Jair Bolsonaro: from fringes to center stage of Brazilian politics

. Oct 06, 2018
Jair Bolsonaro: from fringes to center stage of Brazilian politics Jair Bolsonaro could become Brazil's president

One of Jair Bolsonaro’s first actions into his sixth term as congressman, in March 2011, was to draft a motion to summon then-Minister of Education Fernando Haddad to a deposition in the lower house. He wanted Mr. Haddad to explain himself about the so-called “gay kit,” the name evangelical leaders gave to anti-homophobia material to be distributed in public schools. Two weeks later, Mr. Bolsonaro’s motion was crushed by the vast majority of his peers. “Is there a straight man around to back me up?” he asked the House floor, fuming.

One year later, Mr. Bolsonaro nailed a poster of Mr. Haddad – who was running for mayor of São Paulo – to the door of his office, with the phrase: “The candidate of the gay kit.” From the lower house tribune, he gave an inflammatory speech: “Wake up, people of São Paulo! Will Haddad, as mayor of São Paulo, implement homosexualism (sic) courses for children in elementary schools?” Mr. Haddad never acknowledged the congressman, giving an idea of how irrelevant Mr. Bolsonaro was at the time.

Times have changed – you can call Mr. Bolsonaro many things, but not irrelevant.

The former Army captain was once a fringe candidate, regarded as a radical who only pleased retired military men, nostalgic for the military dictatorship.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But in the last election, he was the highest-ranked candidate in his state, winning 464,572 votes – four times as many as he did in 2010. He then declared his intentions of becoming </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">the </span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">right-wing candidate, promising to be an &#8220;unabashed conservative, an alternative to those who loathe the Workers&#8217; Party.&#8221;</span></p> <h2>The face of Brazil&#8217;s far-right</h2> <div id="attachment_9490" style="width: 820px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-9490" class="size-full wp-image-9490" src="" alt="Mr. Jair Bolsonaro wall of shame (2012)" width="810" height="450" srcset=" 810w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 810px) 100vw, 810px" /><p id="caption-attachment-9490" class="wp-caption-text">Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s wall of shame (2012)</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro epitomizes Brazil’s far right. A former military man and fervently religious, he supports the death penalty, the possibility of imprisonment for life (the current maximum in Brazil is 30 years), lowering the age of legal majority, and he is against gun control legislation. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If Brazilian politicians generally say slightly different versions of the same non-committal safe discourse, Jair Bolsonaro does not shy away from controversy. Instead, he actively encourages it. In 2011, a group of leftist congressmen made a formal complaint in the House against his demeanor, to which he responded by saying that they were “acting like faggots.” In December 2014, he told a congresswoman she was &#8220;too ugly to get raped.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">He is perhaps the most important voice of the anti-gay movement in Congress – and this is a big crowd we’re talking about. Mr. Bolsonaro has once said that people “become” gay due to a lack of parental discipline, and that a little smack on the face when the kids are young would “straighten them out.” His sons, of course, would never be gay because “he raised them appropriately.” Recently, the congressman met with openly gay Canadian actress Ellen Page to discuss the rights of the LGBT community in Brazil. You can see the results yourself:</span></p> <p><span class="embed-youtube" style="text-align:center; display: block;"><iframe class='youtube-player' width='1200' height='675' src=';rel=1&#038;fs=1&#038;autohide=2&#038;showsearch=0&#038;showinfo=1&#038;iv_load_policy=1&#038;wmode=transparent' allowfullscreen='true' style='border:0;'></iframe></span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Spanish daily newspaper </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">El País</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> has described Bolsonaro as a Brazilian version of Donald Trump. The similarities are indeed there. The former Army captain is seen as a man who “calls it as it is,” just like the American billionaire turned president. Both are also considered to be establishment outsiders – even if Mr. Bolsonaro first took office in 1991. And both symbolize the anger felt by everyday citizens about what’s wrong with the current system, and provide simplistic views of the world that don’t require much logic or thought.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro even &#8220;borrowed&#8221; Mr. Trump&#8217;s disgraced advisor, </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Steve Bannon</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But others believe he gets his references from elsewhere. For Federico Finchelstein, who wrote an op-ed on </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Foreign Policy</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> about the frontrunner in the Brazilian presidential race, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s model is none other than Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler&#8217;s Minister of Propaganda. He writes: </span></p> <blockquote><p><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;In Brazil and elsewhere, right-wing populists are increasingly acting as the Nazis did and, at the same time, disavowing this Nazi legacy or even blaming the left for it.&#8221;</span></i></p></blockquote> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In a </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">recent op-ed</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> on </span><b>The Brazilian Report</b><span style="font-weight: 400;">, political scientist Claudio Couto explained the rationale behind this. </span></p> <blockquote><p><em><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;By twisting this political concept, they also try to associate the right wing with a purer version of liberalism, at least a purely economic version of liberalism (which we could call “marketism”). Everything related to state intervention is associated with the left, according to this line of thinking.