Jair Bolsonaro’s rise a portrait of strange times in Brazil

. Oct 04, 2018
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Forecasts made by political scientists seem to be even less accurate than those by weather reporters. And, as global warming has produced new, hard-to-predict effects, so has the rising radicalization of Brazil’s political environment. It has altered how voters choose their candidates, stripping pundits of any premonitory capacity.

The bipartisan dominance of the Workers’ Party and Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) over the past six presidential races made most political scientists expect more of the same. We were also wrong about the weight of television and radio political ads, thinking they would be as powerful as before, and that they would propel establishment candidates.

However, several structural and conjunctural factors have smashed these forecasts. The brutal erosion of the image of Brazil’s two main parties has been felt in this election. The Workers’ Party, despite having massive support with Lula, has seen understudy Fernando Haddad suffer from significant rejection rates (despite considerable initial growth). The PSDB, which since 2002 has been the anti-Workers’ Party, was trumped by a much more radical alternative – far-right Jair Bolsonaro.

TV and radio ads, which grew less and less important as social media took over, now seem all but buried. Mr. Bolsonaro has fewer than 10 seconds on traditional media channels – but that has proven to be of little importance, thanks to his social media army of loyal supporters.

Three other aspects contributed to the trend. First, the reduction of the airtime for political ads by an electoral reform approved two years ago. As politicians appear less, their exposure on regular ads seems less important – even discounting the weight of internet campaigning.

Secondly, a shorter time of official campaigning makes the “pre-campaign” all the more important. And Mr. Bolsonaro has been campaigning on social media and on the streets for the past four years.

Finally, there was the stabbing of Mr. Bolsonaro, on September 6. While it turned the candidate into a victim, it also gave him good reasons to avoid political debates – or any exposure that would be detrimental to his chances. He preserved his image, letting his adversaries gang up on each other.

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Irrationally takes over

But the changes in the system don’t tell the whole story. Instead, we also must analyze society’s current moment, which is one of irrationality and a crisis of values.

The former refers to the anger and hate that feeds part of the electorate right now. It manifests itself by rejecting traditional politicians, including the PSDB and the Workers’ Party, as well as their allies. Mr. Bolsonaro, despite his long political career, presents himself as an anti-establishment outsider – which allowed him to capitalize on the trend.

The second aspect of irrationality is specific to the Workers’ Party: it is a hatred of the left-wing, its values, and – particularly – the left’s hegemonic party and Lula, its biggest leader. Voting for the “anti-Workers’ Party” would avenge voters from something they profoundly detest.

There is also (as a consequence of the aversion to traditional politics) a distaste for democracy. Seen as a system that tolerates corruption and is insufficient to fight the “degenerates” – as it has values like human rights – democracy is repudiated by part of the Brazilian electorate, which sees in Mr. Bolsonaro (himself a defender of the military dictatorship, torture, and institutional violence as a means to create a safe society) a way out.

Recent surveys by Latinobarómetro shows Brazil as the Latin American country with least appreciation for democracy. In such a context, even Mr. Bolsonaro’s most outrageous undemocratic remarks are not enough to turn off voters.

Brazilian values

The crisis of values regards Brazil’s deep conservatism. Mr. Bolsonaro presents himself as a defender of the “traditional family” – heterosexual, anti-abortion, and God-fearing. “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” is his campaign’s motto. The far-right has not pulled any punches in that regard, stating that a Workers’ Party initiative against sexual orientation bias was a way of stimulating children’s sexuality before puberty. That’s how he’s earned the support of people who see the left as a threat to the traditional morality.

In that regard, the support of artists (normally associated with less orthodox sexual behaviors) to the #EleNão (Not him) campaign could have reinforced his image as the guardian of tradition. It is also possible that the demonstrations led by women were seen by some sectors as political acts put forward by defenders of legal abortions, homosexuality, sexual immorality, and so on…

The negative image of those demonstrations among conservatives was further reinforced through social media (especially WhatsApp). Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters shared images of semi-naked protestors on the streets against their candidates, as well as images of people disrespecting religious symbols. Some of those images weren’t even from Saturday’s demonstrations – but were shared as such.

We don’t live in normal times. Regular criteria we’ve always used to assess voter behavior don’t make sense anymore. More than choosing public policies, voters are choosing based on sentiment and moral values. The candidate who embodies those the most will be in a privileged position. In such a context, facts are irrelevant.

Racist, sexist, and authoritarian remarks from Mr. Bolsonaro are seen as mere verbal exaggerations, his contradictions are dismissed as lesser sins or unimportant next to his promise to “change everything that is out there.” There’s no room for rationality or facts anymore.[/restricted]

Claudio Couto

Political scientist, head of Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Master’s program in Public Policy and Administration.

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