Brazilians are voting Sunday in a presidential election that’s captured global attention largely because of one man: Jair Bolsonaro. The 63-year-old far-right former army captain resoundingly won a first round earlier this month, and he maintains a double-digit lead over his leftist rival, Fernando Haddad, in opinion polls heading into Sunday’s runoff.
Known for bombastic quips demeaning women, gays and people of color, Bolsonaro has been denounced by everyone from Madonna to former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
But what are Bolsonaro’s positions on the key issues confronting Brazil? Here’s a look at his stance on four key areas: the environment, the economy, crime and democracy.
Environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief this week when Bolsonaro backed away from his earlier threats to follow in the footsteps of President Trump and pull Brazil out of the global Paris accord to fight climate change, as long as Brazil retains sovereignty over indigenous lands and the rain forest. He has also reconsidered his initial vow to eliminate Brazil’s Environmental Ministry. But that doesn’t mean Bolsonaro has suddenly become the Lorax.
Bolsonaro is a powerful supporter of agribusiness — one of the pillars of his political platform — and is likely to favor profits over preservation. He has called for a new, pro-business approach to exploiting Brazil’s natural resources, insisting that overzealous bureaucrats have harassed farmers for simply trying to make a living by carving out patches of jungle.
Brazil is the guardian of the world’s largest rain forest, in the Amazon basin. But Bolsonaro has chafed at foreign pressure to safeguard it, and he served notice to international nonprofit groups such as the World Wildlife Fund that he will not tolerate their agendas in Brazil. He has also come out strongly against lands reserved for indigenous tribes. Bolsonaro advisers additionally say that he plans to expand nuclear and hydroelectric power into the Amazon.
Critics fear that all of this is tantamount to declaring a great green rush — opening the already endangered Amazon region to a potential free-for-all for economic interests.
“I really don’t understand much about the economy,” Bolsonaro once admitted. That said, Bolsonaro has detailed his economic platform more than any other of his policies.
At the start of his political career, Bolsonaro was seen by many as a pro-state protectionist. He voted with the left-wing Workers Party against privatization of the oil and telecom industries. He even praised the early pro-state period of Venezuela’s former leftist firebrand, Hugo Chávez — the late regional leader he now says he reviles.
More recently, Bolsonaro professes to have adopted a profound shift in favor of the free market — and promises what could be a deep dive into capitalism. He has tapped University of Chicago-trained economist Paulo Guedes as his financial czar. Guedes, a staunch disciple of economic liberalism, has had to convince the market that his views will prevail should Bolsonaro be elected. Knowing that Guedes would be steering the economy made investors much more willing to take a chance on Bolsonaro.
“He listens to me when it comes to politics, I listen to him when it comes to economics,” Bolsonaro said of Guedes. “We’re dating.”
Guedes has said he wants to privatize or shut down state companies, cut down on public spending, ease international trade and pass austerity reforms. Investors are swooning, but whether Bolsonaro can actually deliver on these divisive promises will depend on the strength of the coalition he is able to build in the National Congress.
Some worry that the Bolsonaro-Guedes match won’t last, and that Guedes might leave — or Bolsonaro might oust him — before he’s able to implement meaningful reform.
“A policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman,” Bolsonaro said last year. That pretty much encapsulates Bolsonaro’s views on law enforcement.
Brazil is unquestionably in the midst of a horrendous crime wave, fueled in large part by gangland turf wars for commercial rights to sell drugs and other contraband in Brazilian cities. Homicides hit a record high of 63,880 last year — nearly twice the number in the United States and the European Union combined.
Bolsonaro’s solution is zero tolerance. He has called for police to use more lethal force and wants to relax gun laws so that average citizens can defend themselves. In the past, he has defended the use of police torture on drug traffickers and kidnappers.
Yet already, Brazil has one of the deadliest police forces in the world, responsible for more than 5,000 deaths last year, according to government figures. Experts warn that Bolsonaro’s tough-on-crime platform could make life worse for many people of color.
“There is no basis of evidence to suggest that what he proposes will work,” said Ilona Szabó, director of the Igarapé Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro that focuses on security issues. “Things will get worse. The police will kill more. There will be more extrajudicial killings, especially of people in the slums and of blacks.”
Bolsonaro, a former army officer, has a long history of bombastic statements praising the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, and which killed and disappeared at least 434 dissidents. In the post-dictatorship years, a time when most Brazilian politicians had turned the page of history and rarely spoke of the regime, Bolsonaro called for a military coup. In 1999, when he was in the National Congress, he utterly dismissed democracy and called for the assassination of the president at the time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
“Through voting, nothing will change in this country, nothing, absolutely nothing. It will only change, unfortunately, on the day a civil war breaks out here and does the job that the military regime didn’t do. Killing some 30,000, starting with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, we can’t leave him out, no,” Bolsonaro said in a public television interview in 1999. “Innocent people will die, okay, but in every war, innocents die.”
Bolsonaro has since walked back some of his most anti-democratic statements, telling reporters in May he has a “total commitment to democracy,” and signing a statement this month asserting that he will maintain freedom of expression and of the press should he be elected. Yet questions linger about his commitment to liberal democracy and human rights and press freedoms — he has threatened, for instance, to cut state funding for Globo and Folha, two of the largest media outlets in Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s son, the congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, has suggested that “soldiers” could intervene should the Supreme Court attempt to strip Bolsonaro of his presidency if he’s elected. Bolsonaro, however, chided his son for the comment, which he called “absurd.”