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Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s gun-toting ‘Messiah’ with a soft spot for dictatorship

Adriano Machado, REUTERS | Jair Bolsonaro, 63, is widely expected to win Brazil's presidential run-off on Sunday.

The implosion of Brazil's scandal-riven political system has pushed the country's democracy to a cliff edge. Jair Bolsonaro, a nostalgic of military rule with little regard for women, minorities and the rule of law, may yet tip it over the brink.


You know a pro-business candidate feted by the markets poses a credible threat to democracy when The Economist – the authoritative voice of economic liberalism – endorses his leftist, union-backed opponent without batting an eye. In Bolsonaro’s case, to say his democratic credentials are questionable is an understatement.

Throughout his undistinguished career as a fringe lawmaker, the former army captain has been on record pillorying Brazilian democracy and praising the military junta that suppressed it between 1964 and 1985. He has promised to restore military-style law and order, name army men in top positions, and rewrite the history books on Brazil’s dictatorship, if – as is widely expected – he is elected to the presidency on Sunday.

With populist strongmen on the ascent around the world, “Bolsonaro would be a particularly nasty addition to the club,” The Economist wrote ahead of the vote. “Were he to win, it might put the very survival of democracy in Latin America’s largest country at risk.”

Bolsonaro’s supporters have accused Western critics of obsessing over his racist, misogynous and homophobic rants while ignoring the factors that have carried his unlikely pitch for the presidency. Brazil is still reeling from its worst recession in decades, with 13 million people currently unemployed.

Crime and drug violence have surged, setting a bleak record of 64,000 murders last year. And Brazilians are furious at the extraordinary scale of corruption uncovered by a sprawling bribery investigation that jailed the former hero-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and tainted politicians across the board – leaving Bolsonaro untouched.

Disgust with Brazil’s politicians is palpable. Unsurprisingly, much of the anger is aimed at the left-wing Workers Party, which has been in power for 14 of the past 16 years, hobbling its candidate in Sunday’s runoff, former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad. The fact that anti-corruption probes have progressed in large part thanks to judicial reforms carried out by Lula’s anointed successor Dilma Rousseff, who was later ousted from the presidency in a controversial impeachment process, appears to have earned the Workers Party little favour.

Brazilian voters are desperate for change, mirroring an anti-establishment sentiment that has swept democracies around the world. Bolsonaro has been riding the wave of voter frustration, using his middle name – Messias – to cast himself as the country’s saviour. His messianic pitch got a boost when, a month from the vote, he survived a knife attack during a campaign rally – which also allowed him to duck interviews and shirk debates with his rivals.


Brazil’s self-proclaimed Messiah is in fact a political old-timer who has sat in Congress for the past 27 years, producing a paltry two pieces of legislation over seven successive terms. Bolsonaro’s only noticeable record is the list of vile slurs he has aimed at women and minorities: he has said he would rather have a dead son than a gay one, has twice told a congresswoman she was “too ugly” to be raped by him, and has said people who live in settlements founded by escaped slaves are “not even good to procreate”.

The Debate: Bolsonaro in the lead as Brazil moves to far-right

The trademark vulgarity that had long confined him to the margins of Brazilian politics has now turned him into a social media sensation. In the age of anti-establishment hysteria, it is perceived by some voters as refreshing and proof that he will shake things up.

Bolsonaro’s statements suggest he has very little respect for the rule of law and the rights of minorities in a diverse nation of 209 million. He has said the answer to gun violence is to give “good citizens” bigger guns. Criminals should not be treated as “normal human beings”, he told supporters in August, adding that police officers should put “10, 15 or 30 bullets” into suspects and then be decorated for doing so. “We are going to gun down all these Workers Party supporters,” he shouted at a later rally, using a tripod to mimic shooting a rifle. Any suggestion he might tone down his rhetoric as he nears power was confounded on Sunday when he pledged to “purge” Brazil of his left-wing foes.

Hatred of the Workers Party accounts for a large share of Bolsonaro’s support, not all of which is enthusiastic. By casting the former ruling party as the sole culprit for Brazil’s woes, and conspiring to topple Rousseff, the country’s discredited political class has weakened the system as a whole and paved the way for the rise of a far-right maverick like Bolsonaro, says Alfredo Saad-Filho, a professor of political economy at SOAS London.

“When you destroy the political system in the way that has taken place in Brazil, this is what you get,” Saad-Filho told the FRANCE 24 Debate show after Bolsonaro stormed to victory in the first round of voting. “You get somebody who is a fascist poised to seize power.”

Back in business: Bolsonaro's army chums

Bolsonaro has openly confessed his ignorance of economic policy, placing his faith in his star advisor and pick for economy minister Paulo Guedes. The US-educated liberal economist wants to privatise Brazilian state-run companies and slash public spending, stances that explain business support for the far-right candidate and the market euphoria that greeted his first-round win.

Even more decisive is the backing Bolsonaro enjoys among evangelical voters, who account for up to a quarter of the electorate. Together with the conservative security and agriculture caucuses, which have also thrown their lot behind Bolsonaro, they are known collectively as the “bull, bullet and bible” bloc.

Alarmingly for Brazil’s still youthful democracy, the former army captain has surrounded himself with former military figures, several of whom have been holding weekly meetings in a hotel in Brasilia hashing out a strategy to carry their man to the presidency. His vice-presidential running mate, recently retired army general Hamilton Mourao, has suggested tearing up and rewriting Brazil’s constitution.

Alessio Ribeiro Souto, also a former general and the man expected to head the culture ministry, has said school history books should call the 1964-85 junta a movement to fight communism rather than a dictatorship. He also wants creationism to be taught in schools to please Bolsonaro’s large base of religious conservatives.

Environment campaigners have warned that his likely transport minister Oswaldo Ferreira, another retired general who spent much of his career building roads and bridges through the Amazon forest, will cause severe damage to indigenous communities and the country’s exceptional biodiversity.

Such is the opprobrium heaped on politicians that many Brazilian voters appear willing to let the army have a go at fixing the country’s problems. “Bolsonaro thrives on the notion that politicians are all corrupt, are all incompetent, and therefore the military is the solution,” said Saad-Filho. “What is going to happen, likely, under a Bolsonaro administration is the dragging of the army into politics, into corrupt scandals, and its transformation into another gang.”

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