Brazil's election: What's at stake?

The runoff vote to choose the country's next president is Oct. 28, after one of the most divisive campaign seasons in decades.

Silvia Izquierdo/AP
Presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro smiles as he arrives to vote in the general election in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 7, 2018. Brazilians will choose between Mr. Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of Sao Paulo, in a runoff election on Oct. 28.

Congressman Jair Bolsonaro had an unexpectedly strong showing in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election earlier this month. How did a veteran politician cast himself as the outsider who could save the country?

Q: Who is Mr. Bolsonaro?

He is a former paratrooper and father of five who has been considered a far-right, fringe politician throughout his nearly 30-year political career. The Social Liberal Party candidate has made a name for himself by praising the nation’s former dictatorship and its use of torture. He regularly disparages women and minorities and stands up for traditional family values in such a way that he once said it would be better for his son to die in an accident than to come out as gay. He believes in loosening gun control as a salve for Brazil’s rising murder rate, and more recently, he’s called for an end to the corruption that has hit all Brazil’s major parties.

His campaign has been run primarily on social media, with explosive memes and political attacks going viral. In addition to conservative components within the armed forces, he is backed by powerful evangelical and agribusiness lobbies. In the first round of the election, Bolsonaro narrowly missed the 50 percent required to win outright.

Q: What is the draw of his candidacy?

The political and economic context in Brazil is key to understanding how Bolsonaro has become the likely victor of the presidential runoff. From 2003 to 2016, Brazil was under the leadership of the center-left Workers’ Party (PT). During that time, the country went from a rising star on the global stage – with a quickly growing economy and middle class and the chance to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics – to experiencing a downward spiral. A far-reaching corruption probe has hit high-profile politicians and businesspeople alike, placing charismatic former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in prison for 12 years. The nation’s first woman president was impeached in 2016 under circumstances that many observers felt were more akin to a witch hunt than a search for justice. The commodity-reliant economy recently emerged from its worst recession in history, and last year 175 Brazilians were murdered per day, a macabre record high.

These turbulent years have paved the way for a self-styled outsider who says he will weed out corruption and lay the path for a more prosperous, safer Brazil. Although some supporters are sincerely drawn to Bolsonaro’s campaign messages, like looser gun laws or iron-fisted approaches to crime, others are simply looking for something – anything – new. “Voters will choose candidates based on who they want to see lose, rather than who they want to see win,” Thiago de Aragão, a director of the political consultancy Arko Advice, told the Monitor in the lead-up to the first-round vote.

Q: Why are people calling him the “Brazilian Trump”?

Bolsonaro appears to be the latest iteration of a recent trend in which the far-right has gained ground in Europe and the Americas. He and his campaign have embraced Donald Trump comparisons, with both politicians espousing pro-gun, anti-establishment, hard-on-crime, pro-business, and unapologetically nationalistic sentiments.

But Bolsonaro detractors say there’s no comparison: The Brazilian candidate’s track record of admiration for the nation’s dictatorship is far more worrisome than Mr. Trump’s conduct, they say. 

Q: Is Brazil’s military history a factor?

Brazil was run by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, a period defined by crackdowns on human rights and the torture of hundreds. But many people – more than half of Brazilians, according to a 2014 poll – believe the country was safer under the dictatorship.

Despite a 2014 truth commission report, no one has been held responsible for military-era torture or crimes. The nation, many argue, hasn’t come to terms with the reality of its brutal past. “This void of justice and consequence has allowed the rightwing to return and thrive,” writes Frederico Freitas, a Brazilian assistant professor at North Carolina State University, in Current Affairs magazine.

Q: What do observers expect to happen if Bolsonaro wins?

Bolsonaro has said repeatedly that he’d like to reintroduce the political ethos of the dictatorship years, putting human rights activists on edge. But in economic terms, his stark difference from the PT has inspired market confidence.

If elected, he’s expected to recruit generals to his cabinet. He’s proposed the privatization of state-owned businesses as well as an overhaul of the expensive pension system. In recent weeks, he’s shied away from previous pledges to roll back Brazil’s famous welfare programs, a move seen as an effort to win over traditionally PT voters.

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