Jair Bolsonaro And The Violent Chaos Of Brazil's Presidential Election

Will the stabbing of Brazil’s far-right presidential front-runner boost a candidate who promises to make the country even more dangerous?

The violence promised by Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right Rio de Janeiro congressman who is within a mortar’s range of the Brazilian presidency, was visited upon him during a campaign rally Thursday.

In the Minas Gerais state, Adélio Bispo de Oliveira, who later told police he was on “a mission from God,” allegedly plunged a knife into the candidate’s body. Bolsonaro was rushed to a hospital and into surgery to treat internal injuries and a large loss of blood, Brazilian news outlets reported.

“You bandidos that tried to ruin the life of a guy who is the father of a family and the hope of all Brazilians,” Flávio Bolsonaro ― the congressman’s son who is a Rio state representative ― said in a statement. “You just elected the president, and it will be in the first round.”

The stabbing threw into further mayhem a tense, chaotic and unpredictable presidential election. Bolsonaro, a former army officer who has in the past called for the return of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, has sat near the top of presidential polls since last summer. As of Friday, with just a month to go before the first round of voting on Oct. 7, he led all polls that did not include former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the popular leftist leader who was ruled ineligible last week thanks to his July 2017 conviction on corruption charges.

In normal times, Bolsonaro’s radical right-wing views would have kept him relegated to the fringes of Brazilian politics, with little influence beyond his ability to capture a headline or a charging document thanks to his racist, sexist and homophobic statements. Bolsonaro once told a fellow lawmaker that she was too ugly to rape. He has called immigrants “scum” and has proposed selling off lands settled by indigenous Brazilians and the descendants of enslaved Africans. He wants to give the country’s already deadly police forces, which killed more than 4,000 people last year, even more power to shoot and kill with impunity. And in 2016, he dedicated his vote to impeach the country’s then-President Dilma Rousseff to the army colonel who oversaw the dictatorship-era program that tortured her.

“Bolsonaro has seized on the discontent, the despair and the anger, fomenting a backlash against a corrupt establishment with a noisy fake populism. If this sounds familiar, it should. Bolsonaro has become known as “Brazil’s Trump.””

But as his stabbing in the streets of Juiz de Fora on Thursday might suggest, these are not normal times. For the past four years, Brazil has been embroiled in a series of crises it cannot escape: a grueling economic recession that has cost three million jobs and returned millions of people to poverty; an expansive political corruption crisis that has ensnared hundreds of politicians, including da Silva and leading members of the country’s biggest centrist political parties; and a record outbreak of violent crime that has resulted in more than 60,000 homicides in each of the last two years. The crises and the establishment’s failure to address them have left Brazilians with little faith in their democracy or their country.

Bolsonaro has seized on the discontent, the despair and the anger, fomenting a backlash against a corrupt establishment with a noisy fake populism. If this sounds familiar, it should. Bolsonaro has become known as “Brazil’s Trump,” and he has benefited from many of the same conditions that produced President Donald Trump and gave rise to rise to xenophobic, anti-immigrant, quasi-authoritarian politics around the world.

The attack is expected to boost Bolsonaro’s candidacy: His membership in a small party granted him little television time under Brazilian election law, but the stabbing will put him front and center even as he takes a break from campaigning. Brazilian markets rallied Thursday afternoon on the expectation that the attack would help the right-winger who, beneath his rhetorical populist postures, has adopted more traditional market-based economic policies in an effort to appeal to financial elites. And experts said the assault could push the issue of violent crime further to the forefront of voters’ minds and increase support for Bolsonaro, who has cultivated a “law and order” image that, like all such appeals, is really a promise of lawlessness and disorder in service of the ruling classes.

“A very violent episode against a candidate that wants to change everything generates a narrative that benefits him strongly,” said Thiago de Aragão, the director of Latin American political risk at Arko Advice, a consulting firm based in Brazil. “It strengthens even more his narrative, because everything he was saying that people could suffer, he actually suffered himself.”

Bolsonaro’s fellow candidates widely condemned the attack as yet another assault on democracy in a country where political violence isn’t a novelty: In 2016, there were 28 killings of political candidates, including 15 that occurred during the official period of campaigning. The incident led to widespread calls from candidates and human rights groups to put an end to such violence.

