The normalization of Bolsonaro’s candidacy is, in itself, a dangerous development for a country that until recently seemed to be on a path of consolidating its still young democracy. The victory of such a candidate would represent a tragic reversal of this path.
By Rafael Ioris
This Sunday, October 28th is likely to be Brazil’s most consequential election ever. Should the front-runner, expelled army captain Jair Bolsonaro, running on a right-wing agenda of militarism and anti-political correctness, win, he is likely not only to revert social programs put in place in the last 20 years, but also to actively seek to destroy the country’s painfully achieved progressive constitutional norms put in place exactly 30 years ago.
Despite having served in Congress in Brasilia for 26 years, Bolsonaro has a poor record of achievements; having always been seen more as a histrionic fringe political figure than a serious contender for the country’s highest political office. This prospects began changing in the last 6 months, as his increasingly aggressive anti-establishment rhetoric found news ways (mostly through Whatsapp) to reach conservative, mostly evangelical voters in the poor periphery of Brazil’s largest cities, as well as ever more openly right-wing sectors of the country’s upper and middle classes.
It is not entirely surprising that privileged social segments would embark on an anti-corruption crusade like the one promoted in Brazil over the past few years since these type of charges, usually displayed against center-left populist administrations, have been a hallmark of that nations’ modern political history since at least the mid-20th century. It is somewhat more puzzling to account for the levels of popularity achieved by Bolsonaro among the urban poor, especially considering that most of them are Afro-descendants, and the candidate has repeatedly attacked minority groups, such as Afro-Brazilians, women, LGBT’s, and indigenous communities.
Understanding the likelihood of Bolsonaro’s victory requires us to consider the economic crisis that has plagued the country for the last 4 years and the marked rise in urban violence. These factors, associated with the easy-fix narrative promoted in his campaign, namely the promise to simplify access to guns and authorize police to operate more violently against organized crime, may perhaps provide at least a partial answer to the appeal of this mediocre politician running on a narrow platform and supported by a small, until recently largely irrelevant political party.
In effect, what would normally have been expected to be structural hindrances for any candidate running in a large and complex country like Brazil, in many ways played to Bolsonaro’s favor as it made more vivid his anti-systemic claims of being an outsider despite being a long-time politician. Similarly, his blunt and aggressive style has been seen as an asset of someone who speaks his mind, not entirely dissimilar to one trait valued in Trump by many of his supporters in the 2016 campaign.
All in all, these factors, associated with his name recognition and free time provided while covering his many controversial statements (again, much in the way of things that played in favor of Trump in 2016) have brought Brazil to the situation of likely electing a candidate that openly advocates use of torture as a means to combat urban crime, rejects almost all welfare policies existing in one of the world’s most unequal societies, and praises the brutal dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985.
The normalization of this type of candidate is, in itself, a dangerous development for a country that until recently seemed to be on a path of consolidating its still young democracy. The victory of such a candidate would represent a tragic reversal of this path.
It is true that Brazil’s democracy has been under attack for some time already. This started to become clear in October 2014, when the defeated opponent refused to accept the results of the presidential election and, in early 2015, starting rallying against the reelected but embattled president Dilma Rousseff. The opposition movement gained momentum with widespread support of media conglomerates, especially mega TV channels like Globo; and then, in August 2016 Dilma was impeached on deeply questionable charges of illegal accounting practices regularly done by all elected members of all executive offices in the country. Combined, these events provided the basis for a dangerous anti-systemic logic to take hold of the country. According to this way of operating politically more and more people came to see popular rallies as a more legitimate form of political expression than electoral results or even constitutional constraints.
This has become crystal clear this past week when Bolsonaro’s son, Carlos, a recently elected senator in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the political base of the family, was seen on video undermining the legitimacy and role of the Federal Supreme Court, stating that if the court is to become a hindrance to his father’s eventual rule, it should be closed. “All it would take,” he said, “is one soldier and a corporal to go over there and shut them down.” Shortly afterwords, Jair Bolsonaro declared that, if he is elected, leftists will be arrested or banned from the country.
It is clear that Brazil may no longer to continue as a democratic nation. Should Bolsonaro’s victory be confirmed at the polls on Sunday, democratic erosion in the so-called country of the future is likely to be accelerated, with tragic results to be expected, especially for traditionally marginalized, poor and politically weak Brazilians of many shades and colors.
Rafael R. Ioris is Professor of Latin American History and Politics at the University of Denver.