Make Brazil Great Again: Brazilians Newly Elected President Mirrors Right Wing Trends

On October 28, Brazilians elected Jair Messias Bolsonaro as its 38th president with 55.13 percent of the total vote. Bolsonaro, a candidate of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), is the first president elected not from the Workers Party (PT) in 13 years. 

The presidential election this year was marked by conflict and duality. The first round of polls in early October featured 13 candidates for presidency. However, the second and final round was to be decided by Bolsonaro and Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad. 

Bolsonaro is now considered to be the face of extreme-right politics in Brazil. Advocating for loosening gun control, using police force to combat violence, not recognizing rights of minorities and a certain nostalgia for the years of military dictatorship. He is known in international media as the “Brazilian Trump," due to his hateful rhetoric, favor towards Israel, and being accused of spreading fake news. 

A former military officer, Bolsonaro was previously a deputy for the state of Rio de Janeiro for the past 27 years. Throughout his years in politics, he made derogatory comments about women and gays. He is often associated with hate speech, but in his victory, he spoke of freedom and equality for all Brazilians, regardless of opinions, colors and orientations.

Illustration of Jair Messias Bolsonaro by Andrew Khanian

Illustration of Jair Messias Bolsonaro by Andrew Khanian

This technique of false promises and politically incorrect speeches for the attention has proved itself effective. Bolsonaro's campaign managed to mobilize an entire female movement against him with the hashtag “NotHim," in order to avoid more attention associated to his name.

As President of Brazil, Bolsanaro adds his name to a continuing trend of democratically elected far-right conservative officials. He is called by his supporters “The Myth” or “The Messiah” due to it literally being his middle name, a superb public relations move by his parents. Bolsonaro managed to win the presidency mostly by picking on wounds left on people by corruption scandals, constant violence and economic instability. Promising that "the truth will set free this great country and transform us into a great nation."

He is often defined as neo-fascist, racist and homophobic. His inclinations and ideas favoring a social “cleanse” of criminals are concerning indicators that the world’s 4th largest democracy may have fallen into the hands of an authoritarian dictator.

And yet, what could explain Mr. Bolsonaro’s victory?

Brazil’s election, a parallel to the U.S. election, caused a great divide between the left and the right, which has ended friendships and ruined family holidays. 

The previous government, the Workers Party, elected its founder Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in 2002, a polemic figure in politics. During his government, Brazil saw an extensive economic growth and Lula was credited to have decreased Brazil’s poverty, enlarged the middle class and leveraging a promising economy. For over a decade, Brazilians had never lived so well. 

However, Lula’s government took advantage of currency stability from the preceding administration of 34th President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, favorable international markets, interest in Brazil’s commodities and constant incentives for spending from Lula himself, resulting in accumulated national debt. Lula’s populist government strategies would prove to be disastrous in the long term. After two mandates, Lula supported Dilma Rousseff's election, which she won twice as Brazil’s first female president. Rousseff continued Lula’s politics and suffered the consequences of its unreliability; being impeached in 2016 amongst corruption scandals for omitting national deficit. Alongside extreme pressure from the opposition and the population who already lived in Brazil’s worst economic recession in its history.

Lula and his party were involved in a series of corruption scandals resulting in Lula finding himself in jail for bribery. He attempted to run for president in these past elections as his supporters still believed in his immaculate image as the ultimate savior of Brazil. However, based on the Ficha Limpa Law, which bans persons convicted of specific crimes from running a candidacy, Lula remained in jail and Fernando Haddad took his place. 

Throughout and post election, Brazil has found itself in a state of chaos. According to G1, the University of São Paulo and the Brazilian Forum of Public Security database, there were more than 26,000 violent, lethal and intentional homicides only in the first semester of 2018. However, due to lack of transparency from some states, that number may be higher. In 2016, there were 62,517 homicides in the country. More than 3 times higher than the USA, and with a population of about 116 million less. 

Brazilians face constant fear and lack of security. Degrading public health, education and living conditions have left the population in despair. The right to come and go as you please is guaranteed by the constitution and the state must grant it, but Brazilian’s do not feel safe in their own streets. Violence has become a close companion of Brazilians on the way to work and school. Even the homes with the highest walls, thickest metal bars and and most advanced security systems cannot protect a citizen’s life, private property and dignity.

Haddad, Lula’s replacement, ran his entire presidential campaign declaring support to a man who is in jail, charged for corruption, with propositions so absurd about increasing more government spending that just mentioning it increases Brazil’s $37.6 billion primary deficit. Raising the minimum wage above the inflation, limiting the prices of gas and raising vouchers for qualified families by 20 percent also does not fit the math. 

In the difficult economic crisis, both candidates made use of false promises to win votes. While Bolsonaro took advantage of Brazilian’s resentment towards the Workers Party, Haddad saw in Bolsonaro's aggressive speech a chance to actively advocate for social causes and protection of marginalized groups. Bolsonaro remains criticized for his issues with the media, constantly making use of his personal social media and avoiding live debates on the main Brazilian channels.

It is hard for the average citizen to comprehend that the true social changes needed for a better Brazil will take a very long time to become a reality. It’s understandable why they desire more immediate results. Having their human rights taken away, leads people to believe harsher actions must be implemented and vote for candidates like Bolsonaro.

It was obvious even before the elections started. Some of Bolsonaro’s supporters believe in his unrealistic arguments but others are simply looking for something different, because what they have is not good. Voting for Brazil to remain the same, especially after going through a time of complicated political instability with Rousseff’s impeachment seemed impossible. People are so desperate they are willing to take the risk and hope for the best.

In between the animosities of the polarized groups lies the reason why Mr. Bolsonaro should be given a chance. For someone who actively participated in the protests against corruption and the Workers Party, second round polls gave Brazilians only three options: Workers Party, Bolsonaro or blank, the last one having the highest numbers within decades. While far from declaring allegiance to the “resistance” being created on social media, or pessimistically assuming the downfall of a country, or defining neighbors as racist, fascist and violent, I believe it is crucially important to see the lessons in this chaotic political climate. 

Bolsonaro will effectively begin his mandate on January 1, 2019. For now, he has begun setting the tone for his government. He has contained himself with his hate speech and has made contradictory decisions, perhaps showing he is not totally authoritarian and can listen to public opinion. His fusion of ministries dealing with agriculture and the environment caused outrage on social media and he soon took a step back on this decision. He also appointed as Minister of Justice and Public Security, the popular judge Sérgio Moro, who condemned Workers Party members and Lula for corruption.

“Brazil will be looking for bilateral relationships with countries that may aggregate economical and technological value to Brazilian products” said Bolsonaro in his victory speech, “We will regain the international respect back to our beloved Brazil.”