While Bolsonaro no longer calls for the return of military dictatorship, he nonetheless has promised to stock his cabinet with military officers, further militarize Brazilian society and bring even more violence to Brazil. His rise poses one of the toughest tests Brazil’s democratic institutions has faced since the end of the dictatorship three decades ago.

“This is the most important election in Brazilian history,” James Green, the director of Brown University’s Brazil Initiative program, said before Thursday’s attack. “Brazil is really at a crossroads.”

The implications of the election ― which will unfold over two rounds of voting in October ― will stretch beyond the country’s borders. Brazil may be a young democracy, but it is also an influential one: It is the largest of Latin America’s democratic nations and the fourth-largest democracy in the world. What happens in October will offer a referendum of sorts on the state of global, multicultural democracy itself.

“I tend not to buy into this idea that we’ve entered into a global democratic recession,” Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, who as recently as 2015 called the idea “a myth,” said in an interview this summer. “Those claims have been overstated so far. But if [Brazil] suffers a democratic erosion, I would change my tune a lot.”

“If Brazil falls, if Brazil goes authoritarian, I would worry a lot about the rest of the region,” Levitsky said. “People in Latin America ― militaries in Latin America, demagogues and democrats in Latin America ― will be paying close attention to Brazil. It would have devastating regional consequences.”

Bolsonaro was riding on the shoulders of supporters when his attacker stabbed him in the abdomen, sending the presidential candidate into emergency surgery.
Bolsonaro was riding on the shoulders of supporters when his attacker stabbed him in the abdomen, sending the presidential candidate into emergency surgery.
Stringer . / Reuters

Bolsonaro has spent his entire political career advocating violence against his political opponents and people he deems unworthy of the country he claims to love. In 1999, he said that the dictatorship “should have shot some 30,000 corrupt people, starting with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.” He has repeatedly suggested that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose regime was accused of murdering 3,000 people and torturing 40,000 others, should have killed even more. He has denied that Brazil’s dictatorship tortured people.

Bolsonaro’s most ardent and direct calls for violence, though, are aimed at the leftist Workers’ Party, which under da Silva and his hand-picked successor, former President Rousseff, ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2016. During a campaign stop last week, he called for gunning down members of the PT, as the Workers’ Party is known.

Bolsonaro’s presidential candidacy is fueled by his opposition to da Silva, Rousseff and the PT: He first began campaigning for president in 2016, shortly after Rousseff’s impeachment and da Silva’s initial implication in Operation Car Wash, the corruption probe that has embroiled Brazilian politics for more than four years.

By then, Trump was nearly two years into the campaign that would make him the president, and right-wing leaders had begun to emerge across Europe. Bolsonaro launched his campaign against that backdrop, pitching himself as a savior ― his middle name is Messias, as if life itself were a hack writer ― who alone could rescue Brazil.

His playbook was similar to Trump’s: Bolsonaro cultivated a base of devoted followers on social media, allowing him to go around traditional media; those outlets, Bolsonaro and his supporters routinely suggest, traffic in misinformation and “fake news.”

Where Trump demagogued on the issue of immigration, Bolsonaro has focused his attention on Brazil’s struggling economy and its rampant corruption. That Workers’ Party presidents oversaw the economic downturn and were implicated in Operation Car Wash gave him everything he needed to paint the left and its supporters as the cause of Brazil’s woes.

At its core, however, Bolsonaro’s campaign, like those in other countries, was an explicitly nationalist reaction to the left and the policies it had spent a decade implementing. The conservative “Bullets, Bible and Beef” legislative caucus to which Bolsonaro belongs gave that away during Rousseff’s impeachment, when it ignored the stated reason for the ouster ― that she had illegally manipulated the federal budget deficit. Instead, it unanimously voted for her removal on grounds that she represented an all-out attack on “God, family and the Brazilian people.” On his campaign website, Bolsonaro alludes to leftists as foreign, saying that “we are a country that is proud of our colors, and we do not want to import ideologies that destroy our identity.”

His campaign has made it clear which Brazilians do not belong to that “we”: Bolsonaro opposes the affirmative-action quotas previous governments implemented to increase university and employment access for black Brazilians and women; he has compared same-sex marriage, fully legalized in 2013, to pedophilia; Brazil’s dictatorship, Bolsonaro has claimed, was justified because it defended Brazil from “communists.” His candidacy and his opposition to Brazil’s current leftist movements exist, he claims, for the same reason.

