Much like the American 2016 edition, this year’s Brazilian presidential election is something to watch. With a plurality of parties, Brazil has 13 presidential candidates from a variety of backgrounds. Some are old political players, well-known (and deeply hated) by voters, some are new to the scene; but one in particular has been grabbing the spotlight (and dividing opinions): Jair Bolsonaro.
Love him or hate him, Bolsonaro has been gradually making headlines for the past few years in a trajectory of controversy that’s eerily similar to that of President Trump. Bolsonaro’s brash, abrasive speech; his compact group of grassroots supporters; his talent for unfiltered commentary; and even some of his proposed policies create a parallel with the current American president that warrants a closer look.
The outsider insider
Part of Trump’s appeal in the 2016 race was in framing himself as an outsider to the political scene. Despite enjoying major name recognition from his history as a celebrity, Trump had never run for public office, and was never seen as a political player.
The fact that so many blue collar Americans making do with $50k a year or less found it easy to identify with the billionaire businessman/celebrity from New York is a result of Trump’s charisma. It still baffles the mainstream media and many pundits, to be sure, but the fact remains that he was viewed by many as an ordinary, hard-working man who just wanted to make things right in the country, not as career politician who routinely rigs the system in favor of his own interests.
What many voters ignored (willingly or not) is that Trump, as a businessman, had to “get along with all politicians” (his own words). To point out that the Clintons were invited to Donald’s wedding to Melania, and that Bill was a frequent player at Trump’s golf course in Westchester, NY, is to point out the social column’s tip of the iceberg. That’s not to say Trump had deep influence in politics behind the scenes, but in the worlds of big business and politics, no major player in one field is a complete outsider in the other.
When it comes to Bolsonaro, the story is slightly different.
Bolsonaro is a retired army captain who’s been in politics since the late 1980’s. In 1990, he was elected a Federal Deputy by the state of Rio de Janeiro, and has been constantly reelected to the Brazilian Congress ever since.
So, how does a career politician of almost 30 years manage to present himself as an outsider?
Not so differently than a well-connected, powerful businessman.
Bolsonaro and Trump both fight in the cultural arena — and say what they think.
While traditional politicians measure every line, every comma in their speeches, trying to make their words fit into cultural mainstream patterns in order to not “offend” anyone, both Trump and Bolsonaro have no fear of swimming against the current and simply spit out what they think. Political correctness is not a game either one likes to play. For many electors, American and Brazilian alike, an unfiltered candidate — who verbalizes what many of them are sitting at home thinking themselves — is a refreshing image; one that comes associated with the “outsider” label.
It doesn’t matter if he’s been a politician for nearly thirty years, or if he’s been cozying up to politicians his whole life, if he doesn’t sound like what the public has been trained to see as a politician, then he’s an outsider.
The size of your party — or rejecting the “establishment” — makes a big difference.
In Trump’s case, openly criticizing the Republican Party’s establishment certainly helped build his outsider case. For Jair Bolsonaro, in his many years navigating the myriad of Brazilian political parties he’s switched affiliations more than a couple times, but now his bid for the presidency comes through one of the smallest of them all. The Social Liberal Party (Partido Social Liberal, PSL) has roughly two hundred thousand registered members, a stark contrast with the over two million members of the country’s biggest party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, MDB).
It also helps Bolsonaro that he wasn’t widely known to the public outside his home state of Rio de Janeiro until about 2014, when his social media presence grew in the form of Youtube videos and memes, mostly shared on Facebook. To complete the picture, Bolsonaro has never been figured in a corruption scandal. Due to the widespread corruption in the Brazilian government, in the eyes of many voters, not being involved in a scandal is enough to categorize Bolsonaro as an outsider to the political game.
The culture war
Any discussion of Trump that doesn’t involve a discussion of culture is incomplete, and the same goes for Bolsonaro.