&#8221;</span></em></p></blockquote> <h2>Social media</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In an election that has been won and lost on social media, no candidacy has been more impressive than Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s. His online army created over 80 unofficial Facebook pages dedicated to him, which add up to over 10 million likes. Between February and July &#8211; before the election race officially began &#8211; these pages amounted to 53 million interactions (likes, shares, or comments). His official accounts also have good numbers, a total of 14 million.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">An impressive 68 percent of the electorate has a social media account, and an equally huge 66 percent uses WhatsApp Messenger.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Of the election frontrunners, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is well ahead of the competition in terms of the quantity of supporters who use social media. 81 percent of Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters have an account on social media, compared to 72 percent for Ciro Gomes, and only 59 percent for Workers’ Party candidate, second-placed Fernando Haddad.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">That social media presence allowed Mr. Bolsonaro to campaign from a hospital bed &#8211; and push his voting stock up even after failing to show up for debates.</span></p> <h2>Where the blame lies</h2> <div id="attachment_9488" style="width: 1010px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-9488" class="size-full wp-image-9488" src="" alt="Mr. Jair Bolsonaro wall of shame (2012)" width="1000" height="664" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><p id="caption-attachment-9488" class="wp-caption-text">The &#8220;guns up&#8221; gesture became a feature in Brazilian politics</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In recent political debates, social democrat Geraldo Alckmin and the Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s top brass have blamed each other for &#8220;creating the monster&#8221; of Jair Bolsonaro. Both of them have a point. The Workers&#8217; Party deserves blame for failing to admit any of its several mistakes and corruption scandals. The Social Democracy Party were at fault for stirring up an atmosphere of hatred towards the left and for challenging the legitimacy of the electoral process &#8211; two pillars of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s discourse.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">“When people stop believing in the democratic system, it facilitates the rise of ‘national saviors.’ This kind of thing is even stronger in a country such as ours. Brazilian politics is based on personality rather than on ideas,” says political scientist Dulce Pandolfi, a professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro. Ironically enough, Bolsonaro’s middle name is Messias, &#8220;messiah&#8221; in Portuguese.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Pundits and party analysts also missed what was going on. Nobody seemed to have learned from the Donald Trump and Brexit phenomenon. In March 2017, I wrote: </span></p> <blockquote><p><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Right now, most politicians are worrying about avoiding jail time. Mr. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has begun moving around the country. In recent months, he has visited the states of Ceará, Paraíba, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Pará, Amazonas, Pernambuco, and Mato Grosso. He is quietly gathering support among the youth, as well as religious and community leaders.</span></i></p> <p><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">All of this grassroots campaigning is done under the radar. The Brazilian mainstream media still sees Mr. Bolsonaro as a radical with little potential. But a year and a half from now, these same newspapers and TV stations might be partaking in the same level of introspection currently underway in the American media establishment, asking themselves: “what did we miss?”</span></i></p></blockquote> <h2>What&#8217;s next for Brazilian politics?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Regardless of the final outcome of the election, Mr. Bolsonaro is the biggest winner. He has placed himself on the center stage of Brazilian politics, impressive for someone so recently on the fringes.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The political environment is becoming increasingly toxic – and violent. People are getting beaten on the streets simply because they wear clothes of the wrong color. Everyone is either a &#8220;communist&#8221; or a &#8220;</span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">coxinha</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8221; (derogatory term to call someone a reactionary conservative). Openly neo-fascist organizations are coming out of their caves. It is surreal and chilling. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil has never experienced this level of polarization. Say something pro-Workers&#8217; Party – and you will be attacked by its critics. Say the party is, in fact, corrupt – you will be immediately tagged as pro-elite. And if you try to say that one does not have to take sides, you&#8217;ll get jumped from all angles.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This sort of environment provides fertile ground for </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">anti-democratic ruptures</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. Consumed by hatred, masses are desperate for a leader. And Jair Bolsonaro presents himself as the person who will fill this void.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Oddly enough, a recent poll shows that Brazilians&#8217; appreciation for democracy is as high as it has ever been. For 69 percent of voters, it is the best system we have &#8211; the highest rate since Brazil became a real democracy, in 1985, when the question was first asked. Still, people are flocking around an openly anti-democratic candidate.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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