Brazil May Elect Jair Bolsonaro. Here's Why A Major Democracy Is Flirting With Fascism.

"Brazil's Trump" is a far-right congressman who praises dictators. He's also a lesson in how modern democracies can crumble.

Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy, could become the latest country to pledge the growing fraternity of nations flirting with fascist rule on Sunday, when voters are likely to choose a far-right authoritarian as the country’s next president.

Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman who has openly praised Brazil’s erstwhile military dictatorship and exhibits all the hallmarks of a modern authoritarian, has slipped slightly in the polls in the last week before the election. Still, he holds a strong enough lead to suggest that he will defeat former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party.

Bolsonaro, who was stabbed on the campaign trail in September, has a history of aiming violent rhetoric at his political opponents and Brazil’s most vulnerable populations. Now, he’s on the cusp of bringing the right-wing movements that have triumphed in Europe and the United States ― through Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the rise of anti-immigrant, xenophobic parties in Germany and elsewhere, and U.S. President Donald Trump ― to South America. Victory for the candidate known as “Brazil’s Trump” could have wide-ranging implications in Latin America and around the world.

Bolsonaro’s rise shares similarities with those of other right-wing parties and politicians, but given the youth of Brazil’s current republic, which was only re-established 30 years ago, Bolsonaro is an even greater threat to the democracy he may soon oversee than any of his global peers. A Bolsonaro win could produce the clearest lesson yet in how a ready mix of elite failure, racial and social backlash, and underlying societal tolerance for authoritarianism can pave the way for modern democratic collapse.

Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about the man who, barring an Election Day upset, is about to become Brazil’s next president.

Who is this guy?

A former army captain, Bolsonaro left the force not long after Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985. In 1990, he won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. He has served seven terms since as a largely ineffective legislator from a small party with little influence over Brazilian politics. He is known less for his accomplishments as a lawmaker than for his brash, violent and incendiary rhetoric. This year he joined the right-wing Social Liberal Party and became its nominee for president.

What sort of “violent rhetoric”?

Bolsonaro once told a fellow congresswoman that she was too ugly to rape. He has said that he’d rather have a dead son than a gay one and that he’d fight two men on the street if he saw them kissing. He has said Afro-Brazilians are not suitable for procreation, called immigrants “scum,” and promised to seize protected indigenous and Afro-Brazilian lands in order to turn them over to mining and agriculture interests. He was charged under Brazil’s judicial system with inciting hatred thanks to his racist, sexist and homophobic statements.

Bolsonaro has also routinely called for violence against his political opponents. In 1999, he said then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso should be shot. He called for gunning down members and supporters of the Workers’ Party during a campaign stop earlier this year.

Is he really pro-dictatorship?

To believe he isn’t requires a serious faith in a favorite maxim of Trump apologists: Take him seriously, not literally.

As early as 1993, when Brazil was attempting to cement its new democracy into place, Bolsonaro said he was “in favor of dictatorship.” He’s hardly walked that back since. As recently as 2015, he called the era of Brazilian dictatorship “a glorious period.” In 2016, he dedicated his vote to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff, a former anti-dictatorship guerrilla, to the Army colonel who oversaw the program that tortured her while she was in prison.

Bolsonaro, who has even denied that Brazil’s former military junta qualified as a dictatorship, has also expressed fondness for other Latin American strongmen. He praised former Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose regime was accused of killing at least 3,000 people and torturing 40,000 more. Bolsonaro said that Pinochet’s only mistake was that he didn’t kill enough. And in the 1990s, he said that Brazil should follow the path plotted by then-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who shuttered Peru’s congress, rewrote parts of its constitution, and imprisoned and tortured political opponents.

“He’s not kind of a dictator. He is a dictator.”

- Monica de Bolle of Johns Hopkins University

Bolsonaro’s running mate, retired Army Gen. Antônio Hamilton Mourão, has refused to rule out the possible return of military rule and openly talked about a military coup in the past. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, has talked about using the military to shut down the Supreme Court.

The weekend before the election, Bolsonaro pledged a “cleansing never before seen in Brazil” and said that “red thieves” ― by which he meant his leftist opponents ― would be “banned from the country.”

