Who is Jair Bolsonaro?

‘Trump’ of the Tropics

Updated - November 04, 2018 01:13 pm IST

Published - November 03, 2018 08:25 pm IST

Brazil's right-wing presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro votes during runoff elections, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 28, 2018. (Photo by RICARDO MORAES / POOL / AFP)

Brazil's right-wing presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro votes during runoff elections, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 28, 2018. (Photo by RICARDO MORAES / POOL / AFP)

“Let’s shoot all the Workers Party members here in Acre (a Brazilian State),” said Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate of the Social Liberal Party, at a campaign event on September 1. In a modern democracy, a leading electoral candidate calling for shooting down his or her political opponents should have created a political storm. But in Brazil, Mr. Bolsonaro, the 63-year-old far-right leader, is known for controversial remarks against his opponents, women, blacks and LGBTQ communities.

What is his politics?

Mr. Bolsonaro built his campaign on such controversial, fiery rhetoric, often attacking the establishment. In the October 7 Presidential election, he emerged the most popular candidate with 46% of the vote. He defeated the Workers Party’s Fernando Haddad in the run-off on October 28 with 55% of the popular vote, breaking 15 years of Brazil’s political tradition of electing leftists as Presidents.

The former Army paratrooper began his political career in 1988 when he ran for the Rio de Janeiro City Council on the Christian Democratic Party ticket. In 1990, he got elected to the federal Congress as a candidate of the same party. Ever since he remained a member of the National Congress till his election as President, though he changed his party several times. Throughout his tenure as a Congressman, Mr. Bolsonaro remained an outspoken defender of ultra-conservativism. He opposed abortion, homosexuality and affirmative action. He had also voiced support for the brutal military dictatorship of Brazil’s past. “The situation of the country would have been better today had the dictatorship killed more people,” he said in 1992. In 1998, he wrote in Veja magazine that Augusto Pinochet, the former military dictator of Chile, “should have killed more people.” During the campaign, he consistently attacked secularism and the country’s non-Christian minorities. “God above everything. There is no such thing as this secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change, if they can,” he said last year.

Did outsider tag help?

Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise coincided with Brazil’s economic and political crises that resulted in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. The economy fell into a recession in 2014 and continued to contract in 2015 and 2016. If unemployment was 6.8% before the recession, it almost doubled in two years. The period also saw the eruption of corruption scandals that have felled several politicians, including Workers Party leaders. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former President and arguably the most popular leftist leader, is serving 12 years in jail after conviction in a corruption case. After the economic and political crises and the scandals, there was resentment among the public of the political establishment. It’s this resentment Mr. Bolsonaro turned to his favour. He declared his candidacy in 2016 from the Social Christian Party, but in two years he joined the Social Liberal Party (SPL), which became his vehicle to the presidential palace. During the campaign, he attacked the country’s political elites and presented himself as an outsider, a tactic that resembled the campaign style of Donald Trump, which gave him the nickname, ‘Trump of the Tropics.’ When Mr. Lula withdrew from the race after his conviction, the path was cleared for Mr. Bolsonaro. Mr. Haddad never posed a serious challenge to him.

What does it mean for Brazil?

After the victory, Mr. Bolsonaro has denied allegations that he’s a “fascist” and painted himself as a “Churchillian patriot,” who could take the country out of the political and economic impasse. But it may not be easy. His biggest challenge would be to stabilise the economy, which is yet to recover from the after-effects of the country’s worst recession. Unemployment remains high at 12%. So is the crime rate. Mr. Bolsonaro will also face strong opposition from the Left, which remains a potent force. He successfully capitalised on the popular discontent with the government. But now, he’s the government.

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