Security and Foreign Policy

The “Trump of the Tropics” Spells Danger for Brazil

On July 22, 2018, Jair Bolsanoaro, a controversial politician, announced his bid for Brazil's presidency. Adriana Melchor examines how Bolsanaro's politics and tactics will impact Brazil.


A controversial senator from a fringe party, who has made several racist and homophobic remarks in public fora; who told a fellow legislator that she was not worthy of being raped because of her appearance; who advocates for looser gun laws to deal with crime has been dubbed the “Trump of the tropics”. Meet Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s second-most popular presidential candidate, who officially kicked off his campaign for the October 2018 elections on the 22nd of July.
Bolsonaro has a fairly lengthy tenure of twenty-seven years in the Brazilian Congress, now representing Rio de Janeiro. The 63-year-old began his career as a parachute infantryman, climbed the ranks to captain and later became congressman in 1991.

Soon after he began his political career, Bolsonaro’s inflammatory rhetoric on non-white ethnic groups, dictatorship, political opponents and homosexuality began to make headlines. Although real power was initially out of his reach, the far-right senator has stolen the limelight from other candidates in the presidential race thanks to his many supporters.

Anti-establishment politics is on the rise across the globe, but to understand Bolsonaro’s ascendancy, we must revisit Brazil’s political and economic conditions over the last few years. First, a major corruption scandal that implicated multiple high-profile politicians (now in its fourth year of investigation) has left many Brazilians disillusioned with democracy in its current form.

That, combined with the country’s worst recession on record and rampant violent crime, has undermined the legitimacy of the status quo, long prevalent in Brazil ─ particularly with the centre-left Workers’ Party, which had dominated government for thirteen years prior to former president Dilma Roussef’s impeachment.

The latest polls suggest that 18.5% of Brazilians favour Bolsonaro over other candidates. Among the runners-up, he is second only to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was convicted and jailed for graft and will most likely be blocked from standing for election by the electoral authorities.

Indeed, a noticeable shift in public attitudes towards law and order has buoyed Bolsonaro’s campaign. More Brazilians are in favor of legalizing capital punishment and lowering the age at which teenagers can be tried as adults, for example. There is also a burgeoning movement of young conservatives backing Bolsonaro, not only in rejection of the mainstream but also in direct support of his policy positions.
Despite his promises to shake up the Brazilian establishment, Bolsonaro’s views on important domestic issues are warning signs.

His nostalgic attitude towards the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil four decades ago and the benefits that its sheer brutality supposedly conferred on the rule of law is one alarming element of Bolsonaro’s manifesto. His “tough-on-crime” assurances and proposals for increasing gun ownership have widely appealed to a population generally frightened of the violent crime that surrounds it. But much like President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs in the Philippines, Bolsonaro’s war on crime could lead to state-executed bloodshed with very little due process and consideration for human rights. This would only add to the insecurity already faced by Brazilians and throw the country into greater turmoil.

Bolsonaro’s silence on the economy and his plans to revive it is another cause for concern. He admitted in an interview with the O Globo newspaper to know little about economics, but has made vague remarks about selling off state-controlled companies created by left-wing governments and restricting foreign ownership of land and minerals. In its fragile state, Brazil needs more concrete proposals regarding the future of its economic and industrial policies.

Finally, Bolsonaro’s indecorous comments on issues of gender and race foreshadow the type of socially-regressive injustices that could unfold under his leadership. As an opponent of gay marriage (legal since 2013) and adoption by gay parents, his rise to power pose a significant threat to the rights of LGBT citizens already highly persecuted in Brazil. The livelihoods of black and mixed-race citizens ─ still the subjects of deeply-entrenched discrimination ─ would also come under attack were Bolsonaro to be elected, undoing any progress made towards improving race relations in Brazil.

Still, Bolsonaro faces tough challenges to his campaign. As a member of a fringe party, the Socialist Liberal Party, the senator has less than 10 seconds of airtime to promote himself to voters. His unpalatable character undermines his legitimacy among moderate members of the Brazilian electorate. More mainstream candidates, such as environmentalist and former Lula-era minister, Marina Silva, may start to get ahead in the race. Meanwhile, Lula continues to win the hearts of many Brazilians as a leader who lifted millions out of poverty. His supporters will vouch fiercely for his re-election.
But if and when Lula endorses another candidate to replace him, he risks limiting the Workers’ Party’s odds of winning by delaying the campaign of his heir until the last minute. It is also unclear whether Lula’s supporters would vote for an alternative. Overall, then, it is difficult to determine what the future holds for Brazil at this stage of the presidential race, although it is not unlikely that Bolsonaro and Lula’s stand-in will be head-to-head in a runoff vote.

What is obvious is that far-right populism, and Bolsonaro’s message, resonates with a major proportion of Brazilian voters. Nevertheless, whilst their demands for accountable government and safer cities should not be dismissed, law and order is but one of Brazil’s many troubles. Voters should be careful in their assessment of the presidential candidates, acknowledging what each can offer holistically rather than focussing exclusively on crime and its prevention.

Adriana holds a Bachelor’s in Social Policy and Government from the London School of Economics and has worked in financial services for a number of years. At University, her studies focused on international welfare state analysis, international development and economics. She is fluent in Spanish and proficient in French.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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