What is Behind Jair Bolsonaro’s Rise in Brazil?

Almost the entire world has heard about Jair Bolsonaro by this moment, the most likely next president of the Latin American largest country. He is a former reserve-army who has been described by many as intolerant, anti-democratic, sexist, racist, and the list goes on. On October the 7th, Brazilians elected a new composition for Senate, Chamber of Deputies and federal state legislatures. They also voted for president and governors in a first round. The run-off will take place next Sunday, the 28th, between far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), who got 46.1% of the votes, and left-wing Fernando Haddad (PT), who obtained 29.2%.

The legislative renewal rate (52%) was higher than expected, is one of the most important of the last decades. However, change has clearly benefited conservative forces over left-wing, and even more dramatically over centrist parties. Established parties PSDB and MDB are the ones which lost most seats from the previous election. Just Bolsonaro’s party, for instance, went from one to 52 elected representatives (the lower chamber has 513 seats in total), thanks to his personal popularity. Many of those newly elected representatives describe themselves as pro-life, pro-god and pro-gun, and they are likely to add forces to the “beef, bible, and bullet” parliamentary group. Among their main campaign flags is the moralization of politics and society, through the fight against political corruption and crime. In this election, a significant number of candidates linked to police forces or the army have been chosen, as well as religious leaders. Pro-agribusiness groups, in favor of economic exploitation of the Amazon forest, are also stronger in the Chamber. This suggests that conservative agendas like the flexibility of gun regulation, reduction of legal minority age, and more repressive powers to the police will be highly salient for the next years.

Being the front-runner all over the campaign period, it was already expected that Bolsonaro would get the biggest share of the votes. However, such a large result already in the first round – usually the stage in which voters decide more sincerely than strategically – was indeed a surprise. First, he relied on extremely limited traditional campaign resources, and initially party-base support. His political backing expanded as he climbed on the polls and consolidated a winning position. Secondly, he is a controversial and radical figure, who is openly nostalgic of the Brazilian dictatorship, made apologetic references to torture in the past, has a record of insults towards women and minorities, and holds a non-democratic rhetoric[1]. His concrete plans to solve Brazil’s economic, security, and corruption issues are unclear. Nonetheless, according to the latest Datafolha opinion polls, he is 18 percentage points ahead of Fernando Haddad (59% vs. 41%), and thus, very close to undertaking the highest elected office in Brazil.

So, what explains such substantial support for a far-right candidate, whose program is vague and whose positions are seen as a threat to democracy? I believe three dimensions should help understand Bolsonaro’s rise. The first is the voter’s demand dimension, in which anti-system (particularly anti-Workers’ Party) sentiment and conservative attitudes become widespread and intense. The second is Bolsonaro’s own strategy and campaign style. He is a populist candidate who speaks directly to the “ordinary man”, using language that goes against “political correctness”, and has somehow been able to dissociate himself from the establishment (even though he has been deputy for almost 30 years). He started his campaign on social media, spreading his ideas even in the smallest cities in the countryside, long before the other candidates, who were struggling for alliances during the pre-electoral period. The third refers to the choices made by other supply-side actors, who haven’t been able to gather support behind one single centrist candidate, neither to build a democratic front to stop Bolsonaro in the second round.

Anti-system conservatism

It seems that the top reason for voters to choose Bolsonaro is their severe dissatisfaction with the establishment and the political class. This anti-system sentiment is precisely translated into anti-Workers’ Party attitude (antipetismo, in Portuguese). Antipetismo has progressively increased over the PT governments, fostered by corruption scandals, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and economic decline. However, this is not the only driver of voters’ behavior. Bolsonaro’s anti-crime, pro-traditional family and conservative agenda are largely responsible as well. People are deeply worried about violence, they feel society has lost its sense of order, and they oppose what they see as too much rights granted to minorities, by left-wing governments. During the legislative voting regarding Rousseff’s impeachment, which was transmitted on national television, numerous deputies emphasized religious and moral reasons for their pro-impeachment decision. This general behavior helped to legitimate the deep connection between moral values and politics in Brazil, opening the way for figures who preach for social conservatism, like Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro and his party-base candidates also hold an angry anti-left discourse. According to them, communist ideology has been embedded everywhere, from schools to the mainstream media. PSL elected representatives have in common authoritarian and conservative orientations. Additionally, the support provided by evangelical Christians has played a crucial role in Bolsonaro’s victory. Many religious leaders explicitly backed him inside evangelic churches. Evangelicals are much more likely to vote for Bolsonaro than other religions. A poll conducted by Ibope shows that Bolsonaro holds 66% intended votes among evangelicals, and 48% among Catholics (Haddad is preferred by 24% and 42% of each religious group, respectively). Therefore, although anti-system sentiment and the desire to drastically change the political class in charge are important components behind Bolsonaro’s rise, the mainstream of conservative values should not be underestimated. Of course, many voters do not endorse everything Bolsonaro says, usually affirming that he doesn’t actually mean it. Yet, they are at least generally resistant to inclusive, redistributionist and pro-diversity measures taken by left-wing governments over the last years.

