A New Era of Brazilian Politics: The Election of Jair Bolsonaro

by Daniel Blazekovic

Fernando Haddad hopelessly watched as 57 million Brazilians marked their support for Jair Bolsonaro, who will lead the world’s fourth largest democracy for the next four years. On October 28, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro – a right-wing populist – was elected President of Brazil after receiving 55.1% of the popular vote.

It is safe to assume that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also watching closely – in the coming months, his government will have to formulate an official position on the Bolsonaro government. Although it is suspected that Trudeau will be critical of the new Brazilian President, it remains to be seen if Trudeau will step before a lectern and present a scathing review of Bolsonaro for the whole world to see.  Reluctance to do so may be influenced by the fact that, for Canadian business, a “Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.”

The election of Boslonaro represents a turning point in the political history of Brazil. It was only fifteen years ago that 61% of Brazilian voters bought into Lula da Silva’s socialist vision for Brazil. Born into extreme poverty, Lula captivated the minds of 52 million Brazilians in 2002 by campaigning on a promise to foster social mobility in a country where the President’s office served the interests of the rich for Lula’s entire life. Now, it seems that a majority of Brazilians are prepared to embark on a new journey with a new captain who promises to “change the destiny of Brazil”. While Lula orchestrated strikes against Brazil’s military government as a trade union leader early in his career, Bolsonaro served seventeen years in the Brazilian military and continues to voice his support for Brazil’s military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985.

While Bolsonaro will not assume office until January 1, 2019, Brazilians and observers from around the world know what to expect from the 63 year old retired military captain who often says “A good criminal is a dead criminal.”  

Bolsonaro, who received congratulations from the likes of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen, has made enough repulsive comments during his political career to warrant the creation of montages which now populate the internet. These short-films document Bolsonaro saying that Afro-Brazilians are “lazy and fat” and that global warming is a “greenhouse fable”. Not to mention, Bolsonaro’s deeply offensive rhetoric has targeted women and the LBGTQ community – Bolsonaro once called himself a proud homophobe”. 

How then did a controversial and long-time backbencher without any major legislative achievements in the Brazilian National Congress capture the most prestigious political position in Latin America’s largest country?

For some, the election of Bolsonaro represents growing disenchantment with theWorkers Party (PT), who led Brazil for more than thirteen years. Despite helping to raise millions of Brazilians out of poverty, millions of Brazilians aren’t willing to forgive the political party that became regularly marred by corruption and scandal.  Most notably, several PT politicians, including former President Lula Da Silva, were implicated in a highly publicized, anti-graft probe known as “Operation Car Wash” in 2014.

For others who are frustrated with international headlines documenting the severity of violence in Brazil, Bolsonaro is the only candidate who can wield an iron fist and address Brazil’s increase in violence in recent years – 2017 witnessed nearly 65,000 homicides in Brazil. Bolsonaro promised Brazilians on the eve of his election that he would lead a government that protected citizens who “follow their duties and respect the laws.” 

While some Brazilians took to the streets to celebrate the victory of Bolsonaro, others expressed fear and worry for the future of Brazil. Clóvis Saint-Clair, a journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, is concerned that “if he [Bolsonaro] follows through on all the promises he has made, the next four years will be very difficult for the majority of the population.”

For the LGBTQ community in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s victory gravely threatens their already limited sense of security in a country where homophobia and transphobia are common. According to Brazilian rights group Grupo Gay da Bahia there were 445 reported killings of LGBTQ people in 2017 – a 30 percent increase compared to the previous year. Brazilian activists say that “while violence and discrimination against the LGBT community have long existed, Bolsonaro’s brazen bigotry has helped launch a new era of brutality and threats.”

Regardless of the motivations for Bolsonaro’s election, it is clear that Brazil will undergo a colossal political transformation. While International leaders will be strategically drafting their initial thoughts on Bolsonaro, human rights organizations in Brazil and around the world have already published their evaluations of Bolsonaro. On the same day of Bolsonaro’s election, Human Rights Watch said that “Brazil’s judiciary and other key institutions should resist any attempt to undermine human rights, the rule of law, and democracy under Jair Bolsonaro’s government.” For these reasons, it is suspected that domestic and international commentators will closely document the Presidency of Jair Bolsonaro for the next four years.

Daniel Blazekovic is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto School of Public Policy and Governance. Daniel completed his Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management with a specialization in Development Studies at Carleton University. He is particularly interested in Latin American politics, conflict studies and populism.