Will Brazil’s Next President Be a Far-Right Nationalist?

Why Jair Bolsonaro Is Leading the Polls

Federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro, a pre-candidate for Brazil's presidential election, attends a debate at the Industry Confederation event in Brasilia, July 2018. Adriano Machado / REUTERS

With Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) now in jail for corruption and money laundering, the right-wing nationalist Jair Bolsonaro is leading the polls for the country’s presidential election in October. Bolsonaro, a retired army captain and member of the lower house of the Brazilian National Congress, is campaigning as an alternative for voters tired of the country’s corrupt traditional parties. Dozens of leading politicians have been under investigation, including Lula, who is campaigning for the presidency despite the fact that his conviction legally bars him from doing so.

Bolsonaro’s growth in popularity has been impressive. His poll numbers have risen from five percent in July 2016 to around 20 percent today. Only a few months ago, most experts regarded Bolsonaro as unelectable due to his radical positions, his record as an apologist for military dictatorship and torture, his offensive comments about Afro-Brazilians, gay people, and other minorities, and his lack of major party affiliation. Although these may still prove insurmountable obstacles to his election, many now see him as a dark-horse candidate—a populist outsider whose anti-establishment rhetoric may yet propel him to victory.


Only a few years ago, the rise of a presidential candidate such as Bolsonaro would have been unthinkable. At the beginning of the decade, many experts believed that Brazil was on the path to becoming a more inclusive and growth-oriented society. The confidence of international financial markets, as well as the awarding of both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games to Brazil, added to this optimism about the country’s future.

In 2014, however, a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal was exposed, implicating the country’s biggest political parties as well as some of its largest business conglomerates. The investigation of this scandal, called Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), was the driving force behind the impeachment and removal of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the arrest and conviction of Lula in 2017.

Only a few years ago, the

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