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Over the weekend Jair Bolsonaro, a longtime member of Brazil’s Congress, won the most votes in the country’s presidential election. With 47 percent, Bolsonaro, who was previously seen as too radical to gain widespread support, will now have a runoff with Fernando Haddad of the Workers Party, who garnered 28 percent of the vote.
A threat to democracy: Many observers say Brazil, the fifth most populous nation and world’s seventh largest economy, is at a perilous crossroads. The country is just three decades removed from military dictatorship, and is still in the thumb-sucking stage when it comes to building public institutions that guard against authoritarian drift.
Since 2002 the progressive Partido Trabajadores (Workers Party) led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been the dominant force in Brazilian politics, successfully implementing policies that lifted some 20 million Brazilians out of poverty, broadening the middle class, and expanding the economy and international influence. But after a 2014 recession, Lula successor Dilma Rousseff was impeached without being charged with a crime, and Lula was banished from this year’s race (and the media barred from interviewing him) after being sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges (for a bribe he never accepted). Haddad was Lula’s pick for vice president, but doesn’t have the public profile or support of his mentor.
Bolsonaro checks all of the worst “ist” boxes: misogynist, racist and fascist. After fathering four sons, Bolsonaro referred to his daughter as a “moment of weakness,” and said he would rather one of his boys die in a car crash than reveal that he’s gay. He’s criticized former Latin American dictators, like Augusto Pinochet of Chile, for not killing enough of their dissidents, suggested chemical castration for sex offenders, and once said a fellow Congress member wasn’t attractive enough to be worthy of rape.
Some have taken to referring to Bolsonaro as “Brazil’s Trump” for his outlandish public comments and rise to power on a wave of populist, right-wing support. In truth, he’s closer to radical authoritarians like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte or General Abdel El-Sisi of Egypt.
Brazil has problems, Bolsonaro has (violent) solutions: Brazil is currently confronting widespread inequality, frighteningly high violent crime and a corruption scandal that seemed to touch every sector of government and the elite.
Bolsonaro, a former Army captain whose signature campaign move is pistol hands, enjoys wide support among the military and has remarked he would like to return to the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Taking a page from Duterte’s book, Bolsonaro has also advocated for giving “carte blanche” to military forces to clear out crime-infested neighborhoods with extra-judicial killings. If a few innocents are caught in the crossfire, so be it.