Bolsonaro has not reserved his violent rhetoric for his political opponents; it is his preferred solution for dealing with Brazil’s most marginalized groups, too. In the past, he has said that he’d punch gay men if he saw them kissing in the street. During his campaign, he has proposed using helicopters to dump pamphlets into Brazil’s largest favela neighborhood ― where the overwhelming majority of residents are poor and black ― to warn drug dealers that they had six hours to turn themselves in before the military would come in guns blazing. He has suggested turning more of Brazil’s public security operations over to the military and giving the country’s police ― already among the world’s most deadly law enforcement forces ― more leeway to shoot and kill anyone they suspect of a crime. (The overwhelming majority of victims of police violence in Brazil, of course, are black Brazilians.)

Bolsonaro excused the death of Marielle Franco, the black, queer Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman who was assassinated in March, as “just another death in Rio de Janeiro.” He has remarked that Brazil’s feminists are good only for the oral sex they might provide; his calls to seize indigenous lands are their own form of violence against populations that already suffer disproportionately.

“His plan is to rollback every single social advance that has been achieved since the mobilizations against the dictatorship in the late ’70s,” Green said. “For the LGBT movement, for the women’s movement, for the important movement for rights for people of color.”

Bolsonaro’s backlash against the left has fueled his popularity among Brazil’s growing evangelical movement, which shares his socially conservative views on same-sex marriage, abortion and women’s rights. Evangelicals and Bolsonaro often closely align politically. Evangelical leaders and their political allies are known for their provocative statements about LGBTQ people, black Brazilians who still practice Afro-Brazilian religions, and feminist pushes for abortion access. Many also support further militarizing the police and executing people for drug crimes.

Bolsonaro, too, has energized small, fringe movements that openly support the return of Brazil’s military dictatorship, and he has appealed to segments of Brazil’s middle and upper classes who believe they’ve lost out to the poor.

“Bolsonarism is, in part, the reaction of those who feel they have lost guarantees and status in recent years; and, like Trumpism, it promises to convert rancor and resentment into pride and affirmation,” Harvard professor Bruno Carvalho wrote recently. “Too many poor people flying by plane these days (a refrain of the boom years)? Too expensive to have a maid anymore (a refrain nowadays)? Life getting harder? Your personal situation is worsening? It’s not your fault.”

These were the segments of Brazil that supported the dictatorship that ruled for two decades until it fell in 1985; they are the same segments of Brazil’s electorate to which a similarly authoritarian regime appeals now.

“There’s a sector of the middle classes ― and they have grown in the last 50 years― that is very conservative, very based on notions of family values and religiosity as a framework for peoples’ lives,” Green said. “They have supported right-wing governments in the past, and they’re doing it again today.”

Bolsonaro still falls far short of commanding majority support: He struggles to top 25 percent of the vote even in his best polling appearances. But he has thrived off the latent discontent of a country that has lost faith in its institutions ― surveys have shown that more than 60 percent of Brazilian voters have no confidence in their political parties, their congress or the presidency ― and in its candidates for president. Nearly all of them suffer from high rates of disapproval in early polls, and as many as 30 percent of Brazilian voters could choose to abstain in October’s elections, numbers that have created an opening for someone like Bolsonaro, even though his disapproval numbers remain high too.

“Bolsonaro is something that we call, in Brazil, a fisherman who fishes in dirty waters,” said Claudio Couto, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Rio-based think tank.

Brazil's military took over public security in Rio de Janeiro in February. The policy has led to increases in homicides since the intervention began. Bolsonaro has suggested giving Brazil's military and police more leeway to shoot and kill.
Brazil's military took over public security in Rio de Janeiro in February. The policy has led to increases in homicides since the intervention began. Bolsonaro has suggested giving Brazil's military and police more leeway to shoot and kill.
Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

Bolsonaro tends to wipe away his calls for violence as mere instances of “sarcasm” and “humor” ― to borrow a popular piece of sophistry from Trump’s rise to power, he wants Brazilians to take him seriously, but not literally. As Trump as proven time and again, this is a fallacy: Donald Trump has done as president exactly what he had said he would do as a presidential candidate.

