Bolsonaro has said some questionable things, but many overlook the reasons for his majority support.
by Maurício F. Bento
Last Sunday, Jair M. Bolsonaro won the runoff of the 2018 Brazilian presidential election and became the 38th president of the country. He earned 55 percent of the votes against the 45 percent Fernando Haddad, the Worker’s Party (PT) candidate, received.
Is Bolsonaro Really the ‘Brazilian Trump’?
Most of the coverage from international media has been simplistic and is mostly repeating cliches, such as calling him the “Brazilian Trump” or comparing him to other right-wing candidates from other parts of the world. Although there are certainly some similarities to other candidates, these comparisons must be made with prudence.
Just like Trump, Bolsonaro is perceived as someone who doesn’t behave the same way or say the same rehearsed lines as every other politician. He is perceived as an outsider, as he is breaking the standard polarization of the Brazilian elections between the Worker’s Party and the Social Democratic Party. On the other hand, Bolsonaro has been a member of Congress, representing the state of Rio de Janeiro for almost 30 years. He is not a newcomer running for his first political position like Trump was.
If you have been following or at least read a piece or two from mainstream sources, you might have read about how “terrible” Bolsonaro is, and you might be wondering how he managed to win by such a wide margin. We’ll explore the five most relevant arguments his voters use to explain why they supported Bolsonaro. In advance, it’s worth pointing out that some of the arguments make more sense than others, but they are all well-known by most of the electorate and are key to understanding Bolsonaro’s victory.
1. Crime and Corruption
After 13 years of the Worker’s Party (PT) administration, most of its leadership went to jail after the corruption scandals of Mensalão in 2005 and Petrolão, when Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) landed its main leader and former Brazilian president Lula da Silva in prison. In addition to PT, many other Brazilian political parties and top-ranking politicians were hit by Operation Car Wash, including Eduardo Cunha, the former president of the Brazilian lower house and a member of MDB, Michel Temer’s party. Lava Jato has sent over one hundred people to jail. Even Temer himself will be investigated the day after he leaves office and loses his presidential privileges. He might soon share a prison cell with Lula in the city of Curitiba.
In this chaotic scenario, Bolsonaro stands out as one of the few with some political experience who is not involved in any scandal. At the same time, he was never part of the main political parties, which makes people see him as an outsider. He is also one of the few who is openly supporting the institutional fight the prosecutors and the judiciary are carrying out against corruption. He has said he will appoint Judge Sergio Moro, the one in charge of Lava Jato, to the Supreme Court if there is any vacancy in the Court during his term.
2. Law and Order
Violence in Brazil has gone up in recent years. The country currently has a murder rate of 29 per 100,000, one of the highest in the world. Bolsonaro advocates a tough approach to crime, which differentiated him from other candidates in the race. He has said he will push Congress into changing the law that now allows some criminals to leave prison after serving only one-sixth of their sentence. In contrast, Haddad said he would release criminals from prison. Some believe this was an excuse to use his presidential powers to pardon politicians found guilty in Operation Car Wash, like Lula himself, which would subvert the rule of law. Haddad’s slogan was “Haddad is Lula,” and releasing Lula was a key proposal of PT, which increased this feeling among the electorate.
Bolsonaro stands out as a law and order candidate who will support tough laws against criminals, from thieves to corrupt politicians, while Haddad is seen as someone who will be soft on them, especially because some of his closest friends could benefit. This is one of the first issues that made Bolsonaro popular and helped him build his legion of followers, the so-called Bolsominions.
3. The Economy
In the last four years, Brazil has been in a deep economic crisis, suffering from double-digit unemployment rates and a lack of confidence that a recovery is coming. The crisis began in 2014 when Dilma Rousseff (PT) mismanaged the budget and economic policy in order to get reelected. That was considered fraud and resulted in her impeachment in 2016, with almost 70 percent popular support. Michel Temer, the VP who ascended to the presidency, passed some important reforms, such as the spending cap amendment and the labor law reform, which helped bring some recovery and small growth.
While Bolsonaro’s team includes Paulo Guedes, a free market economist who graduated from the University of Chicago and supports previous reforms while proposing others, Haddad sought to repeal Temer’s reforms and increase government spending and taxes. This made many business owners and investors support Bolsonaro to assure a more consistent change in economic policy compared to the Rousseff administration. As most Brazilians supported her impeachment and disapproved of her economic policy, offering a drastic change helped turn Bolsonaro into the most popular politician in the country.
4. Controversial Lines
Bolsonaro has many absurd quotes from his term as a member of Congress. Some of them should definitely be condemned. His supporters, though, say most of them are old—that they are from the 1990s and don’t represent his current beliefs. Other quotes, they say, are out of context to the point of distortion. Most of the Brazilian people seem to see it that way, as Bolsonaro has always polled well among almost every group, including women, despite Haddad and PT calling him sexist on a daily basis.
5. The Alternative
Brazilian law requires an absolute majority (over 50 percent) in order for a candidate to be elected president. If no candidate achieves this in the first round, the two who receive most votes participate in a runoff.
As Bolsonaro got 46 percent of the votes and Haddad got 29 percent, they went to the runoff last Sunday. Although most of the average Bolsonaro supporters focus on one of the first four arguments to justify their support, many focused on this one for the runoff: the alternative, Haddad, was worse. As Americans have long known, when there are only two options, sometimes you pick “the lesser of two evils.”
This is where mainstream international media reported poorly. They focused on all the arguments against Bolsonaro while ignoring the reasons why people were hesitant to vote for the other side.
Haddad’s proposals included “democratic control” over the media, “democratic control” over the police, and “democratic control” over the prosecutors and the Judiciary, and he also asserted that Dilma’s impeachment and Lula’s trial were both illegitimate. These stances made many feel that believing in freedom and democracy meant voting for Bolsonaro—or for no one (that is, abstaining or nullifying their votes).
Polls show that the majority of Brazilians support both the impeachment of Dilma and the conviction of Lula. Haddad using the slogan “Haddad is Lula” and saying the impeachment was a coup d’etat only made Bolsonaro stronger.
Polls also show that Bolsonaro was more popular among the college educated, especially in the cities. For instance, Sao Paulo, the largest and wealthiest city in the country, delivered 60 percent of the votes to Bolsonaro. Sao Paulo is a global city with many international businesses and organizations installed—not some kind of nativist region.
Bolsonaro has become the political equivalent of what author Nassim Taleb calls “Antifragile.” The more he is attacked, the stronger he becomes. He reached a point where he was able to benefit from the chaotic electoral environment. Now, he is becoming the 38th president of Brazil and must be evaluated based on his policies. He has a good team of people who believe in freedom, democracy, and the reforms Brazil needs to start growing again. The main concern Brazilians have right now is whether or not he will be able to deliver what he has promised.
Mauricio F. Bento is an analyst at Instituto Mercado Popular and a contributor to the HuffPost in Brazil.