“They can either get out or go to jail,” he said in a video shown to supporters at a rally in São Paulo.

“He’s not kind of a dictator. He is a dictator,” said Monica de Bolle, the director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University. “He clearly has zero regard for democratic institutions. He clearly means what he says.”

So how did we get here? What explains his popularity?

The short answer is a familiar one: backlash against an inept, self-dealing establishment that has deepened Brazil’s various interlocking crises. A historic recession that left millions unemployed, a sharp spike in violent crime rates leading to 60,000 homicides in each of the last two years, and a political corruption scandal (called Operation Car Wash) that has implicated hundreds of politicians have all evaporated faith in the Brazilian political system. Bolsonaro has seized on the discontent.

He and his supporters primarily blame the leftist Workers’ Party, which oversaw Brazil’s economic boom under ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and its bust under Rousseff, da Silva’s successor, who served from 2011 to 2016. Rousseff was impeached on charges that she illegally manipulated federal accounts to obscure the size of the budget deficit, though her opponents weren’t solely motivated by issues of truth and justice.

The Workers’ Party ― also known as the PT ― has spent the past four years in the middle of corruption scandals. Da Silva was convicted on money laundering charges in 2017 and imprisoned earlier this year.

Many of these complaints against the PT are valid: Rousseff failed to manage the economy through a downturn that became a full-blown crisis, and the party’s links to corruption came out after it had long promised that it would clean up Brazilian politics. The party also did little to address the country’s rampant problems with violent crime. Its shortcomings have eroded faith among many Brazilians in the PT’s ability to govern.

But Bolsonaro has helped foment and thrived on the racist, homophobic and sexist backlash against the policies of the Workers’ Party ― specifically the left’s efforts to stem poverty through social welfare programs, its embrace of affirmative action to assist women and black Brazilians, and its push to protect and promote LGBTQ and gender equality. Bolsonaro has promised to “take back” Brazil from the left and to rid it from the “PC culture” that has “coddled” marginalized groups.

It’s a nationalism of the brand that has won gains across the world, and Bolsonaro’s movement is explicitly identitarian: On his website, he proclaims that his Brazil is “a country that is proud of our colors, and we do not want to import ideologies that destroy our identity.” Bolsonaro blasts the PT and Haddad as tools of “communism” who want to turn Brazil into Venezuela. He and his supporters have used social networks like WhatsApp to go around traditional media and spread a variety of baseless allegations against the party and its voters ― for instance, claiming that it supports gay pedophilia.

So it’s all about the Workers’ Party?

Bolsonaro has thrived on the backlash to the policies and governance of the Workers' Party, which nominated former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad after former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was banned from the race.
Bolsonaro has thrived on the backlash to the policies and governance of the Workers' Party, which nominated former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad after former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was banned from the race.
Rodolfo Buhrer / Reuters

Not entirely. The PT’s base of support is smaller than it used to be, but it still won a larger share of seats in the National Congress than any other party during this election’s first round of voting. The PT remains the most popular party in Brazil, and da Silva might have won the presidency had he not been banned from the race thanks to his money laundering conviction.

Brazil’s center-right parties, by contrast, were non-factors in the first round of voting, as Brazilians seem to have lost all faith in their ability to govern or remain free of corruption. The Social Democratic Party (PSDB) and the Movement Democratic Party (PMDB) deserve plenty of blame for their role in creating the discontent and despair plaguing Brazilian politics. Their impeachment of Rousseff was as much an effort to limit the Car Wash probe ― which she refused to shut down ― and seize the power they’d failed to win at the ballot box as it was an attempt to hold her accountable for the country’s economic woes. And as part of Rousseff’s former governing coalition, they share at least some responsibility for those economic problems.

President Michel Temer, a member of the PMDB who assumed power after Rousseff’s impeachment, was instantly implicated in the corruption scandal himself and could now face trial on bribery charges. Temer also failed to revive the economy even as he pursued unpopular reforms and imposed spending caps that will force cuts to social welfare, health and education programs. His “solution” to the rise in violent crime, meanwhile, was to put the military in charge of Rio de Janeiro ― a cynical move that has only worsened Rio’s plight and done nothing to address violence in other parts of the country.