For the Bolsonaro supporters who contend that anyone appalled by his rhetoric merely doesn’t get the joke, the stabbing will be yet another indication that the left is the true perpetrator of violence and violent crime in Brazil. Within hours of the incident, Bolsonaro’s supporters on Twitter were painting the crime as the work of communist forces; his running mate, Army Gen. Antonio Hamilton Mourão, baselessly asserted that the assault was the result of a Workers’ Party plot.

Observers agree that the attack will solidify Bolsonaro’s popularity among those who planned to vote for him or were strongly considering it. The question now is whether it will also make his aggressive law-and-order approach even more appealing to a broader swath of Brazilians who weren’t inclined to support him.

An overwhelming fear of violence is a very real part of daily life in Brazil now, from the streets of Rio de Janeiro to the more rural parts of the country.

“The country had close to 64,000 homicides in 2017, which means one in every nine homicides around the world involved a Brazilian,” said Dr. Robert Muggah, the co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Rio-based public security think tank. “The issue of public security is very much front and central (to the election.)”

Today’s Brazil is a place where commuters check apps that monitor shootouts before they leave for work. Along with the economic malaise, the violence of everyday Brazilian life has contributed to the astronomically high numbers of young Brazilians who want to leave the country for somewhere else. The continuous shootouts in Rio and elsewhere have already fueled calls for hardline policies in a country where large parts of the population already tend to favor a “tough on crime” approach.

Seeing Bolsonaro as the solution would be folly. He has proven that he would be a profoundly ineffective leader when it comes to the actual challenges facing Brazil and its people: He has no plans to address the corruption he rails against, and his positions on the major economic issues facing Brazil ― including pension reform and the privatization of major state-owned companies ― have been muddled and inconsistent.

His plans for violent crime are similarly misguided. In February, outbreaks of violence during Carnival led President Michel Temer to put the military in charge of public security in Rio de Janeiro, the exact sort of policy Bolsonaro would favor. (He opposed it only on grounds that the military wouldn’t have enough leeway to kill). Six months of military control have only led to even higher rates of violent crime, homicides and police killings. Bolsonaro has suggested loosening the strict gun laws da Silva put in place during his presidency: Study after study has shown more permissive gun laws, too, would lead only to more death and despair.

Bolsonaro has no stated plans to address income inequality, rising levels of poverty or access to viable health and education services — even though public policy experts widely agree that Brazil’s sky-high rates of inequality contribute to its astronomical crime rates.

His Brazil is a more violent one. It seems possible, however, that some Brazilians will view Thursday’s incident not as a call for an end to the violence and violent rhetoric, but as a reason for more of it.

“He was the guy that was talking about the problems of violence in the most near way to how the population talks about it,” de Aragão said. “Those kinds of things are popular because violence in Brazil has reached a level that people are desperate for aggressive solutions.”

Polls released the day before the attack showed that while Bolsonaro led the first round of voting, he would finish behind nearly every potential opponent in the run-off stage that would result.

But even before Thursday, Brazil’s financial and business elites had already learned to live with Bolsonaro ― like him, they share an utter distaste for the leftist Workers’ Party, and want nothing more than to keep it out of power. Temer’s unpopularity, corruption allegations and economic policies have cratered support for candidates from the traditional center-right parties. With few credible alternatives elsewhere, some of those elites have decided that Bolsonaro at least could be their man, especially after his April hiring of a University of Chicago-educated economist as an adviser.

Other Brazilians could join them if violent crime becomes an even more prominent part of the election.

“This could perhaps tip it in his favor in those second round projections,” de Aragão added. “We have to wait and see what the impact will be.”

Though most observers don’t expect the incident to drive Bolsonaro’s popularity high enough to guarantee him victory, as his son suggested, the situation remains ripe for disaster. The danger it poses to Brazil and the world is visible in Bolsonaro’s praise for the most famous military man who seized power and put the Chicago school economists in charge of a Latin American economy.

It would have similarly devastating effects: Brazil is already an incredibly dangerous place, especially for LGBTQ people, women, human rights workers and black Brazilians. Bolsonaro’s version of Brazil won’t stem the sort of violence of which he became a victim. It would make it even worse, and Brazil’s most marginalized populations would suffer the consequences.

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