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As Brazil votes, Bolsonaro fans are hungry for a hero

Why We Wrote This

Many voters think of their favorite politician as a bit of a hero – someone uniquely capable of fixing things or moving the country forward. But when does that attitude cross a line and start to threaten democracy? 

Sergio Moraes/Reuters
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate of the Social Liberal Party, attend a demonstration Oct. 21 in Rio de Janeiro.

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Nearly 60 percent of Brazilian voters say they plan to support Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential runoff election this Sunday. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, that is – and some voters have latched onto his middle name, “Messiah.” The former army captain and longtime congressman was once referred to as “fringe,” with a record of statements denigrating women and minorities and praising Brazil’s dictatorship. Today many consider Mr. Bolsonaro the one who can put Brazil back on track – to restore it to the rising star it looked like 15 years ago, before an economic recession hit, violence skyrocketed, and the massive “Car Wash” investigation highlighted widespread political corruption. Seeking a president who signals confidence, leadership, and a clear path isn’t unique to Brazil. But amid concerns of the strength of its young democracy, many are concerned about the consequences of electing someone seen as a kind of savior, particularly one with close military ties. “The crisis of the last five years has been so severe that many Brazilians have concluded that the fault belongs not to one party or group of parties but democracy itself,” says Brian Winter, vice president of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

Voters clad in the green and yellow of the Brazilian flag gathered along Copacabana Beach in the thousands last Sunday, in the lead-up to the nation’s Oct. 28 presidential runoff.

“The country needs someone who values family, who values measures against corruption, and who has a clean record,” says Vania de Alencar, a middle-aged lawyer wearing a Brazilian soccer jersey. She talks over blasting samba tunes, reworked to admonish the long-in-power Workers’ Party (PT).

In the past, Ms. Alencar supported former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the PT, which ran Brazil from 2003 to 2016. Earlier this year, Lula, as he is known, led the polls. But he was barred from running as he serves time in prison on corruption charges. Now, Alencar and nearly 60 percent of the Brazilian electorate say they plan to throw their support behind the controversial Social Liberal Party candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who stands at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Mr. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, is best known for his right-wing statements, including disparaging women, the LGBT community, and indigenous people, as well as praising the nation’s 21-year-long dictatorship, which ended in 1985. But he’s the one who can put Brazil back on track, Alencar says.

She likes to use Mr. Bolsonaro’s middle name: Messias, which translates to “Messiah.”

She’s not alone.

In a race for Brazil’s highest seat, supporters paint Bolsonaro as a champion who can swoop in to save an economically and politically struggling nation – much like Lula’s fans did in 2002.

“He’s not a savior, because only Jesus Christ saves,” says Waldo Santos, a real-estate broker. His forehead is wrapped in a yellow headband reading “Ele Sim” (Yes, Him) in glittering green letters. But “today it’s Bolsonaro who is our hero.”

The focus on finding a leader who can “save” Brazil, whether from violence or corruption, highlights Brazil’s relationship with politics and democracy, analysts say. Seeking a president who signals confidence, leadership, and a clear path ahead, despite worrying language or proposals, isn’t unique to South America’s largest country. But amid concerns over the strength of Brazil’s young democracy, the popularity of someone who lauds anti-democratic notions, like the use of torture during the dictatorship, has many concerned about long-term consequences.

“When you have a political class that is so discredited, when there’s such a lack of confidence in government and Congress, this adds up to a feeling of ‘We need to be saved,’” says Lucas de Aragão, director of Brazilian political consultancy Arko Advice. He says the phenomenon isn’t new here, and ties it back to Portuguese lore about King Sebastian, who people believed would one day return to save the nation after he disappeared in battle in the 1500s.

Amid wave upon wave of corruption inquiries, Brazilians are losing faith in politics. And for many, Mr. Aragão says, “democracy is synonymous with politics.”  

Reverse course

During the first decade of this century, Brazil crawled out from a struggling economy and started to look unstoppable. Under Lula, it enjoyed a vast commodities boom that bolstered social programming and helped draw more than 20 million Brazilians out of poverty, and many into a new middle class. Brazil seemed on a roll, winning bids to host the World Cup and the Olympics, placing it squarely in the global spotlight.

But, in recent years, Brazil’s rising star has taken a nose dive. Its economy fell into recession; violence skyrocketed, with nearly 175 people killed per day last year; and a democratically-elected president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached on what many felt were trumped-up charges. Nearly every major political party has been touched by the far-reaching “Car Wash” kickback scandal. In recent years, frequent protests have demanded lower taxes and better public services.

