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Is Brazil about to vote for its very own Trump?

Despite the protests against Jair Bolsonaro, the far right’s presidential candidate, polls suggest he will win in Brazil on Sunday. Credit: Victor Moriyama / Getty

Despite the protests against Jair Bolsonaro, the far right’s presidential candidate, polls suggest he will win in Brazil on Sunday. Credit: Victor Moriyama / Getty

October 4, 2018   6 mins

The tourist brochure stereotype of Brazil – melodic samba music, simpático and perpetual sunshine written in both the sky and on the faces of its people – is how Brazilians would wish to see their country. Anger, intolerance and rage are concepts that sit uncomfortably with that wish. But they do reflect its present reality.

Next Sunday, Brazil’s almost 150 million voters will go to the polls in the most inauspicious of circumstances.

Economic growth has stalled, corruption is rife and crime on the rise. The recent spectacle of the country’s cherished National Museum being reduced to charred rubble amid claims of mismanagement and corruption is a metaphor for Brazil’s general malaise: a country facing the darkest of moments, unable to celebrate the glories of the past.

If the polls are to be believed, the man likely to place first is Jair Bolsonaro, a politician who has been variously described as “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the world”, an “apologist for dictators” and a “racist”. Much has been written about his record in recent weeks, yet little commentary has been dedicated to the reasons behind his rise or his appeal to a country in crisis.

As with most practitioners of Latin American political machismo, Bolsonaro’s image has been carefully-honed: hard-line former paratrooper, family man, devoted Christian and outspoken anti-corruption campaigner in a Federal Congress full of bandidos.

The sense of bewilderment, from foreign correspondents and many affluent Brazilians, that a figure as coarse and vulgar as Bolsonaro could be on the verge of securing the presidency of the world’s fifth-largest country is palpable. The parallels with the American election two years ago are hard to ignore.

The 800,000-strong town of Nova Iguaçu, roughly an hour outside Rio de Janeiro, is solid Bolsonaro territory. Largely made up of low-quality housing and devoid of any cultural attractions, its residents have seen their real-terms incomes fall by more than 10% since 2014. Violent crime has increased markedly in recent years as a combination of police incompetence, corruption and starvation of resources have begun to bite.

There are only two enterprises in the city that have grown in recent years: the unemployment office and the ranks of the myriad evangelical churches lining its streets. In this respect, Bolsonaro has a message that appeals to both of these communities: the dispossessed and the newly-possessed.

The country’s burgeoning Pentecostal Christian community is critical to Bolsonaro’s standing. The largest of these evangelical forces, the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, has attracted millions of new followers in recent years at the expense of the more austere Catholic Church – largely by propagating fears of witchcraft and making theologically-dubious pledges to deliver salvation (after the payment, of course, of a regular tithe) that have resonated among the poor and vulnerable.

On the stump, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric mirrors the fire and brimstone approach of the Igreja Universal’s preachers; evoking appeals for the defence of traditional family values, a condemnation of lifestyles considered ‘deviant’ and talking up the prospects of divine intervention as a means by which to boost personal incomes. On the ballot paper, Bolsonaro appears not as the candidate for his own, small Social Liberal Party but as the nominee of a coalition entitled ‘Brazil above everything, God above everyone’.

The successful harnessing of the evangelical community for political ends is an increasing phenomenon in Brazil, with a number of evangelical ministers and soi-disant bishops now sitting in the Federal Senate and holding influential executive roles, such as the mayoralty of Rio de Janeiro. As voting takes place on a Sunday, many ministers guide their parishioners from the pages of the Bible to the polling booth with seamless ease.

Law and order is another bulwark issue for Bolsonaro. Few solid details about his plans to cut crime have been outlined – but his rhetoric suggests his approach is more likely to emulate that of the Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, who has faced allegations of extra-judicial killings, than the targeted approach of the Uribe and Santos administrations in neighbouring Colombia.

