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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 rise of a presidential candidate such as Bolsonaro would have been unthinkable.
Although Rousseff and Lula both belonged to the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), the wave of criminal prosecutions also reached the leaders of the rival Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), as well as top figures from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB)—including the current president, Michel Temer, and his closest political allies. To make things worse, fiscal irresponsibility and ill-advised economic policies led Brazil’s GDP to plunge by 8.6 percent between 2014 and 2016. This unprecedented recession left 13 million people unemployed—a figure that Temer was unable to reduce, despite enacting a labor market reform and severe limits on government spending.
Rampant corruption combined with economic crisis is a poisonous recipe in an election year. In Brazil’s young democracy, the outlook is dismal. Confidence in political institutions—including Congress, political parties, and the presidency—are at their lowest levels since the country transitioned to democracy three decades ago. It was this chaotic environment that allowed Bolsonaro to begin his rise to top of the polls. During the Rousseff impeachment process, he not only expressed the anti-PT sentiment of an important segment of population but, as a supposed outsider, gave voice to a widespread distrust of continuing politics as usual.
Although Bolsonaro is affiliated with the small Social Liberal Party (PSL), his campaign is a one-man show. He uses social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp to increase his exposure and compensate for his campaign’s lack of money and party infrastructure. His posts, as well as his interviews, are full of outlandish and bombastic rhetoric, in general spouting right-wing nationalist political beliefs. For the chronic problem of urban violence, he advocates the liberalization of gun ownership as well as a zero-tolerance, law-and-order approach to crime. He has railed against Chinese interference in Brazil and vowed to push back against it. And in an attempt to gain the vote of evangelicals and traditional Catholics, he opposes legal abortion, drug liberalization, and other progressive social policies. It thus is no surprise that Bolsonaro has been compared to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Until now, Bolsonaro’s strategy has worked well. He sits at the top of presidential polls, with a stable 20–25 percent likely voter support, compared to around 10–15 percent for his more competitive rivals, who include Marina Silva of the Sustainability Network party, Ciro Gomes of the PDT, and Geraldo Alckmin of the PSDB. Taking for granted that Lula will not be allowed to run, Bolsonaro currently beats all his rivals in almost all second-round simulations. (Brazil’s elections use a two-round runoff system.)
Bolsomito (Bolsomyth), as he is known by his supporters, is backed by the educated middle classes of Brazil, as well as most residents of small- to medium-sized towns of the countryside. His core vote comes from the booming farming belt stretching from the southern to the midwestern regions of the country, which has benefited from commodity exports. His abrasive rhetoric feeds on voters’ anger about Brazil’s excessive tax burden, the poor quality of government services, endemic corruption, and the lack of job opportunities.
For all the attention given to his unexpected rise, Bolsonaro nevertheless faces real obstacles to election. First, in contrast to the image he projects on the campaign trail, he is far from an outsider in Brazilian politics. A member of Congress since 1991, he has had a long and uninspiring political career. As a retired army captain, the bulk of his legislative proposals have been devoted to serving his former colleagues’ interests. Others have been symbolic gestures related to patriotism and family values, including a proposal to make it obligatory for people to place their right hand over their chest during the national anthem and one to ban foreign words in business names.
Although his economic advisers call for pension reforms and the privatization of state-controlled behemoths such as the oil company Petrobras and the Bank of Brazil, Bolsonaro’s past is not so market friendly. In terms of regulation and economics, his legislative proposals do not reflect the conservative positions he now claims to hold. Over the years, Bolsonaro has put forth many interventionist policies, including unilateral changes in mortgage interest rates, preferential tax exemptions for special-interest groups, and heavy-handed consumer protection laws opposed by many businesses. Nobody knows which Bolsonaro will ultimately prevail if he becomes president: the economic interventionist or the neoliberal.
In order to make it to the second round, Bolsonaro will have to deal with several hurdles before October. Because of Brazilian election laws that allot public funds and free radio and TV announcements according to the previous electoral performance, his tiny party will face a serious obstacle in a contest for 140 million voters, many of them with low levels of education. Bolsonaro also faces high unfavorability ratings in two important segments of the population: women and the LGBT community (likely because of his history of misogynistic and homophobic statements) and the poor from the Brazil’s northern and northeastern regions, which are traditional strongholds for Lula.
Even if Bolsonaro could inspire confidence with a more reasonable platform, his trajectory could end up mirroring that of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, who was strong enough to qualify for the second round of presidential elections but whose history of radicalism galvanized the opposition to rally behind a more moderate opponent in the runoff. The key question is who this opponent would be, since all the other candidates are currently hovering between five and 15 percent support in the polls. Another doubt is how Bolsonaro could govern with a party that, in the current legislature, holds only eight out of a total 513 seats. With Brazil’s complicated system of coalitions—there are nearly 30 parties in Congress—forming a government and allocating cabinet positions would be extremely difficult.
Occuring in the midst of major corruption scandals and recession, Brazil’s October election will be one of the most unpredictable in decades. Restoring the public’s confidence in politics and crafting economic policy for sustainable and equitable growth will be the main challenges for the next president. Given his extreme platform, his irresponsible rhetoric, and his disappointing record in government, it is unlikely that Bolsonaro will be up to the task.