On March 13, roughly 100,000 people gathered in front of the Brazilian Congress to ask for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Four sound trucks tried to pump up the crowd, punished by a sweltering 37oC (98oF) heat. But nothing had the galvanizing effect of Congressman Jair Bolsonaro’s arrival. He walked through the crowd, hugging people, smiling, taking selfies with fans, while his followers shouted “Bolsonaro, the myth.” Just a few meters away, people could buy a “President Bolsonaro” t-shirt for $5.
The congressman from Rio de Janeiro is in his seventh term at the Brazilian House of Representatives for the Social-Christian Party. For years, he was considered little more than a radical freak elected by old policemen and military. But in the last election, he was the highest-ranked candidate in his state, gathering the votes of 464,572 people – four times as many as he did in 2010. He then declared his intentions of becoming the right-wing candidate, and went as far as changing parties to make it happen. According to recent polls, Bolsonaro has between 5% and 7% of voting intentions for 2018. This may seem insignificant, but in a country as polarized as Brazil is right now, there could be room for him to grow.
His pre-campaign has been silently kicked off with the hiring of a marketer. Bolsonaro is now omnipresent in social media, and has already attracted 2.5 million followers on Facebook alone. There are 99 fan pages associated with him, including several unofficial “President Bolsonaro” ones – with two of them reaching 100,000 likes.
Bolsonaro and his groupies in Brasília (March 13). Photo: Gustavo Ribeiro/plus55
Bolsonaro epitomizes Brazil’s far right. A former captain in the army and a fervent Catholic, he supports the death penalty, the possibility of imprisonment for life (the current maximum in Brazil is 30 years), a lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and is against gun control legislation. If Brazilian politicians generally say slightly different versions of the same non-committal safe discourse, Jair Bolsonaro does not shy away from controversy. Instead, he actively encourages it. In 2011, a group of leftist congressmen made a formal complaint in the House against his demeanor, to which he responded by saying that they were “acting like faggots.” In December 2014, he told a congresswoman that he would never rape her – because she didn’t deserve it.
He is perhaps the most important voice of the anti-gay movement in Congress – and this is a big crowd we’re talking about. Bolsonaro has once said that people “become” gay due to a lack of parental discipline, and that a little smack on the face when the kids are young would “straighten them up.” His sons, of course, would never be gay because “he has raised them appropriately.” Recently, the congressman met with openly gay Canadian actress Ellen Page to discuss the rights of the LGBT community in Brazil. You can see what came out of it for yourself:
The Spanish daily newspaper El País has described Bolsonaro as a Brazilian version of Donald Trump. The similarities are indeed there. Our captain is seen as a man who “call it as it is,” just like the American billionaire leading the nomination race in the Republican Party. Both are also considered to be establishment outsiders – even if Bolsonaro first took office in 1991. And both symbolize the anger felt by everyday citizens about what’s wrong with the current system, and provide simplistic views of the world that don’t require much logic or thought.
Every democracy has its Bolsonaro. What is striking about ours is that he has gained momentum over the last few years, and cannot be reduced to a solitary radical freak. This can partially be explained by the current representation crisis we’re facing. “When people stop believing in the democratic system, it facilitates the rise of ‘national saviors.’ This kind of thing is even stronger in a country like Brazil, where politics is based on personality rather than on ideas,” says political scientist Dulce Pandolfi, a professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro. Ironically enough, Bolsonaro’s middle name is Messias (literally meaning messiah in Portuguese).
Could Bolsonaro really be 2018’s wildcard, becoming a legitimate contender for the presidency? It is difficult to imagine him getting that far. His party does not have the same kind of muscle as the Workers’ Party, PSDB or PMDB. Plus, people tend to prefer moderate candidates in general elections – at least in theory. But, hey, a few months ago, everybody said the same think about Trump, and look where America is now. “I don’t see Bolsonaro becoming such a phenomenon. Still, having 7-10% of votes for the presidency would give him leverage in the national political scene,” states Pandolfi.
In 2014, the election was decided by a little more than 3% of the votes. Even if Bolsonaro doesn’t make it to the second round, his support (along with his electors) could easily become a deciding factor in 2018. If this were to happen, then his radical anti-minority agenda would be put in the center of the national debate. Brazil is already an immensely unequal country. Empowering a man like Jair Messias Bolsonaro would certainly not do us any good.