Leading figures from the PSDB, meanwhile, were also implicated in the Car Wash probe. The combination of impropriety, the party’s association with Temer’s government and its choice of a milquetoast avatar of Brazil’s establishment to run for president made it easy for Brazilians to turn elsewhere.

The failures of these two parties created a void on the Brazilian right, and Bolsonaro filled it.

Who actually supports this guy?

Bolsonaro has won favor across the social and economic spectrum, as people fed up with violence and corruption see him as the sort of savior Brazil needs. He enjoys support from a majority of mixed-race Brazilians, even as he continues to make racist statements. He also enjoys widespread backing from the country’s growing conservative evangelical movement and from wealthier Brazilians who traditionally support the center-right parties ― the financial and business elite, in particular.

The evangelical movement agrees with Bolsonaro’s hardline anti-LGBTQ stances and, like him, opposes the nascent feminist movement that has pushed for women’s equality, more access to contraception and limited legalized abortion. Brazil’s most outspoken evangelical leaders also support Bolsonaro’s militarized vision of public security.

The financial elites flooded into his corner thanks to their own opposition to the Workers’ Party and its economic policies. It still should have been an inexplicable move, given Bolsonaro’s past support for statist, military-driven economics, but he swayed many of them by hiring a University of Chicago-educated economist who promised to implement their market-friendly policies. He has also long been the preferred candidate of young, libertarian-minded movements ― some of them linked to conservative organizations in the U.S. ― that are also rabidly socially conservative.

“The risk of political authoritarianism in Brazil is increased because you have some sympathy for authoritarian solutions hibernating in the society.”

- Claudio Couto, a Brazilian political scientist

In the days before the first round of voting on Oct. 7, he was endorsed by the Bible, Bullets and Beef legislative caucus, which counts conservative evangelicals, public security hardliners and elite agribusiness interests among its members. A coalition of these groups and other business elites pushed Bolsonaro to a near-majority in that first round. He dominated the wealthier southeast regions, and his support rose with each step up the income ladder.

OK, he’s probably going to win. What’s he going to do when he does?

Bolsonaro has already walked back his support for some of the market-friendly policies that won over the financial elites, so his prescription for Brazil’s ailing economy is just as unpredictable as it has always been. What is predictable is that he will likely try to roll back gains made by the most marginalized communities, including the aforementioned affirmative action policies.

“The goal of Bolsonaro is to overturn every single victory social movements have achieved since the return to democracy and every single victory workers have won over the last 80 years,” James Green, the director of Brown University’s Brazil Initiative program, said recently. “There’s a real threat that a proto-fascist will be in power in Brazil.”

He’ll also push hardline policies on public security that will only lead to more violence. Brazil’s police are already among the deadliest in the world ― they killed more than 4,200 people last year, and the number is rising. But Bolsonaro’s approach to the outbreak of violent crime is to further militarize Brazil’s law enforcement agencies and to give them even more leeway ― “carte blanche,” he calls it ― to shoot and kill alleged criminals on sight. He has proposed unleashing the military on favela neighborhoods, the informal, largely black, poor and working-class communities often controlled by drug gangs. He has also proposed loosening Brazil’s restrictive gun laws.

Another predictable effect of a Bolsonaro presidency will be on the global fight against climate change, in which Brazil and its rainforests figure prominently. Bolsonaro has proposed closing the country’s environmental agencies, eliminating fines for illegal logging, removing Brazil from the Paris climate accords and further opening up the Amazon rainforests for destruction. Those forests are one of the globe’s chief defenses against climate change and they are already at a “tipping point,” according to scientists. Bolsonaro may not actually succeed in pulling his country out of the Paris agreement, but his policies are a threat to Brazil’s progress in reducing emissions and rates of deforestation and to the planet’s efforts to limit the worst effects of climate change.

Is he really more dangerous than the world’s other far-right leaders?