The United States has seen a cultural chasm open and widen between the progressive and the conservative sectors of its population. Partisanship has become the name of the game in American politics, with each side clinging more firmly to its ideologies and world-views, and “attacks” substituting civilized debate and amicable disagreement.
As the progressive coasts push their agenda through Hollywood and the mainstream media, conservative middle America turns to public radio and alternative internet content.
Brazil has been witnessing a similar phenomenon. Brazilian mainstream content creators take their cues straight from Hollywood, not unlike the news channels take theirs from CNN. If in one hand, good intentions abound, such as in promoting respect for different ethnic groups, sexual orientations and points of view; in another, the pervasive accusation that Brazilians as a whole form a racist, bigot and prejudiced society desensitize viewers.
Both conservatives and classic liberals in Brazil are also taking to Youtube and Facebook for alternative content that reflects their views. In some cases, that reflects in support for Bolsonaro. Just as Trump gained popularity with a segment of Americans by brushing off accusations of being a racist as he pushed for more border security and a crackdown on illegal immigration, Bolsonaro wins points for proposing harsher punishment to criminals.
Crime is rampant in Brazil. Of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, 17 are in Brazil. While hardworking Brazilians are robbed at gunpoint or even murdered for a cellphone, the progressive media insists on a narrative that suggests that crimes are only committed by the poor and desperate, and therefore criminals deserve sympathy more than jail time. That’s not only offensive to the many poor and desperate who never break the law, but a major undermining of the country’s constant struggle with organized crime.
There’s no simple solution for crime in Brazil, but when Brazilians are not only being victims of violence, but are constantly being accused of racism and prejudice for asking that criminals pay for breaking the law, candidates like Bolsonaro, who calls for harsher punishment of criminals — including the chemical castration of rapists — begin to look attractive.
If many Americans, tired of being called “racists, bigots, homophobes” for asking for border security and religious freedom, looked at Trump and thought, “screw it, this guy”; a lot of Brazilians are doing the exact same with Bolsonaro.
The outrageous statements — and the punch backs
Bolsonaro is not far behind Trump when it comes to making outrageous statements — some may even say the Brazilian politician often leaves his American counterpart in the dust.
In an interview to a magazine in 2011, Bolsonaro said he couldn’t possibly love an homosexual son. In another interview to a radio station, he said the mistake of the Brazilian military dictatorship (from 1964 to 1985) was to have tortured but not murdered its more radical dissidents.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro is also known for “punching back”. To a fellow congressperson who supposedly accused him of being a rapist, Bolsonaro responded that he wouldn’t rape her because “she didn’t deserve it” — implying that some women “deserve” to be raped, which is, of course, absurd.
The mainstream media pushback
Brazilian mainstream media hates Bolsonaro as much as their American counterparts hate Trump — only there’s no Brazilian Fox News to sing Bolsonaro’s praises.
True, there’s a lot to criticize about both Trump and Bolsonaro, but in both cases, the constant hammering by the media creates the opposite effect: their supporters just tune the critics out.
American mainstream media has seen its ratings decline alongside the public’s trust. According with a Gallup poll published in April 2017, 62% of Americans “ say news media favors one political party over the other”.
When it comes to Brazil, there’s conflicting information. While a 2015 article from one source states that only 13,2% of Brazilians always trust the information provided by news outlets, compared to 21,2% that never do; another 2017 news report reveals that Brazil is in second place worldwide when it comes to public trust in the media, at 60%. While each article cites a different study, executed years apart and following different methodologies, the disparity in findings only serves to sow deeper doubts.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the overall feeling towards the media in Brazil is of mistrust.
That’s evident in Facebook posts, personal conversations and Whatsapp messages. It’s in a climate of mistrust of the media that Bolsonaro — much like Trump — thrives. His most ardent supporters call him “the myth”, praising his responses to personal attacks during interviews, congressional debates and more. Bite-size videos of him verbally “punching back” become viral, and end up earning him fans for the simple fact of not coming from the mainstream media, and therefore seen as “the truth that’s been hidden from us”.
