political process would curb his ascent. A second round would see voters rally behind a more mainstream challenger; a national legislature stacked with opponents would force Bolsonaro to moderate his hard-line positions.

But a surge in support for Bolsonaro’s angry, anti-establishment politics also upended Brazil’s Congress, with his once-obscure Social Liberal Party running a close second to the leftist Workers' Party of jailed former president Lula Inácio da Silva. A host of veteran politicians — two-thirds of incumbents — were swept out, while a new, upstart generation that includes celebrity YouTubers is poised to enter the country’s lower house.

Lula’s anointed successor, former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, will struggle to close the yawning gap between him and Bolsonaro ahead of the second round. Supporters of the front-runner envision him taking the reins with solid backing from a host of centrist and right-wing parties and plenty of legislative support. “What comes out from this election is a Congress more favorable to pass Bolsonaro’s reforms,” Juliano Griebeler, a political analyst at Barral M Jorge, a business consultancy, said to Bloomberg News.

Bolsonaro got to this moment on the back of years of incendiary politicking. As we’ve already detailed, he is notorious for his outbursts of bigotry, launching diatribes against minorities, immigrants, women and LGBT Brazilians. He cast himself as the law-and-order candidate, declaring that he would give police greater license to kill criminals with impunity and make it easier for ordinary Brazilians to acquire their own firearms. As an evangelical Christian, he courted religious voters and pandered to conservative culture warriors. And he benefited from widespread anger at the country’s political class, which is engulfed in a vast corruption scandal.

“I voted for Bolsonaro because I’m tired of politicians being the same,” Maria Aparecida de Oliveira, a 63-year-old housekeeper casting her ballot in an upper-middle-class district of Sao Paulo, said to my colleagues. “Even if he is a little crazy, someone needs to bring change.”

“Brazil 2018 is an epic tale of an establishment that failed to listen, ignored the issues that engaged voters most (namely crime & corruption), and didn’t take the insurgent seriously,” tweeted Brian Winter, the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly. “It’s a global story, but especially pronounced here.”

The implications of Bolsonaro’s success are huge — and, to many observers, grim. Bolsonaro has talked nostalgically of the decades when Brazil was ruled by a murderous right-wing dictatorship and hailed former military officers implicated in the torture of leftist political prisoners. He once said that the dictatorship’s greatest failing was not killing more of them.

A leading Mexican cartoonist offered a stark reaction to the Brazilian election results on Monday:

That a critical mass of Brazilians backs Bolsonaro anyway is a sign of how polarized and venomous the country’s political climate has become — a phenomenon increasingly apparent in democracies throughout the world. “It is an event of global significance, the latest chapter in an unfolding story about the destruction of liberal norms and the rise of populism,” wrote Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman.

“If we are to take seriously the things that Bolsonaro has said in the campaign, in my opinion Brazil’s democracy is in grave peril,” Lilia Schwarcz, a prominent Brazilian historian, said to the New York Times. She added: “We used to think that rights that have been conquered were rights that had been consolidated. I’ve concluded that we were being foolish. We must continue fighting for them.”

To many Brazilians, Haddad, Bolsonaro’s opponent, seems unlikely to lead that fight. His left-wing Workers’ Party, particularly under Lula’s wildly popular administration, presided over a huge economic boom that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty. But key figures in its leadership were later implicated, alongside most of Brazil’s establishment, in the country’s endemic graft.

“I think Bolsonaro will carry on doing what he’s doing. I don’t think he has to change much,” Glauco Peres, a political scientist at the University of Sao Paolo, said to the Guardian. “He’ll keep hammering away at this idea of fear … that the [Workers’ Party] represents a step backwards into corruption scandals and having criminals in government."

Unlike the larger-than-life Lula, who is still a left-wing icon, Haddad “is a shy, pragmatic economist,” wrote my colleagues Anthony Faiola and Marina Lopes. They noted that “he has tried to reassure investors that he would not pursue radical leftist policies, but many still worry he would not pass the tough reforms seen as necessary to avoid another economic crisis here."

There is no such doubt about his opposite number. “Bolsonaro is a strange phenomenon,” Lucas de Aragao, director of Arko Advice, a political risk company in Brasilia, told The Post. “It doesn’t have any precedent in Brazil. Even some Lula voters are turning to him. It’s happened because Brazil loves this idea of a savior, of a hero. And Bolsonaro now represents this image of a savior as much as Lula does.”

But his critics warn that such an image is only a mirage. “Brazilians can embrace the politics of division and the seductive appeal of simplistic solutions, following the path of populist authoritarians in Hungary, Poland and the Philippines,” wrote Robert Muggah, co-founder of a Rio de Janeiro-based think tank. “Alternatively, they can preserve and renew their young democracy.”

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