Bolsonaro, a federal congressman for Rio de Janeiro who formerly served as an Army officer, has praised the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and has expressed a fondness for authoritarians past and present. He defeated former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad of the left-wing Workers’ Party to win the runoff phase of the election.
Bolsonaro and Haddad faced off as the top two vote-getters in the first round of voting on Oct. 7, in which Bolsonaro fell just short of winning a majority.
His victory will put Brazil, the fourth-largest democracy in the world and the largest in Latin America, in the hands of a far-right figure who has expressed little appreciation for democratic governance and has consistently aimed violent rhetoric at black Brazilians, LGBTQ people, women and indigenous people.
Bolsonaro was stabbed during a campaign event in September and spent much of the election’s final two months campaigning from a hospital bed.
He will now take the reins of a beleaguered and discontented country. Over the last four years, Brazil has experienced a deep economic recession that it has struggled to escape, a sharp uptick in violent crime that has resulted in 60,000 homicides annually, and a widespread political corruption probe that has implicated hundreds of politicians from across the political spectrum.
Since its last presidential election in 2014, one president, Dilma Rousseff, has been impeached; another former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has been imprisoned on corruption charges; and its current president, Michel Temer, has been linked to a political bribery scheme.
The resulting discontent with Brazil’s establishment parties, and especially the left-wing Workers’ Party, eroded faith among the electorate and paved the way for a candidate like Bolsonaro, who pitched himself as a savior who alone could “save” Brazil.
But rather than solve Brazil’s woes, a Bolsonaro who follows through on his harshest proposals and rhetoric would likely rule as a neo-fascist, having promised last week to “cleanse” Brazil of his opponents on the left. He could soon offer a harsh lesson in how elite failure and political discontent can cause a modern democracy to collapse.
“He’s not kind of a dictator, he is a dictator,” Monica de Bolle, the director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University, told HuffPost last month.
Bolsonaro’s rise to power was inspired by and modeled off of the ascent of similar leaders in Europe and the United States. He has even earned ― and embraced ― the nickname “Brazil’s Donald Trump.” Bolsonaro used social media to make an end-run around Brazil’s traditional media sources, which he decried as “fake news” even as his campaign and supporters used WhatsApp and Facebook to spread baseless rumors and reports about his opponents.
Bolsonaro ran a nationalistic, identity-based campaign that promoted and thrived off of racial and social backlash, particularly against the Workers’ Party and Brazil’s most marginalized populations. He has promised to stop “coddling” groups like LGBTQ and black Brazilians and to rid Brazil of “foreign ideologies” ― by which he means leftism of any variety.
Bolsonaro also benefited from his position as the strongest candidate for Brazilians looking for an alternative to the Workers’ Party, which held the presidency from 2003 to 2016 under da Silva and Rousseff. The PT, as the party is known, oversaw both Brazil’s economic explosion during da Silva’s tenure and the bust that occurred under Rousseff. The country’s economic woes and the party’s links to corruption ― including da Silva’s 2017 conviction on bribery charges ― eroded faith in the party’s ability to govern and inspired fierce opposition to the potential return of PT governance among many Brazilians. Still, da Silva led pre-election polling for most of the last year before he was banned from running because of the corruption charge. Haddad replaced him atop the Workers’ Party ticket.
The nation’s center-right parties, meanwhile, were crushed by their own corruption issues and involvement with Temer’s unpopular governing coalition. Temer and the center-right even attempted to embrace some of Bolsonaro’s hard-line policies on violence, but that they were nonfactors in the election.
Bolsonaro earned support from across Brazil’s political and social spectrum among Brazilians tired of corruption and fearful of violence. But his strongest support came from a growing conservative evangelical movement that shares his views on social issues, and from financial and business elites. The latter were swayed by their opposition to the Workers’ Party’s economic policies, and by Bolsonaro’s purported support for their preferred market-friendly approach to the economy.
Those elites, however, will not likely face the harshest and most predictable outcome of his victory on Sunday: more violence in politics and beyond. Bolsonaro has promised to further militarize public security and hand Brazil’s police ― already among the world’s deadliest ― “carte blanche” to kill alleged criminals on sight. That could exacerbate a drug war in which the overwhelming majority of victims of homicides and police killings are young black men. Some Brazilian activists have already deemed the violence a “black genocide.” His rhetoric against women and LGBTQ people and threats to roll back protections for them could also only worsen the plight of those groups in a country that already experiences high levels of femicide and anti-gay violence.
Bolsonaro has called Brazil’s era of military dictatorship a “glorious period” for the country, and his running mate, a retired Army general, has refused to rule out the potential return of military rule. Bolsonaro also has a long history of advocating for violence against his political opponents. In the days before the election, he said the country would experience a “cleansing never before seen in Brazil” ― those on the left, he said, “can either get out or go to jail.” In the same speech, he threatened to imprison Haddad, shut down human rights organizations, arrest leaders of other prominent leftist movements, and pull funding from Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest newspapers.
Despite the comparisons to Trump, Bolsonaro more closely resembles Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines whose deadly expansion of the country’s drug war has led to an estimated 20,000 extrajudicial killings at the hands of law enforcement.
But despite widespread protests against him in recent weeks, Bolsonaro could enjoy support for his policies at home. Brazil exhibits higher tolerance for the concept of authoritarianism and more support for police and state violence than many of its democratic peers. Swaths of voters remained unconvinced or unmoved by Bolsonaro’s violent and anti-democratic rhetoric. Bolsonaro’s small, right-wing Social Liberal Party, meanwhile, won 51 seats in the national congress during the first-round elections in early October, more than it ever had before. And his allies were projected to win key governorships and state-level elections Sunday.
The implications of Bolsonaro’s victory will stretch well beyond Brazil’s borders. His proposals to shutter environmental agencies and open the Amazon rainforest to mining and agricultural interests could have devastating effects on the global fight against climate change. And because of the country’s size and influence in the world, the rise of a right-wing authoritarian there could be a clear sign that liberal democracy is facing a full-scale global crisis.
“I tend not to buy into this idea that we’ve entered into a global democratic recession,” Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky said of Bolsonaro’s potential election earlier this year. “But if [Brazil] suffers a democratic erosion, I would change my tune a lot.”