Since the last time Brazilians chose a new president, in 2014, the country’s economy has collapsed into a devastating recession, its political system has faced a widespread corruption crisis, it has seen a president impeached and another imprisoned, and it has experienced an outbreak of violent crime that has resulted in more than 60,000 homicides in each of the last two years.
Fatigued with a rotting establishment and aching for change, Brazilians, returning to the polls this weekend for the first round of presidential voting, are poised to swing their country hard to the right, in line with an alarming global trend.
Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman from Rio de Janeiro who has expressed an affinity for Brazil’s erstwhile military dictatorship and is known for his brash, boorish political style, has pitched himself as an outsider and become the overwhelming favorite to win Sunday’s election.
That vote likely won’t bring an end to one of Brazil’s most polarizing and contentious elections since it returned to democratic governance more than 30 years ago. Bolsonaro is unlikely to garner the majority of votes he needs to claim outright victory in the crowded 13-person field.
Instead, he will almost certainly move to an Oct. 28 runoff election, where polls suggest he will likely face former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, a member of the leftist Workers’ Party. It was the PT, as the party is known by its Portuguese acronym, that oversaw Brazil’s boom in the early 21st century and its subsequent bust over the last four years. It is also the PT against which Bolsonaro has pitted his entire campaign.
To observers in Brazil and worldwide, Bolsonaro’s position at the top of the polls has made the stakes of Brazil’s election clear. This vote still holds deep implications for the future of the Brazilian economy, the fate of its yearslong investigation into political corruption and the manner in which it will try to address skyrocketing rates of violence.
But thanks to Bolsonaro, it has also become a referendum on the health ― and perhaps even the continued existence ― of Brazil’s three-decade-old democracy.
“This is the most crucial election in the history of Brazil,” James Green, the director of Brown University’s Brazil Initiative program, told HuffPost. “Brazil can go in two different directions now.”
A former army officer, Bolsonaro has served seven terms in the National Congress of Brazil since leaving the military.
He has never fully left the armed forces behind, though ― throughout his career in politics, he has espoused nostalgia for Brazil’s military junta and other Latin American dictatorships, including the murderous regimes of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet and former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. When Bolsonaro supported the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party in 2016, he dedicated his vote to the military colonel who led the dictatorship-era program that tortured her. He has said he would staff most government cabinets with military leaders.
“This is a serious moment. We can’t pretend everything is OK.”
His running mate, retired Army Gen. Antônio Hamilton Mourão, suggested in 2017 that the armed forces could return to power if Brazil’s elected officials did not root out corruption endemic in the political system, and last month told HuffPost Brazil that he could foresee a hypothetical situation in which military rule was justified again. Mourão, in echoing past statements made by the man atop his ticket, has posited that Brazil may need to temporarily close congress or draft a new constitution.
Bolsonaro has been off the campaign trail since he was stabbed during a rally on Sept. 6, and he has tried to distance himself from some of his vice-presidential pick’s headline-grabbing rhetoric. He now says he thinks democracy is the best course for Brazil’s future ― or at least, for now, the best path for him to ascend to power.
But despite his recent change in tune, Bolsonaro’s past makes it clear that there is ample reason to believe he poses an existential threat to the future of the fourth-largest democracy in the world, and the largest in Latin America.
“This is a serious moment. We can’t pretend everything is OK,” Guilherme Boulos, the candidate from the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party, said at Thursday night’s presidential debate. “It’s been 30 years since this country emerged from a dictatorship. I think we have never been so close to what happened back then. If we are here, able to discuss Brazil’s future, it’s because people spilled blood for democracy. If you’re able to vote Sunday, it’s because people gave their lives.”
He continued: “This is always how it starts out. Guns, sorting everything out with violence, human lives being worth nothing. I think it’s time for us to find our voices and say, ‘Dictatorship Never Again.’”
Bolsonaro’s proclivity for making incendiary statements about Brazil’s most marginalized communities, including LGBTQ people, black Brazilians, women and the indigenous, is just as alarming. He has said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay one and that there would be no officially demarcated indigenous land were he to become president. His cure for Brazil’s epidemic of violent crime is more violence: Bolsonaro supports police killings and has promised to give the country’s extremely deadly law enforcement bodies even more authority to kill with impunity. He has hinted that its ill-fated drug war will only expand on his watch.
His campaign has been a nationalistic one, reminiscent of other far-right movements that have gained traction and won higher political offices across Europe and in the United States. He has been compared to, and favorably compares himself to, U.S. President Donald Trump. And much like those movements, Bolsonaro won’t need to take Brazil all the way back to the days of dictatorship to roll back rights gained by vulnerable Brazilians.
“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,” Green said. “There’s a real threat that a proto-fascist will be in power in Brazil.”
“He isn’t kind of a dictator ― he’s a dictator,” said Monica de Bolle, the director of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Bolsonaro’s supporters do not see him as a threat to Brazilian democracy but as the country’s savior. To them, he is the last remaining honest politician in a country where hundreds of others are facing corruption allegations or convictions. To them, his tough-on-crime rhetoric is the only possible solution for fighting the violent crime that has terrorized Brazil’s cities and its more rural areas, too. He has been a part of the political system for three decades but never truly absorbed into it ― that he is willing to say what everyone else is thinking is all the proof they need that he is not a real politician.
It has been evident for more than a year that if anyone could halt Bolsonaro’s rise, it would be the leftist Workers’ Party, which has won each of the last four of Brazil’s presidential elections.
Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the party’s founder and longtime leader, led presidential election polls for most of the last year, remaining popular despite his July 2017 conviction on corruption charges. Da Silva was the president who oversaw Brazil’s rapid economic growth until he left office in 2011. His party built a broad base among both educated, middle-class Brazilians and poor and working-class folks. The fact that more than 30 million people escaped poverty during his presidency helped form the view that he is “the only politician who ever did anything for them,” as Americas Quarterly Editor-in-Chief Brian Winter wrote last year.
Da Silva almost certainly would have won the presidency, but he was barred from the race in September thanks to his bribery conviction. Still, the Workers’ Party is the most likely threat to Bolsonaro’s rise.
Haddad, who holds a philosophy Ph.D. and has a technocratic approach to governance, comes from the more moderate wing of the PT and lacks da Silva’s charismatic, firebrand approach to politics. He has advocated for more social and infrastructure spending to jump-start the economy and pushed for new legal protections for LGBTQ Brazilians and women. Haddad has positioned himself as da Silva’s stand-in and absorbed much of his remaining popularity since taking his place on the party’s ticket last month. Barring an upset, the former mayor of Brazil’s largest city is positioned to advance to face Bolsonaro in the second round.
But that is a double-edged sword for voters hoping to keep Bolsonaro from assuming the presidency. While Bolsonaro has led a backlash against the entirety of Brazil’s political elite, he has reserved special disdain for the Workers’ Party and anyone associated with it. He has thrived with the large segment of voters who see the leftist movement party as primarily responsible for Brazil’s economic malaise and those who see the PT as the same sort of corrupt machine it once promised never to become. It was Rousseff ― da Silva’s chosen successor ― who presided over Brazil’s initial economic collapse, and though da Silva is far from the only politician implicated in the corruption probes, his conviction has nevertheless become the face of the country’s political crisis.
So as Haddad has become Bolsonaro’s main challenger in recent weeks, the far-right politician’s position has only been strengthened, and nearly everything has broken his way since the stabbing. Bolsonaro’s membership in a small party would have afforded him just seconds per day of campaign time on television, but the assault made him headline news each night. It also brought the issue of violent crime to the forefront of the election.
Members of Brazil’s business and financial elite would normally support centrist parties, but they have been sullied by their own links to corruption and failure to fix the economy under Rousseff’s replacement, center-right President Michel Temer. And fervent opposition to the Workers’ Party has led those individuals to throw their weight behind Bolsonaro, who has backed off his previous statist economic stances to adopt a more market-friendly posture.
As a result, Bolsonaro has been cheered by investors and business leaders. This week, he won the official endorsement of Brazil’s powerful agro-business lobby. Bolsonaro has won support from other business sectors thanks to his promises to let miners run rampant over the Amazon rainforest should he become president.
Even efforts to combat Bolsonaro outside the party structure have seemed only to help him. Last weekend, thousands of protesters blanketed Brazil’s streets for demonstrations they called #EleNão ― “Not Him” ― in an attempt to highlight the dangers his presidency may pose to black Brazilians, LGBTQ people, the indigenous and women.
But the protests, which were among the largest female-led demonstrations in Latin American history, only caused more conservative Brazilians who oppose the left’s social agenda to coalesce around Bolsonaro. Brazil’s evangelical movement and its influential “Bullets, Beef and Bible” legislative caucus have further united behind him, and the first polls released after the #EleNão protests showed that Bolsonaro’s support among women had actually risen.
He has enjoyed other breaks, too. In late September, Brazil’s top electoral court threw more than 3.3 million voters off the rolls thanks to noncompliance with a law that requires biometric registration. Nearly half of the canceled registrations occurred in Brazil’s northeast, a region that is both poorer and blacker than the nation as a whole and that has served as an ardent base of support for the Workers’ Party for decades.
This week, meanwhile, federal Judge Sérgio Moro, who convicted da Silva of corruption last year, released previously sealed testimony that included allegations of political bribery involving da Silva, Rousseff and the Workers’ Party. Moro defended himself from accusations that the release was politically motivated; regardless, it’s hard to see the timing as anything but beneficial to Bolsonaro — a Comey-ish deus ex machina.
It is possible, but still unlikely, that a face-off with Haddad never happens. Bolsonaro is within striking distance of the majority support he needs to win the presidency outright on Sunday ― on Thursday night, he reached 38 percent in polls, the highest tally he’s achieved yet. An outright victory, while unlikely, will depend on how many of Brazil’s high number of undecided voters break his way, and how many decide to vote “null” in the country’s mandatory voting system. There is still a remote possibility that another left-of-center candidate could emerge in Haddad’s place, though the two most likely ― former Ceara state Gov. Ciro Gomes and former environmental minister and senator Marina Silva ― have faded in recent weeks.
So if the polls are correct, Bolsonaro and Haddad are headed toward a showdown that will likely become the nastiest and most unpredictable in its history. Surveys have shown that they are statistically tied in second-round scenarios. Both also suffer from disapproval rates that top 40 percent.
Bolsonaro has long since turned his attention exclusively to the Workers’ Party and Haddad, continuing to paint himself as the only candidate who can prevent the return of the left.
The Workers’ Party, meanwhile, offered a hint of things to come in a campaign ad that left little doubt about what it thinks a Bolsonaro presidency would mean for Brazil’s democracy.
The ad, released online Thursday, compares the right-wing candidate to Adolf Hitler.