When Jair Bolsonaro cast his congressional vote in favour of ex-President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August 2016, he made an unusual dedication. In a short stunt designed to draw maximum attention, he referenced Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra – a known torturer from the time of Brazil’s dictatorship. A tirelessly provocative army captain-turned-populist politician, Bolsonaro’s presidential aspirations are steadily gaining momentum.
He publicly praises the military dictatorship the country endured from 1964 until 1985, a movement gaining unsettling traction among sectors of the electorate. At Rio de Janeiro’s Hebraica Club in April, Bolsonaro declared that quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves) “weren’t even fit for breeding”. He is also a self-confessed “admirer” of Adolf Hitler. Despite – or as a result of – this, Bolsonaro has gained a sizable following. It is no wonder, therefore, that he is earning himself a reputation as “Brazil’s Donald Trump”. With the next presidential election due in 2018, could he really find himself the next occupant of the Palácio da Alvorada?
Politics dragged through the mud
Brazil has endured a turbulent 18 months. First, the Worker’s Party’s Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president and the anointed heir of her evergreen predecessor, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, was impeached after a lengthy, controversial and ultimately imperfect legal procedure.
Rousseff’s vice-president, Michel Temer, became the country’s unelected leader upon her removal from office, and quickly saw his approval ratings plumb dismal new depths. While Rousseff was unpopular by the end of her tenure, Temer is now seen favourably by just 2% of Brazilians, according to some estimates.
Brazil finally emerged from a crippling recession with 1% growth in June this year. President Temer narrowly survived a congressional vote on whether to begin corruption proceedings against him; and all the while the Lava Jato corruption case – possibly the biggest ever, anywhere in the world – that has engulfed Brazilian and Latin American politics rumbles on in the background. Despite his enduring popularity, Lula was then sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison on charges of corruption and money laundering in July.
Meanwhile, police officers have gone on strike in parts of the country, prison riots in the north of the country left hundreds of inmates dead in January, and high crime rates add social disquiet to Brazil’s comprehensive disarray to complete an emphatic ‘full house’.
Unrest tends to provide fertile ground for non-traditional populist politicians to sew their seed, as the world witnessed in 2016 with the rise and rise of Donald Trump, from derided outsider to genuine contender and finally president of the United States. To adorn Bolsonaro with the “non-traditional” tag, however, would fall laughably short of the mark.
Unapologetic, vitriolic homophobia is his trademark. In 2011, Bolsonaro claimed that he would rather his sons die in a car accident than be gay; compared same-sex marriage to paedophilia; and encouraged the physical abuse of children believed to be homosexual.
Path cleared by Lula’s demise
The conviction of Lula surely means that as one man’s flame is extinguished, another’s shall be lit – and an ‘outsider’ could be the one to benefit. Lula had dominated the political scene in Brazil for more than two decades, and politicians such as Bolsonaro will be hoping that his demise will cause a decisive shift away from moderate social democracy and inequality-alleviating redistribution policies to more hard-line, radical politics.
Bolsonaro is one of very few high-profile congressmen untouched by the ongoing Lava Jato investigation, which has added to his anti-establishment allure. He has also taken advantage of Brazil’s marked change in religious denomination. Over the past decade, the number of evangelicals in the country has increased by more than 60%, and many forecasts suggest that they could surpass their Catholic counterparts by 2030. There are now more than 600 Christian television and radio channels in Brazil. Rede Record, the second-largest TV channel in the country, is owned by bishop Edir Maçedo, who is himself a billionaire.
This has naturally translated to political power, showcased by the growing influence of the “bullets, beef and Bible” caucus in Congress. Marco Feliciano, an ultra-conservative who is part of the powerful evangelical caucus, told the Guardian in 2016 that the impeachment could be the right’s big break: “In 2010 we had 60 seats. Now 95… We’re growing.” And they continue to do so. Voter intention surveys suggest that from a figure of 6.5% in October 2016, Bolsonaro had reached 13.7% by February this year – second only to Lula. The imprisonment of the latter takes on added significance, therefore, with the likes of Bolsonaro and Feliciano primed to capitalise on the fractured political landscape. “I don’t just want the Workers’ party to go,” Feliciano told the Guardian, “I want it to disappear from history, to fall into extinction.” Brazilian politics is undoubtedly polarised.
Is a Bolsonaro victory likely in 2018?
Carlos Pereira of the influential Getúlio Vargas Foundation think tank, believes that Brazil’s political system can resist “extremists” such as Bolsonaro and Feliciano. “They are not credible contenders for executive positions,” he claims. But his confidence is not shared by all. A growing percentage of Brazilians of all ages are hearing Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and finding it relatable.
When he set out plans for a sensational campaign, few believed that Donald Trump could overcome the establishment’s scorn, yet he roared and spluttered his way to the presidency of the United States, convincing members of all levels of society to cast their votes in his favour. If Bolsonaro can moderate his message to bring more undecided voters on board before the 2018 election, a very interesting race for the Brazilian premiership could unfold.