Their most ardent supporters act online — meme culture and fake news
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has a strong base of supporters who are very active online. They share clips of him and create memes. They call him the myth”, and portray him as a cool figure who’ll fix the country by blurting out what he thinks is wrong with it.
Bolsonaro also accuses his critics of spreading “fake news” about him. In his official website, right next to the “home” tab, even before the link to his biography, there is a tab for “the truth”. In this section, the website provides Bolsonaro’s version of “each fact and news” regarding the candidate. Giving his version of events is his right under a constitution that allows freedom of speech, but in positioning himself as the detainer of the truth in opposition of a media that “lies”, Bolsonaro, like Trump, pulls his supporters even closer, while promoting public distrust of the media.
An imperfect emissary of the silent majority
Just like Trump, Bolsonaro counts with two different kinds of supporters. There are the grassroots supporters: his fans, the ones who call him a “myth” and think everything he says (even the truly revolting stuff) is on point; and there are the disenfranchised, the ones who don’t feel represented by any other candidate, but see in Bolsonaro an imperfect emissary of the values they hold dear.
To many Brazilians, this year’s presidential election feels just like Trump Vs. Hillary felt to many Americans: like there isn’t one candidate that truly represents them. In Brazil, there’s the added feeling that voting for the few that might make the cut is to throw your vote away, since they have no more than 2% of voting intention, and therefore don’t have a real chance.
With political and social climates growing more divided, Bolsonaro is sure to receive many votes from people who will “hold their nose and vote” not to see the “other side” win. That might not be real support, but it might be enough for a win.
Does Bolsonaro have a chance?
In the current Brazilian political climate, it’s hard to say. The country has a system of direct vote. There are no primaries, no delegates. There are 29 political parties and a system of alliances in place to push each of the13 presidential candidates. According to a recent poll, published in August 22nd, Bolsonaro is in second place with 19% of the electorate.
Bolsonaro’s biggest adversary, former president Lula, however, is currently in jail for corruption. Lula was declared ineligible by Brazilian Electoral Superior Court on September 2nd, and his party was given 10 days to officially switch candidates. Nonetheless, it is possible for Lula to appeal — which he will certainly do. The Lula situation deserves its own article, but so far many polls are pointing at Bolsonaro making it to the second round with or without the former president in the ballot.
In the second round, the two top voted candidates dispute the presidency in a new round of nationwide polling. According to Brazilian law, second round occurs when the candidate with the majority of votes wins the first round, but fails to achieve more than half of valid votes. Brazil hasn’t seen an election won in the first round since 1998.
In Brazil, voting is not only direct, but mandatory. Trump may have won the election more due to Hillary’s failure to drive democrats to the polls than due to his own accomplishments as a candidate. Bolsonaro has no such luxury. It’s true that all major candidates in this year’s election suffer with high rates of rejection, but so does he. If it comes to a second round between Bolsonaro and another candidate, when forced to choose, the majority of Brazilians might decide he’s too unpalatable. It will all depend on who’s on the final ballot.
According to the same August 22nd poll, 11% of the electorate is still undecided.
That’s a huge number to fight for, for all candidates. It might mean room for Bolsonaro to grow, or for an actual outsider, like economic liberal and first-time candidate Amoêdo, to gain some ground.
We can’t forget that most polls pointed to Hillary as a clear winner in 2016. Many American pundits failed to take into consideration the appeal Trump had with disenfranchised blue collar Americans, and the risk in Brazil is that the country’s middle-class might be more than ready to cast what many will see as a protest vote in favor of Bolsonaro.
The 11% of undecided also might not actually be undecided. Just like many Trump supporters didn’t tell pollsters who they intended to vote for, it’s possible that people are keeping private their intentions to vote for such a polemical candidate as Bolsonaro, therefore skewing the polls.
In conclusion, anything is possible. This is, after all, an election to watch.