Hotspot – Brazil

Hotspot – Brazil
26 Nov
2018
How did Bolsonaro do it? Klaus Dodds charts the Brazilian leader’s rise to power

In October this year, Brazilians elected a new president, following a second round run-off involving two candidates: a former army captain from the ultra-conservative Social and Liberal Party and Fernando Haddad, a union activist representing the leftist Workers Party. In the end, the right wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, won by 55 per cent of the vote. The 39th president of Brazil will be one of the most controversial figures in the history of the country, largely owing to his inflammatory rhetoric against sexual and racial minorities, communism and women. 

None of this has dented investor confidence. It was reported that Brazilian shares and stocks had hit a record high. Bolsonaro is the kind of man that the president of the United States would approve of. Dubbed the ‘Trump of the tropics’, presidential candidate Bolsonaro promised to impose the dictum declared by his nation’s flag ever since November 1889. In that year the presidential system of Brazil was adopted along with the new flag, which depicts the night sky over then capital Rio de Janeiro. Embossed across the sky and the white stars is the motto ‘Order and Progress’. For many Brazilians, there has not been sufficient evidence of these two principles in recent years. The new president promises to bring both. In his victory speech, broadcast via social media, he promised that Brazil’s destiny would be altered for the better.

Amazingly, he might never have been elected president had he not survived a knife attack in September, from which he first recovered and then prospered. He was helped by the fact that a bitter rival, and former Workers Party president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was prevented from running because of a conviction for corruption. In general, the Workers Party’s credibility was diminished by one of the largest corruption crises ever to hit Brazil. A federal police operation, code named Car Wash, revealed a huge bribery enterprise engulfing senior political and commercial figures, including three former presidents. Many voters in the 2018 presidential campaign were, almost certainly, affected by the ‘stench of scandal’.

From his hospital bed, a recovering Bolsonaro was able to press on with his attack against corrupt, establishment politicians. Declaring his loyalty to Brazil and his devotion to God, he promised, like a Brazilian Hercules, to clean the presidential stables. The vision on offer was, and is, one of social and political order and is profoundly conservative. His clarion call to voters revolves around nostalgia; a longing for a return to the days when Brazil was ruled by the generals of the 1960s and 1970s. He is supportive of state-sanctioned repression and torture and desires an anti-communist Brazil, intolerant towards minorities including gay people and non-Christians.

Despite condemnation from some quarters, related to his misogyny and racism, Bolsonaro’s popularity soared in September and October. A skillful campaign, involving extensive use of social media, is thought to have been pivotal in maintaining momentum, though the reliance on the internet is perhaps unsurprising given that he was in hospital for three weeks. 

Controversy abounded, and both sides accused each other of using hateful social media messaging via applications such as WhatsApp. It is also alleged that Bolsonaro supporters from the business community violated election campaign laws when making donations. The 2018 presidential campaign was certainly divisive, though in Brazil, that isn’t unusual. 

Bolsonaro is unashamedly populist and chauvinistic. His conservative vision of order and progress carries with it geopolitical implications. Although he has pledged to be respectful of the Brazilian constitution, the president-elect has a decisive mandate. A nostalgia for the national security doctrine of the Cold War years carries a troubling legacy. In particular, the question of indigenous rights is not likely to be a priority for a new president openly hostile to climate change and environmental conservation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brazilian hinterland was viewed as a hotbed for communist revolutionaries. The inauguration of Brasília as the new national capital in 1960 was in direct response to these fears and reflected a desire to see Brazil’s heartland better developed and protected from communists. At this time, indigenous peoples were often thought of as obstacles to ‘order and progress’, largely due to their alliances with left-wing activists and environmental campaigners. Bolsonaro, who served in the Brazilian army in the late 1970s, has never been an advocate of indigenous land rights. This is not going to help a situation where in 2017 alone, more than 100 indigenous people were murdered.

Pro-business and pro-American, Bolsonaro has spoken repeatedly of the need to prioritise the national economy. Progress over Amazonian deforestation and commitment to the Paris Agreement must be in doubt. Agri-business and mining in the Amazon are likely to intensify and the production of sustainable biofuels might stall. Fifty-seven million Brazilian citizens voted for disruptive change. As the world’s sixth largest country, with a population of over 200 million, the execution of this change matters.

This was published in the December 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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