On Sunday, 63-year-old Jair Bolsonaro won the second round in Brazil’s presidential election at a canter, coming comfortably ahead of his leftist challenger, Fernando Haddad. His victory capped a bewildering ascent: For more than two decades, the former army captain existed on the political fringes as a congressman in Brasilia, a figure of buffoonery and contrived controversy, the butt of jokes.
Now, buoyed by a decisive electoral mandate and significant parliamentary support, he may be poised to radically reshape Brazil and its democratic institutions.
From afar, Bolsonaro’s success can be seen as the latest and perhaps most emphatic victory of right-wing populism in the West. He and his allies consciously linked their campaign to President Trump and maintained regular contact with former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon. They harped on the supposed threat posed by the “cultural Marxism” of their opponents, vowed a ruthless war on crime, promised to drain the swamp of a corrupt establishment, and wrapped themselves in the flag of the nation.
Voters opted for Bolsonaro’s hard-line pitch in reaction to the country’s faltering economy, soaring crime rates and mounting frustration with a political class exposed by a mammoth corruption scandal. Though a seven-term lawmaker in Brasilia, Bolsonaro successfully spun himself as a maverick outsider on a mission to revamp the nation.
“It was obvious in this election that someone who could build a credible narrative of being different was going to do well. Bolsonaro understood that,” said Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, said to my colleagues. “He was politically incorrect, a bit weird. But that’s one way he has been able to set himself apart from the rest.”
But Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly, wrote on Twitter that Bolsonaro wasn’t just part of a right-wing wave: “It was a torch-bearing, full-throated, take-no-prisoners uprising against establishment that led Brazil into its worst economic collapse in 100+ years while indulging in massive corruption & failing to stop horrifying crime.”
Bolsonaro’s rise is a reflection of a polarized, febrile moment in Brazilian society. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso — a moderate who Bolsonaro, as a somewhat obscure congressman in 1999, said should be assassinated — observed in an essay for The Washington Post that the populist firebrand had “surfed a tsunami of popular anger and despair that swept away the entire Brazilian political system.” A new generation of lawmakers that includes voluble YouTube celebrities will join Bolsonaro in Brasilia. The president-elect is reported to have benefited from widespread misinformation campaigns that spread through social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.
“Society has lost its former cohesion. Political parties and trade unions, which once gave meaning to political projects and ideologies, no longer draw support and solidarity,” wrote Cardoso. “As a result, people’s political choices are often guided by messages generated by their social networks. And when the corruption of political parties, statesmen and leaders is exposed, anger against politicians overshadows all other concerns. That is exactly what happened here in Brazil.”
Looking beyond the past three decades of democratic consolidation, Bolsonaro harks back to the dark period of Brazil’s military dictatorship — which held sway between 1964 and 1985, a not-too-distant episode in the country’s history — and sees inspiration. When he cast a vote in 2016 to impeach the leftist president Dilma Rousseff, he did so in the name of the military commander who had presided over her torture in 1970. He and his allies have cheered the junta’s grisly program that saw countless leftist activists disappeared, brutalized, raped and murdered.
“Bolsonaro is not the straight talking man of the people his supporters claim he is,” wrote Bejamin Fogel, a Brazil-based academic. “Instead, he is the embodiment of the most hardline faction of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 21 years.”
Bolsonaro struck a more conciliatory tone after winning the election. As my colleagues reported, some of his supporters backed him not because of his rhetoric but despite it. “This government will defend the constitution, democracy and liberty. This is a promise not of a party, not the empty words of a man; it’s an oath before God,” he said.
But Bolsonaro is set to let loose a stridently ideological agenda — one that could have a major impact on Brazil, the region and the world. He is bent on reversing or canceling protections that Brazil’s democracy had afforded to indigenous peoples and other disadvantaged minorities. Pandering to evangelical voters, he could reshape the school curriculum in favor of “traditional values,” while curbing teachers' ability to express political views. The man predicted to be his education minister is a retired general who has defended the military’s right to intervene in politics.
Backed by powerful agribusiness interests, he wants to roll back environmental laws that thwart logging and the expansion of farms in the Amazon basin. He also seeks to vanquish influential leftist workers' movements that support landless farmers and the homeless in big cities. The markets have warmed to his privatization plans; environmentalists, though, warn that his proposed unraveling of Brazil’s climate policies would be a disaster for the planet.
His desire to loosen gun laws has drawn comparisons to the bloody, vigilante campaign of violence unleashed by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. “Brazil has one of the deadliest police forces in the world, responsible for more than 5,000 deaths last year, according to government figures,” my colleagues reported.
Experts fear that Bolsonaro’s zero-tolerance approach will only deepen a culture of impunity. “There is no basis of evidence to suggest that what he proposes will work,” Ilona Szabó, director of the Igarapé Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro, told The Post of his tough-on-crime stance. “Things will get worse. The police will kill more. There will be more extrajudicial killings, especially of people in the slums and of blacks.”
More broadly, there’s still confidence that Brazil’s institutions and civil society can withstand Bolsonaro’s demagogic influence, and that the military, a neutral entity removed from politics, will remain so. But Bolsonaro’s victory has brought to the surface painful hatreds and divisions, especially those of class and race. When the newly elected governor of Rio de Janeiro, who campaigned with Bolsonaro’s son, was asked what he would do with all the suspected criminals from the favelas arrested on his watch, he quipped Monday that he would “dig more graves.”
“I think Brazilians have forgotten what it means to be ruled at gunpoint,” wrote Brazilian columnist Marcelo Paiva, whose mother and teenage sister were detained by the military dictatorship and whose father, a socialist politician, was disappeared and killed. Bolsonaro could make them remember.
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