Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) was unable to beat Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT) in the opening round of Brazil’s presidential election by a mere 5 percent of the vote. International coverage of the election has been dominated by bewildered disappointment over Bolsonaro’s lead in the polls, but little attempt has been made to understand what has led almost fifty million Brazilians to support the far-right candidate. Bolsonaro has been internationally branded as misogynistic, homophobic, dictatorial, xenophobic, fascist, racist, and populist. This pejorative branding is so widespread that news outlets with greatly dissimilar editorial leanings have condemned him equally. Why is such a seemingly objectionable candidate favored to become Brazil’s next president?
There is no single explanation for Bolsonaro’s popularity. For both his original supporters and the more centrist voters who will support him in the second round of the elections scheduled for October 28, a vote for Bolsonaro is a vote to protect democracy. These voters associate the thirteen years in which the Workers’ Party (PT) controlled the presidency (2003-2016) with pervasive corruption. Widespread co-option has also been emblematic of PT administrations, where not only the poor were targeted via assistentialism, but also artists and other key opinion leaders. Billions of dollars were siphoned from the state and diverted to personal enrichment and illicit campaign financing. Few federal ministries and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) remained free from involvement in major corruption schemes. The largest of the anti-corruption efforts, the Car Wash (Lava Jato) Investigation, has been active for over four years and gives no sign of concluding. Hundreds of politicians and businessmen have been indicted, convicted, or imprisoned, and over US $10 billion has been recovered and returned to the state. Brazil’s corruption schemes have also been damaging to other countries in Latin America and Africa.
The PT presidential campaign has given no sign that it is willing to reexamine its past practices or guarantee that it will strengthen Brazil’s prosecutorial and investigative efforts. In fact, the PT government program would cut spending and “privileges” in the judicial system and establish term limits for justices in the Supreme Court and other superior courts. Additionally, members of these courts would be nominated with greater participation of organized civil society. The party also proposes a wide range of restrictions on traditional media, accusing the media of curtailing plurality of viewpoints. During a popular radio news show at Radio Jovem Pan, historian Marco Antônio Villa stated that the party of former president Lula has moved so far to the left that it unabashedly defends policies that resemble Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian playbook. The PT promises ample state reform, including the adoption of direct democratic initiatives to combat “fascist and authoritarian” segments present in Brazilian representative government. They further defend the President’s authority to initiate plebiscites and referendums, a right granted to Congress alone in Article no. 49 of Brazil’s Constitution. They want to encourage social groups’ control of the state’s three powers (executive, legislative, and judiciary), where gender and ethno-racial quotas will be strictly enforced. These reforms would be possible through a new federal constitution written by a constituent assembly. Fears of the party moving left are reinforced by Haddad’s vice president, Manuela D’Ávila, 37, a politician from Brazil’s Communist Party (PC do B). Additionally, it is important to note Haddad’s commitment to pardon Lula (who has threatened to imprison Lava-Jato’s main judge, Sérgio Moro, once freed). This sentiment is being nurtured among the PT supporters.
Undoubtedly Brazilians are voting for Bolsonaro out of fear of the country becoming another Venezuela. However, despair over many years of governmental failure, at all levels, in dealing with citizen security is also at play in this year’s election. According to government figures, in 2016 alone there were 62,517 homicides in the country. Between 2001 and 2015, the number reached 786,000, greater than the number of homicides during the wars in Iraq (286,000, from 2003 to 2017) and Syria (330,000, from 2011 to 2017). Bolsonaro promises voters a strong government, not an authoritarian one, capable of ensuring public security.
For other voters, Bolsonaro’s greatest appeal are his pro-market programs, which aim to reduce the role of the state in the economy, lower taxes, and liberalize trade. This is a key stance for many Bolsonaro voters, principally the younger and better-educated. Plus, the PSL program defends allegiance with countries from which Brazil can benefit from technology transfer, such as the US, Israel, and Japan. This is in stark contrast to the PT’s foreign policy, which contends that Brazil should combat “imperialist aggressions” and promote South-South cooperation.
Finally, there are some who admire him for his reputation as incorruptible and believe that much of the pejorative branding that Bolsonaro has earned abroad and at home, the latter symbolized by the massive “#ELENÃO” (or #NOT HIM) campaign, is unfair. Bolsonaro is frequently judged for his offensive statements, which voters argue are taken out of context. The PSL candidate was relatively successful at explaining his outrageous past statements in recent interviews (for example, his interview at GloboNews), until an assassination attempt on September 6 kept him off the presidential campaign trail.
One of Bolsonaro’s past hair-raising arguments that often resurfaces occurred during an argument with Congresswoman Maria do Rosário (PT) in 2003. Bolsonaro was defending a reduction of the age of criminal responsibility from eighteen to sixteen after a horrific case of rape and murder by a teenager. Do Rosário, against the proposal, said that the sixteen-year-old was just “a child.” During the ensuing argument, Rosário called Bolsonaro a rapist. Bolsonaro retorted that Rosário was too ugly to be raped. There are many other cases of Bolsonaro’s irresponsible speech, raising serious questions about his emotional control and overall temperament. His choice for vice-president, retired general Hamilton Mourão, 65, does little to reassure Brazilians that they will have a drama-free government under Bolsonaro since Mourão has generated controversy with outlandish statements of his own.
However, despite the praise of dictatorship and intolerant jokes by Bolsonaro, support for democracy in Brazil has reached an all-time high. According to the Brazilian polling agency Datafolha, 69 percent of Brazilians believe that democracy is the best form of government. Furthermore, the percentage of respondents indifferent to the form of government fell from 22 percent in 1989 to 13 percent earlier this month. Unfortunately, though, support for democracy alone does not make this year’s presidential race any easier for Brazilians asked to choose between the intolerant and insensitive far-right and the corrupt far-left. No wonder years-long friendships and family relations are currently being tested in Brazil’s social media.
Monica Arruda de Almeida is an adjunct professor at the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) at Georgetown University. She is a certified financial crime analyst and her research focus is on illicit economies, with an emphasis on anti-money laundering efforts.