Jair Bolsonaro speaks at a rally. Photo: PA

The Tropical Trump: what the rise of Jair Bolsonaro means for Brazil

Like Trump, he is a fierce advocate of conservatism and a master of social media. Is Brazil about to elect a far-right strongman?
December 11, 2017

In the past 18 months, one Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, has been impeached, and her replacement has faced allegations of corruption. Another former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has been accused of masterminding the largest bribery scheme in Brazilian history, yet is favourite to reclaim the post in this year’s election. Can anything top that in 2018?

Yes it can, says the man Brazilian media has dubbed the “Tropical Trump.” Jair Bolsonaro, a controversial far-right populist who is something of a mix between Donald Trump and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, is now polling between 13 and 17 per cent—second only to Lula—following a series of controversial political interventions.

The gun-loving lawmaker and former army captain caught the nation’s attention on live television when he dedicated his congressional vote that helped to impeach Rousseff to an army colonel notorious for brutality during Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. It was particularly shocking given that Rousseff had been tortured by the military unit the colonel had headed.

Speaking to me in his office in an upmarket district of São Paulo, Bolsonaro’s son and campaign manager, Eduardo, tried to suggest democracy has been worse for Brazil than dictatorship. “We don’t recognise it as a dictatorship—it was a military regime,” he said. Some 400,000 people went missing or died during those two decades, but Eduardo argues that pales into insignificance compared to the 50,000 people who currently die each year as a direct result of crime.

Brazilians have fought hard to restore democratic rights since that darker chapter and as a society they’re more liberal now. Political opponents are stunned that a far-right candidate like Bolsonaro has become a presidential contender.

With Brazil slowly recovering from an agonising recession, beset by rising levels of violence and a slew of political and business corruption scandals, a man who is seen as an outsider is garnering support, most notably among conservatives and religious groups for his anti-gay, pro-gun policies.

Law enforcement is one of Bolsonaro’s key campaign strategies. He plans to end gun control. Outside the wealthiest state of São Paulo, urban violence has soared, with six Brazilian cities recording a homicide rate last year of 40 deaths per 100,000 citizens. (By contrast, in 2014, the UK’s rate was just under one.) Only 8 per cent of Brazilian crimes are resolved, and a recent survey found more than half of Brazilians said they would vote for an authoritarian candidate if it meant they would be safer. In another, 60 per cent of adults agreed with the statement “most of our social issues would be solved if we could get rid of immoral people, delinquents and perverts.”

Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a master of social media. His straight-talking tweets speak directly to Brazilian voters tired of false political promises. Television remains the biggest campaign driver in Brazil though, and unlike Trump, Bolsonaro won’t be getting much airtime. “He’ll only have a one-minute slot on television when the campaign kicks off,” says Thiago de Aragão a political analyst at Arko Advice, a consultancy based in Brasilia. “The three major parties in Brazil can buy airtime and destroy a newcomer.”

Bolívar Lamounier, a Brazilian political scientist, argues Bolsonaro’s law and order campaign is not a sufficiently powerful platform to beat a mainstream candidate in crime-ravaged Brazil. “Unlike the sort of campaigns in the United States, no one in Brazil believes he has a solution to crime. Because Brazil has no solution, or at least not in the time of one single term of office,” he says, “Bolsonaro has been overestimated.”

What the rising popularity of a far-right candidate does represent for Brazil is a lurch towards conservatism, disrupting the political landscape for the first time in decades. Eduardo agrees. He expects many more right-wing deputies to be elected to parliament: “We don’t want to win next year’s race: we want conservatism to return.”