Overnight, Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s new president-elect. The deeply polarising far-right politician is yet another example of a shift in politics around the world – where voters dissatisfied with the status quo return populist ‘anti-establishment’ leaders, regardless of how controversial their views. To his supporters Bolsonaro represents law and order and a solution to Brazil’s economic woes and epidemic of violence. To his detractors he has the potential to damage Brazil’s fragile democracy and take it back to an era of suffering under military dictatorship. Here’s what I wrote in June for the Fabian IPG about Bolsonaro after spending a month in Sao Paolo.
In the latest election soap opera, Brazil’s Trump may just win
If elections were soap operas, Brazil’s upcoming Presidential election in October would rank amongst the most dramatic. But while the characters are colourful, the plot feels remarkably familiar.
Let’s start with the characters. A number of candidates have been caught up in Brazil’s corruption scandal. The most famous of which, ex-President Lula, is currently in prison on corruption and money laundering charges. He is awaiting the result of an appeal lodged by his team in order to confirm his candidacy. Despite all this, and a rule prohibiting people with criminal convictions from standing for office, he is the frontrunner.
The candidate most closely trailing Lula in the polls is former military officer and member of the Chamber of Deputies for Rio De Janeiro, Jair Bolsonaro. Billed as Brazil’s very own Trump, he is (in)famous for his controversial views. He has said women should earn less than men. He is a fan of dictatorships. He has compared allowing gay couples to adopt to paedophilia. He believes in harsher criminal sentences, lowering the age of criminality and tackling violence by allowing more guns onto the streets. He regularly makes homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic and racist comments, and has been charged by Brazil’s attorney general of inciting hate speech. Despite this continual stream of offensive remarks, his popularity continues to increase.
As for the setting, the parallels between this election and others we have witnessed around the world are uncanny.
Brazil’s high levels of crime, unemployment and inflation have driven a strong desire for change (of any kind). Dissatisfaction with establishment politicians is high, fueled by the ongoing corruption scandal. Mistrust of the mainstream media is growing. Reliability of polling data is questioned. Rapid growth in the evangelical Christian movement has enabled it to exert more political power. Previously fringe views are becoming more acceptable.
And in this context, in strides Bolsonaro to save the day. He positions himself as the only non-corrupt candidate. He stands as someone who speaks for socially conservative Brazilians who think the country has become too liberal. To his supporters he represents law and order. He complains the media are hurting his chances, while his detractors believe he gets too much free publicity.
It remains to be seen whether Bolsonaro will remain on the fringes as a bit player or will become this show’s main protagonist. With many of the other candidates affected by the corruption scandal and no middle ground candidate, there is a real chance that Bolsonaro will win. And if Lula isn’t the Worker’s Party candidate, Bolsonaro’s chances are buoyed dramatically. Many Brazilians are now left without a candidate to rally behind or for whom to vote.
There is a saying in Brazil, which translates roughly to ‘everything ends with pizza’. It broadly means that no matter how bad things get or how appallingly someone acts, there will be no consequences. In the end we will all just shrug our shoulders and carry on as before. In the context of this election, with the enormity of the challenge facing the country, it is disappointing but not unsurprising that this phrase is being used.
While soap operas tend to be cyclical, Brazil appears to be entering a loop affecting many countries around the world. We can only hope at this stage for a major plot twist that dramatically alters events.