Strongman: Jair Bolsonaro and the unexpected rise of the far right in Brazil

It remains to be seen if Fernando Haddad can rally the country to prevent a Bolsonaro presidency.

Image Credit: Montagem/EXAME

While most of us are getting used to unusual elections throughout the world, what’s been going on in Brazil, the world’’s fifth largest country by population, is still worrying. On Sunday, October 7th, 146,000,000 Brazilians voted in the first round of their presidential election and the result was a strong, but ultimately indecisive, victory in what will be the first round of voting for Jair Bolsonaro, a long serving Federal Deputy representing the state of Rio de Janeiro. who was just 4 percent short of the 50 percent of the vote needed for a first round win.

Bolsonaro was an Army captain during the dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985, a period the 63 year old is often publically nostalgic for. A polarizing figure, the presidential aspirant has a 27 year history of publicly expressing racist, sexist and anti-LGBTQ views.

And it wasn’t just at the national level that far right politics gained ground, in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, candidates representing Bolsonaro’s somewhat comically named Social Liberal Party (PSL) secured governorships.

Two of Bolsonaro’s own sons also ran and won elections under the PSL banner, one in the Congress and one in the country’s Senate.

In an event that may have increased his share of the vote, while campaigning in early September, Bolsonaro was stabbed by a 40 year old man, suffering serious injuries and reportedly losing 40% of the blood in his body. The assailant was initially presented as a leftist, another group that this dangerous man has used his bully pulpit to threaten during the campaign.

Despite the fact that the attacker’s family claims he seemed to be suffering from mental health issues, and spent most of his days, “reading the bible”, many in the international press assumed it was his presumed ideology that led to his terrible actions and roundly condemned the ‘left’ for being inherently violent, a dangerous old saw being revived in far too many places.

Bolsonaro, who has appeared to be well on his way to a full recovery in recent public appearances, did not appear at a pre-election debate where he would have faced not only his main rival, Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party (PT), the hand-picked successor of former president ‘Lula’ da Silva, jailed on dubious corruption charges, but also candidates from a number of other parties. Instead, on the same night, the rhetorical bomb thrower received a friendly interview on a network owned by a right wing, evangelical supporter.

Many saw missing the debate as an act of political cowardice; as the front runner, Bolsonaro was sure to come under fire for his extremist views and could very easily have slipped up and said something stupid or offensive as he has so many times in the past. Using the excuse of his injuries a second time on Wednesday, his medical team announced the candidate wouldn’t participate in an upcoming televised debate with his second round opponent.

Interestingly, it appears, just as it has in many of the places that such right wing candidates have risen, that most of the business community fell behind Bolsonaro rather than his main rival Haddad, a former mayor of Sao Paulo generally seen as the most “moderate” choice available from the PT, a social democratic party too often portrayed as ‘far left’ in Western news reports.

Bolsonaro’s support from big business interests may have to do with the University of Chicago educated Paulo Guedes, the presidential hopeful’s main finance advisor, who has been promoted as a kind of ‘super minister’ for the economy in a future Bolsonaro administration.

As Carla Pacini, U.S. based FCStone’s head of Brazilian stock trading explained to Reuters,“Paulo Guedes indeed gives Bolsonaro’s candidacy a lot of credibility. Together with the fear of the rise of the left, the two things mitigate in Bolsonaro’s favor.”

Like many candidates of his ilk, but perhaps most like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro speaks in violent language when describing how he will tackle the country’s almost epidemic levels of crime, a message that has obviously resonated with many Brazilians.

Polling and news reports also show a public clearly fed up with corruption scandals which, while they have implicated lower level figures in the PT, have revealed large scale graft centered around the current president, Michael Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Party (MDB) and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), long the main powers in the country’s politics. Both parties were punished by voters, with the PSDB’s candidate receiving just 4.8 percent and the MDB just 1.2 percent of the presidential vote.

A similar decimation of both parties occurred in both houses of the country’s Congress.

Despite having no mandate, it appears that, true to form, Temer and his compatriots will use the lame duck session before a new president comes into office (and many of them are replaced) to ram through yet more gifts for themselves and their wealthy friends.

This will follow up on a 20 year spending freeze pushed through by Termer and his compatriots in 2016 while the country was already suffering through a deep recession, increasing the pain of ordinary Brazilians and quite possibly reversing many of the social gains made by the country’s poor during the Lula years.

As reported by Amanda Audi in The Intercept, “Temer’s agenda for the lame-duck session includes a bid to privatize some of the country’s power authorities, overhaul social security, loosen up restrictions on pesticides, allow Congress to decertify Indigenous lands, as well as revising a handful of other regulations and shifting the allotment of federal powers that the administration has stalled on in the past.”

In the larger South American picture, it’s somewhat incredible how the early 2000’s ‘pink tide’ of moderate leftism on the continent has been reversed in so short a time. This has been done using a variety of tactics, most notably the judicial coup in Brazil that removed Dilma Rousseff of the PT from power in 2016 for what amounted to an accounting trick. This will be scary for American readers who are seeing more right wing activist judges at all levels, up to the highest court in the land.

The second round of Brazil’s presidential election will be held on October 28. It remains to be seen if Fernando Haddad can rally the country to prevent a Bolsonaro presidency.


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