“You cannot underestimate the impact of the worst recession in 100 years, one of the biggest corruption scandals ever detected anywhere in the world, and [63,880] homicides last year and rising. You can’t underestimate that impact on the public psyche and people’s hunger for a savior,” says Brian Winter, a Brazil expert and vice president of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

In situations like today’s, “Brazilians want to be led,” he says. “What they listen to is self-assurance and tone.”

That’s not to say Bolsonaro doesn’t project a clear vision for how he’ll fulfill voter’s expectations – even if it isn’t chock full of proposals. Long referred to as “fringe” for his incendiary statements and praise for military intervention, he has recast himself as a rare honest politician: After 27 years in Congress, he’s never been implicated in corruption. Over the past four years alone, scores of politicians and at least 60 federal deputies have been touched by the Car Wash scandal – many of whom ran for reelection this year.

Despite hopes that 2018 would be the year of economic recovery, some 12 million are unemployed. Bolsonaro has tapped a free-market economist who graduated from the University of Chicago, Paulo Guedes, to help get the economy back on track, pledged to overhaul the nation’s costly pension system, and has talked about privatizing some state-owned industries, inspiring cautious confidence.

'A good criminal is a dead criminal'

But perhaps top on the list of voters’ concerns is the nation’s towering homicide rate and rising violence. A 2016 survey found that 57 percent Brazilians agree with the statement “A good criminal is a dead criminal.”

“Brazilians in their heart of hearts [may not be] on board with what Bolsonaro is proposing,” says Mr. Winter. “But when it comes to his core agenda, which is law and order, and specifically the fight against corruption and street crime, polls indicate that a majority of Brazilians are on board with much of what he’s proposing.”

Bolsonaro has promoted giving police more freedom to shoot down suspected criminals, and advocated for the military to help clean up drug trafficking and take control of Brazilian slums.

"The way that things are today, the violence not just in Rio but all across Brazil, this is something that must be changed,” says Mr. Santos, at the rally. Bolsonaro “represents our armed forces… This is what we want, security for all of Brazil."

Public security issues are even generating a thirst for change in the PT’s heartlands, in the country’s impoverished Northeast. Although states there voted for the PT in elections Oct. 7, the capital cities in the states of Pernambuco, Sergipe, Alagoas, Paraíba, and Rio Grande do Norte – all of which featured within 2017’s top 30 most dangerous cities in the world, according to Mexican nongovernmental organization Consejo Ciudadano – came out in favor of Bolsonaro during the first round of the election. In Natal, ranked as Brazil’s most violent city and the world’s fourth most dangerous, violent, targeted crime increased by 28.2 percent from 2015 to 2018, according to the Violence Observatory Rio Grande do Norte (OBVIO RN), a nonprofit that analyzes government data on public security.

A lack of safety “exists alongside this tendency to vote for Bolsonaro,” says Ivénio Hermes, research coordinator and president of OBVIO RN. But he feels public security is often used to justify choosing a divisive candidate. “In truth, Brazil remains much the same as it was 30 years ago: Voters seeing themselves in icons rather than in proposals, and voting based on emotions,” he says.

Safe for democracy?

Finding hope in an outsider, populist, and far-from-politically-correct candidate has echoes of voting trends around the world in recent years – including the United States. But many Brazil watchers fear the democratic system may not be strong enough to withstand Bolsonaro’s enthusiasm for dictatorship-era leaders and practices. His close ties with current military leadership, and appointment of a recently retired four-star general as his running mate, have some people concerned about clear demarcations of power between civilian rule and the military under his possible administration.

“The crisis of the last five years has been so severe that many Brazilians have concluded that the fault belongs not to one party or group of parties but democracy itself,” says Winter.

Overall, there is evidence that citizens still deeply value a democratic state. According to an October Datafolha poll, 69 percent of Brazilians believe democracy is the best way to govern.

Maria do Soccoro Braga, a political scientist at the Federal University of São Carlos, says voters’ backing for Bolsonaro may be misinterpreted as disregarding democracy. For some, he’s the very hope of preserving it amid a debilitatingly corrupt system.

“Political corruption is not a recent phenomenon in Brazil, but we have a much greater level of knowledge of these systems of corruption now,” Dr. Braga says. “People are beginning to look at this political elite and are wondering whether they are capable of maintaining a democracy.”

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