Electorally-speaking, this isn’t a particular problem for Bolsonaro. Indeed, such speeches about the execution of drug dealers and the deployment of army battalions to crack down on violent crime don’t particuarly concern the type of voter who may be inclined towards him; it warms the cockles of their hearts. Indeed, his stabbing at a rally a fortnight ago, which confined him to a hospital bed, has only served to show the necessity of his stance.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Nova Iguaçus across Brazil – and they are willing to give Bolsonaro and his message a hearing – however dark it may be. Indeed, parallels could easily be drawn between Nova Iguaçu and the ‘forgotten’, blue-collar towns in Michigan and Pennsylvania whose primal scream against the establishment handed Donald Trump his victory in 2016. And just as in the case of Trump’s most fervent supporters, Bolsonaro inspires slavish loyalty from his base and horror from his detractors.

To a great many, the rise of a figure like Bolsonaro is the fault of the political class. Nowhere is that disconnect between the aspirations and anxieties of the people and views of the elite better represented than in the form of Geraldo Alckmin – the man who had been expected to coast to a spot in the second round of the presidential race without breaking a sweat.

A solid yet staid, four-term governor of prosperous São Paulo state, Alckmin’s centrão (‘big centre’) coalition has successfully marshalled moderate to centre-Right parties to row in behind his bid, on the understanding that the spoils of office – chiefly, government ministries – would be equitably allocated among them in the event of his victory. In return, each party would then pledge to support the government’s legislative programme in Congress.

The political apparatus surrounding Alckmin’s candidacy is emblematic of the country’s political crisis – and part of the reason Brazilian voters are rejecting his candidacy. For many, the “coligação” system symbolises constant congressional vote-buying and endless ideological malleability at a time when Brazilians are demanding decisive change.

Few believe that Alckmin, if he won, would really deliver on a programme to eliminate corruption when the parties making up his coalition are mired in it? Is reform of the country’s constitution and its multitudinous sacred cows really possible in an administration comprised of nine separate political movements? Can a new politics really be possible with the same tired, cynical voices around the table? According to the polls, Brazilians are saying “no”.

With Alckmin’s campaign floundering and other challengers fading fast, Bolsonaro’s chief opponent appears to be the former Mayor of São Paulo Fernando Haddad – the anointed pick of the jailed former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and his Leftist Workers’ Party (PT).

Notwithstanding some credible achievements during his spell as Mayor of the country’s richest city, where average earnings comparable favourably with those of mainland Europe, Haddad is an uninspiring candidate running on a predictable platform to reverse the badly-needed public spending freeze imposed by incumbent President Michel Temer. Such is his weakness as a candidate and campaigner, he secured only 17% of the vote in his 2016 re-election campaign.

The only electoral asset Haddad has in his armoury is his throaty endorsement from the former president, who is currently serving a 12-year sentence for money laundering and accepting kick-backs from property developers.

Lula despite his conviction, remains a popular and respected figure among many Brazilians. This reputation is partly deserved. During his first term in office, Lula was able to successfully reign in the most dramatic impulses of his socialist coalition to court international investment and introduce social programmes which had a profound impact on reducing social inequalities and boosting average incomes.

Regrettably, in a manner akin to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Lula’s initial pragmatism ultimately gave way to vast expansions of unfunded state entitlements and a culture of cronyism that has brought the country to its knees. Many of the social problems Brazil faces today can be laid squarely at the door of Lula and PT.

Despite his public protestations to the contrary, a Haddad victory would likely result in a full presidential pardon for Lula. The societal impacts of such a move should not be underestimated; it risks further widening the chasm that already exists between the country’s rich and poor, its prosperous south-east and impoverished north, and private sector and state employees.

Among Lula’s critical electoral base, he retains deity status; a man whose inexorable rise from illiterate peasant to union leader to President puts him beyond reproach. To his opponents, he is a charlatan who used public office to enrich his cronies and consolidate power in the hands of a discredited cabal. Both views are held by roughly 35% of Brazilians.

The candidacies of Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad may strike differing ideological tones – but what they offer Brazil is the same thing: the politics of division and a rejection of the radical reforms the country really needs to truly develop into the global economic powerhouse it has long threatened to become.

There is a famous Brazilian proverb: “a esperança é a última que more” (“hope is the last one to die”). Given the choice voters face next Sunday, perhaps it just did.

Daniel Hamilton was a Conservative Party candidate at the 2017 general election and is Managing Director at FTI Consulting. He is a dual British-Brazilian citizen.


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