When Jair Messias Bolsonaro walked into TV Cultura’s studio in July, no one had any idea of the political tsunami that would engulf Brazil 90 days later.
The “Roda Viva” is the oldest talk show on Brazilian television; a group of eight journalists sit on a wheel-shaped bench and in the center lies the interviewee. That Monday, Bolsonaro spoke about how he would toughen criminal laws, turn back the sexual revolution, and restore Christian morality. He admitted to not understanding much about economics; that said, he has been well advised.
The retired army officer repeats the same performance on a similar TV program promoted by Rede Globo, the telecom giant. Bolsonaro was asked what he thought about the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil between 1964 until 1985. He reminded an astonished group of journalists that one of the most effusive supporters of the 1964 military coup was the founder of Globo, Roberto Marinho. He then challenged them to call their boss’s father a coup-plotter.
These are examples of how the man most likely to be Brazil’s next president has been setting fire to the political status quo.
Bolsonaro began his political career in the City Council of Rio de Janeiro. In 1990 he became member of Brazil’s House of Representatives. His main platform was always the issue of fighting crime and defending the right to bear guns. Representing one of the most violent regions of Brazil, his message has found widespread acceptance.
As a legislator, Bolsonaro combined social conservatism with statist and protectionist policies. He was a kind of “big state conservative.” His behavior was the one of a Latin American populist: the strong man who solves everything.
It was, however, the internet which made Bolsonaro famous. By standing against the political correctness via, his videos on YouTube and Facebook have become a pop culture phenomenon.
In 2014, a double crisis hit Brazil. On the one hand, there was an economic crisis triggered by the neo-Keynesian politics of President Dilma Rousseff; on the other, there was political turmoil following from investigations into corruption in the state oil company, Petrobras. One crisis began to feed the other.
Soon after, Dilma Rousseff was removed from office. Corruption investigations engulfed the entire political class, starting with Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer. The two crises intensified the revolt against established politics.
It was in this context of besieged Bastille that Jair Bolsonaro emerged as a real alternative of power.
Bolsonaro’s unusual appeal does not only stem from his ideas. His campaign has been chaotic and amateurish, and clearly lacks central coordination. He relies on the Internet and social media networks rather than television to speak his message. His party, the Social-Liberal Party, was created exclusively for this presidential election. Bolsonaro’s campaign also lacks experienced politicians and voting strategists. Instead, his campaign is advised by seven army generals and a dozen outsiders who command surprisingly strong networks.
Pundits predicted that Bolsonaro would fade and that conservative votes would drift back to the Social-Democrats. The polls, however, showed his resilience. On September 6, he was the victim of a knife attack that put him in a hospital bed for the rest of the campaign. Once more, pundits predicted that Bolsonaro was done. Once again, they turned out to be wrong as Bolsonaro started to rise slowly but steadily. He skyrocketed in the last week of the campaign and won the first round.
Bolsonaro did not reach the necessary threshold of 50 percent plus one vote. Nonetheless, it is very likely that he is going to win the election in three weeks’ time because a second-placed candidate has never succeeded in the second round. The most recent polls put Bolsonaro in front by 16-percentage-points.
Where should we place Bolsonaro on the ideological map? To begin with, Bolsonaro is a populist, and like all populists, he does not have ideological clarity. We know that he believes in social conservatism. He is a conservative according to Karl Mannheim’s definition of the word, someone that stands up to protect a present social structure in jeopardy.
Bolsonaro is, however, also in favor of free markets. His conversion to free-market ideas is something new and has to be understood in the general context of the Brazilian center-right. Today’s Brazilian Right is anti-globalist, pro-free market, and traditionalist. His economic adviser, Paulo Guedes, is a prominent banker and economist educated in the University of Chicago.
Assuming Bolsonaro is elected president, his ideological outlines will start to become more precise. It is doubtful that he is going to rule as a conservative purist because there are many Brazilian political variables that tend to push policies in a more centrist or pragmatic direction. Many believe that the main contribution of Bolsonaro and the new Brazilian Right will be to reshape national politics, turning Brazil into a “normal country”: one where people can vote either on the left or the right knowing that the rules of the democratic game will not change regardless of the electoral outcome.
home page image: Brazil – The first 100% Brazilian oil platform. wikimedia