Populist style and social media campaign

Bolsonaro speaks directly to the “ordinary man”, he uses colloquial and accessible language and is not controlled by “political correctness”. People see him as an authentic leader, who transgresses conventional standards, and says what he thinks. His party is merely an accessory for his nomination, it doesn’t represent any articulated project to which he is committed to. Given that he had very limited time for campaign advertisement on TV and radio, Bolsonaro established a direct link with his followers using the Internet and social media. His “virtual army” is very engaged in delegitimizing information provided by standard media, and in spreading anti-PT messages, several of them being proven false afterward.

During the second round, he enjoys equal campaign time on traditional media, which he constantly uses to criticize the PT, and to reinforce his image as the only candidate able to “change everything that is in place”. He has decided not to show up for television debates against his rival, Haddad, and he is usually ambiguous concerning concrete measures that his government would take. Due to this lack of clarity, some members of his entourage have expressed positions that turned out to be polemic says, such as opposition to some workers’ rights. Recently, one of Bolsonaro’s sons, who is an elected deputy, has threatened the Supreme Federal Court if judges were to investigate anything in his father’s campaign. The use of social media in the latest Brazilian campaign has been a decisive tool for voter’s decision, and for the first time, it will have played a major role in an electoral outcome. But it still remains to be understood how exactly social media has made people’s mind. Overall, such channels have allowed widespread diffusion of “fake news”, and almost no regulation by electoral justice authorities has been implemented. Last Thursday, the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) opened an inquiry to investigate alleged illegal campaigning practices involving companies backing Bolsonaro, accused of massive diffusion of fake news through WhatsApp for money.

Elite miscoordination

Demand-side factors and a populist style certainly benefited Bolsonaro, but he didn’t emerge in a political vacuum. Established political parties have made risky strategic choices, both while launching their nominees, and following the results of the first round. The PT, for example, insisted in two dangerous decisions: to nominate a candidate of its own, even being something extremely costly (instead of eventually nominating a vice-president runner in coordination with other left-wing parties), and to delay the announcement of Haddad as Lula’s successor. In the end, Haddad didn’t have enough time to construct his candidacy and make himself well known to the public. Instead, he quickly inherited PT’s rejection.

Center-right PSDB has also had its reputation harmed by corruption scandals, and by internal disagreements, some of them grounded on diverging positions regarding Temer’s government (which replaced Rousseff following her impeachment in 2016). The party decided to launch an unattractive candidate who had already lost a previous presidential election, in 2006 and had no charisma at all. Furthermore, PSDB’s alliance was not sufficiently broad ideologically. It was more of a physiological gathering to obtain sizable TV time than a consistent compromise around a project. Over the electoral process, PSDB didn’t manage to increase its appeal with political propaganda. Many of its original partners abandoned the ship and sought refuge around leading candidate Bolsonaro. The PSDB candidate for the government of Sao Paulo denied to campaign for his own party presidential nominee, Geraldo Alckmin, and instead, preferred to show public support for Bolsonaro. Such events pushed a considerable amount of right-wing voters to strategically opt for Bolsonaro already in the first round, in order to defeat the PT. After the first round, a tentative “democratic front” has failed to be created, although most former candidates and political leaders have discouraged vote for Bolsonaro. However, taken as radicalized, polarizing, and unwilling to provide the expected mea culpa for its let-downs in office, the PT was unsuccessful to gather official broad support against his rival.

For the moment, electoral preferences don’t seem to move much. Bolsonaro’s rejection decreased, while Haddad’s in progress. Contrary to former competitions, there won’t be televised debates between the runners, and the official political propaganda doesn’t seem to have any significant impact on voters. This is an empty competition concerning projects, solutions, and concrete measures to solve the country’s urgent problems. While the initial electoral scenario was one of high uncertainty, the campaign period didn’t clarify much. Instead, it fostered passionate divides in Brazilian society, which seems more polarized than ever.

While Bolsonaro is virtually elected and will become the next president, the country’s course is still unknown. Respected analysts argue that Brazilian democracy is under serious jeopardy, not precisely threatened by another military coup d’état, but by progressive erosion of its (still very young) institutions. This time, a major part of the public is applauding it, deceivably confident that they can control powerful and authoritarian leaders through social media.

[1] Some examples are his recent contestation of electronic ballots and claims that he would not accept any different result than his own victory. He has also said in the past that he was in favor of torture and Congress closure for the sake of reestablishment of the order.

Image Copyright © Agência Estado

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