He could have more immediately disastrous effects. Brazil has never fully dealt with the horrors of its last dictatorship, and while polls show its citizenry still broadly wants democracy, the country also exhibits higher levels of support for the concept of authoritarianism than most of its peers in Latin America. It’s a country where nearly 60 percent of the population support a policy approach premised on the idea that “a good criminal is a dead criminal and where nearly half of citizens are OK with police torture. So there’s a high tolerance for the sort of state violence that Bolsonaro has promised more of. Large swaths of Brazilian voters just don’t see his stances on social issues or policing as extreme.

“The risk of political authoritarianism in Brazil is increased because you have some sympathy for authoritarian solutions hibernating in the society,” said Claudio Couto, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a Rio-based think tank. “It can be awakened when you have a candidate like Bolsonaro who says, ‘Now you have a way to implement this kind of agenda. And it’s me.’”

“The failure of elites to set up an equitable system and their subsequent shortcomings in addressing the crises an inequitable system creates have once again paved the way for a strongman to ride a wave of racial and social backlash to power.”

Though Bolsonaro has been likened to Trump, his stances on violent crime, Brazil’s ongoing drug war and the power he will take to expand it suggest a better comparison: Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines whose scorn for the lives of anyone involved with drugs has led to at least 20,000 extrajudicial killings. In Brazil, a ramped-up drug war and more police impunity will have a devastating impact on a black population already experiencing something akin to state-sanctioned genocide: Each year, black Brazilians make up three-quarters of all homicide victims and nearly 80 percent of those killed by police.

Brazil’s rates of femicide and LGBTQ violence are already higher than in most other democratic nations, and both have risen in the last two years. Bolsonaro’s opposition to protections for those communities suggests more danger is ahead.

And is Brazilian democracy truly under threat?

Weeks before the election, feminists, LGBTQ activists and other movements staged large anti-Bolsonaro protests under the slogan "Ele Não," or "Not Him."
Weeks before the election, feminists, LGBTQ activists and other movements staged large anti-Bolsonaro protests under the slogan "Ele Não," or "Not Him."
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Yes. Brazil’s democracy is a young one, and a figure like Bolsonaro will test the ability of its institutions to weather such an anti-democratic storm. It’s possible they will ― modern democracies that survive their first generation don’t collapse very easily ― but there are reasons to worry, especially if the institutions that once supported the military dictatorship, including business and the media, fall in line behind another authoritarian.

Bolsonaro’s small, right-wing party won 51 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the first round of voting, so his supporters will constitute a sizable chunk of his governing coalition. His allies also won early victories at lower levels. Bolsonaro supporters are in line to win as many as 14 of the 27 state governorships.

Some observers fear that the military could return to power, especially with a former army officer and a retired general promising to stack their government with other military officials.

There are similarities to Brazil’s prior lapses from democracy. The failure of elites to set up an equitable system and their subsequent shortcomings in addressing the crises an inequitable system creates have once again paved the way for a strongman to ride a wave of racial and social backlash to power. And as in times past, many of those same elites have been all too willing to ignore their initial concerns and get in bed with the authoritarian themselves.

But military coups of the sort that overthrew Brazil’s last republic in 1964 are rare in the modern world. Brazil is instead following the playbook of 21st-century democratic decay, in which those system failures allow authoritarians to win power at the ballot box rather than at the point of a gun, and then proceed to erode norms and institutions until only the remnants of a democracy remain. Democracies today are undermined using the tools of democracy itself. Brazil may be no different.

“It’s much more likely Brazilian democracy will die at the hands of an elected leader,” Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, the author of How Democracies Die, said this summer.

That would have global ramifications. For all its struggles, Brazil is a massive and influential country ― it is the world’s ninth largest economy, its fifth most populous nation and the largest democracy in Latin America. It is the world’s biggest non-nuclear superpower. It plays a vital, if often overlooked, role in hemispheric and global affairs. The rise of right-wing authoritarians in Europe has set off alarm bells around the world, but Bolsonaro’s victory could signal a full-on global democratic backslide.

“I tend not to buy into this idea that we’ve entered into a global democratic recession,” Levitsky, said. “But if [Brazil] suffers a democratic erosion, I would change my tune a lot.”

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