Brazil: Surfing the Populist Wave
Brazil’s latest presidential campaign has been marked by extreme views, a divided and impoverished public and startling violence.
While Brazil is no stranger to any of these, the latest developments mark a turn in the country that is worth exploring. The campaign is essentially a two person race between Jair Bolsonaro (pictured above) of the inaccurately named Social Liberal Party (SLP), and Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (WP). Hddad, who is the replacement for former president Lula da Silva, a man who has been barred from running after receiving a prison sentence for corruption. Bolsonaro is a former army captain and congressman who has said
that he looks up to Trump and who looks up to Latin American dictators of the past. Haddad was the previous Sao Paulo mayor and leans left. The election date is October 28, after Bolsonaro led the first runoff on October 8 with 46% of the vote. Betting markets give Bolsonaro an 85% chance of winning the second round of voting.
Bolsonaro is the latest far-right populist figure following what is, at this point, a populist playbook designed to propel the adherent into office. His critics and supporters both compare him to Trump, an association strengthened by the fact that Bolsonaro’s campaign has the support of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former Chief Strategist, and though they are different, Trump and Bolsonaro use similar tactics. Bolsonaro has shown himself to be sexist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic; he told a fellow female congress member she didn’t deserve to be raped by him because she was “too ugly”, is vehemently anti-abortion, has called Brazil’s indigenous people “parasites”, has said he would rather see his son be dead instead of gay, and considers refugees the “scum of humanity.”
The other main comparison Bolsonaro draws is that of being reminiscent of Hitler. And indeed, statements that he’s made suggest that he places little value in democratic processes. He’s suggested a military coup if he loses, has sent death threats to congressmen, believes that Brazil’s previous dictatorship should “have killed more people,” and has said his opponents should be executed.
Why is such a figure gaining so much support? To understand Bolsonaro’s rise, we need to look at the political, economic and social atmosphere of Brazil.
From 1995 to 2010, Brazil seemed to prosper. Its democracy was stable and it was primarily led by centrist presidents who instituted reforms aimed to pull people out of poverty and increase standards of living. Then, in the midst of an economic recession in 2014, a far reaching corruption scandal was uncovered. Politicians had been engaging in illegal contracts with companies, receiving kickbacks, among other illegal activities. Evidence of these exploits only grew over time, miring more and more officials in controversy, until it was clear that they were common practice. The then president, Dilma Rousseff, was convicted on corruption charges and removed from office. The former president and Workers’ Party candidate Lula was sentenced to 12 years inprison.
The scandals became known as the “Lava Jato,” or car wash. The people’s trust in politicians had been shattered. In a recent poll 94% of Brazilians said that they didn’t feel represented by their elected officials. The elite are seen to care only about making money and staying in power, rather than helping to fix society's problems. Consequently, people do not believe that change is likely to occur under the status quo. All of these sentiments have helped to give rise to Bolsonaro, who has painted himself as the anti-establishment candidate. Many who support him don’t necessarily agree with his policies, but see him as the only candidate who isn’t corrupt or as the only avenue for change.
Another major factor in the Brazilian people’s lack of trust in politicians is the fact that Brazil is currently in its worst recession ever, with a negative growth rate of 4 percent. It has an unemployment rate of 12% and its extreme poverty rate is double that of 2010 levels. Half of Brazil’s 209 million people have no access to sanitation, and 35 millions don’t have clean water. It became increasingly clear from the downturn that Brazil’s public service system wasn’t able to withstand the pressure, with failures in education and healthcare being the main problems. Brazil’s economic woes primarily stem from falling commodity prices, made worse by the global financial collapse in 2008, but are compounded by major companies being swept up in the corruption scandals.
Although Bolsonaro’s economic stance is unclear (he wants to lower environmental regulations, do “more with current resources”, and has chosen a pro free-market advisor), he has still been able to capitalize on the emotions of those who are fed up with the establishment. He has done this by casting fear and anger onto minority groups to create an easily identified target and by painting himself as a representation of the new, conservative interests of the population.
As a consequence of its economic problems, crime is on the rise in Brazil. 2017 saw its highest murder count ever, at 64 000 killed. Popular sentiment calls for a more law-and-order approach to policing. According to a recent poll, 54% of Brazilians support right-wing viewpoints when it comes to crime. Bolsonaro’s platform leans hard into conservative justice ideology: he wants police to have more latitude to kill criminals on sight, supports the death penalty, and advocates laissez faire gun control so everyone can have weapons for “self defence”.
This climate of violence and fear, as well as the polarized positions of the candidates, and Bolsonaro’s radical nature, have led to a bloody presidential campaign. Bolsonaro himself was stabbed while on tour, and was hospitalized for some weeks. The event gave him an increase in support of about 4 percent, but also increased his vocal opposition. This was followed by a wave of attacks by his supporters against activists, journalists and the LGBTQ community. Bolsonaro initially refused to repudiate these attacks, claiming that they didn’t have direct relevance to him, though he later denounced them. Nevertheless, these events draw a stark contrast to the previously peaceful elections of Brazil’s last few decades.
Bolsonaro is a symptom of the social conditions and feelings of the Brazilian people, an epidemic which seems to be spreading across the world, from Trump in America to far-right populists in Europe to Narendra Modi, Shinzo Abe and Rodrigo Duterte in Asia. Bolsonaro has managed to use people’s anger towards their politicians, economic problems, crime, and turn it into support for his radical views. People might vote for Bolsonaro for a host of reasons, not necessarily because they like his fascist rhetoric. He’s seen as different from the ruling elite; as a champion of certain segments of society who feel left behind, who are often in poor economic conditions; and as a strong leader who will be tough on crime and ensure security.
They should be careful what they wish for.