At 61, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro is experiencing the pinnacle of his political life. For decades, the former Army Captain was little more than a radical right-winger who expressed nostalgia for the military dictatorship. But now, he is a presidential hopeful – and so far, is coming across as a pretty competitive candidate.
In the latest presidential polls, Bolsonaro has 9 percent of votes, behind only Lula da Silva, Marina Silva, and Aécio Neves, all of whom have already run for president. They fare better in these early polls mainly because the electorate remembers them.
Pundits in Brazil frequently argue that Bolsonaro could never snatch the 2018 Presidential race. He is too radical, they say, and too controversial to please the general electorate. Of course, there is some merit to these statements. After all, this is the same man who referred to a group of leftist congressmen as “a bunch of faggots.” And also the same man who infamously declared that a fellow congresswoman “wasn’t worth raping.”
But despite these enormously incendiary statements, we shouldn’t ignore Bolsonaro’s potential, nor the danger that might come with it. Let’s remember that just a two years ago, nearly every expert in the U.S. thought that a character like Donald Trump would never make it into the White House. We all know the outcome of that.
Here’s why Jair Bolsonaro could very well be Brazil’s next president:
A “change” of tone
Bolsonaro has become famous thanks to racist, homophobic, and sexist remarks. During last year’s House impeachment vote, he made an homage to a known torturer. And he has never given a damn if people portray him as a Class-A bigot. That is, until his presidential campaign silently kicked off. The Congressman has hired a marketer and began turning it down a notch (sort of).
In 2016, he published a video explaining why he shouldn’t be considered homophobic. In the video, he states that he respects everyone’s sexual “option.” He continues, saying he is against educational policies that “teach children to become homosexuals.”
That slight inflection is noteworthy. “By stating that he’s protecting the heterosexual way of life, Bolsonaro leaves a position of attack. He is now, in the eyes of part of the electorate, the victim of attacks, instead of being the perpetrator,” says Pablo Ortellado, a professor at the University of São Paulo.
While he remains a radical, this new message may earn him the support of conservative-but-not-radical voters. Many people in Brazil actually believe same-sex marriage laws, for instance, gives homosexuals more rights than the rest of the society. And these same individuals claim that they are not homophobic.
Operation Car Wash has unveiled a vast corruption scheme within Brazil’s largest company, Petrobras. Politicians both from the left and the right have been implicated in the scandal. That includes Lula and Aécio Neves, two of the early front-runners for 2018. Guess who hasn’t shown up in any police operation? You guessed it: Jair Bolsonaro.
By 2018, two of the election’s presumed front-runners, Lula and Aécio Neves, may become “damaged goods.” Lula is already under criminal prosecution, and a similar fate is expected to fall upon Neves.
Like everywhere in the world, a disdain for governing-as-usual has grown in Brazil. Back in September, the organization Latinobarómetro published a survey about democracy and representation. Only 32 percent of Brazilians said they believe in, and like, how our institutions work. The Petrobras scandal only adds fuel to the fire.
Although Bolsonaro is in his 7th term as Congressman, he has crafted his image as an outsider. In the latest election for the House Speaker position, Bolsonaro ran and received a paltry score of 4 votes. Not even his son, also a congressman, voted for him.
“However, he can say to his voters that he lost the election precisely because of his qualities – not his flaws,” says plus55 columnist Carlos Melo. He continues: “He has a very appealing argument, that he displeases the corrupt political establishment.”
He’s already campaigning
Right now, most politicians are worrying about avoiding jail time. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has begun moving around the country. In recent months, he has visited the states of Ceará, Paraíba, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Pará, Amazonas, Pernambuco, and Mato Grosso. He is quietly gathering support among the youth, as well as religious and community leaders.
All of this grassroots campaigning is done under the radar. The Brazilian mainstream media still sees Bolsonaro as a radical with little potential. But a year and a half from now, these same newspapers and TV stations might be partaking in the same level of introspection currently underway in the American media establishment, asking themselves: “what did we miss?”
It is safe to say that the 2018 presidential election will be a tight race. And this is especially the case if Lula da Silva is not on the ballot. While experts point out that 9 percent of votes is too little to earn Bolsonaro a place in the 2nd round, it is safe to assume that his stock will rise.
Right now, the biggest obstacle for Bolsonaro is the lack of a large coalition that will earn him enough TV air time. In Brazil, political parties have the right of free ad time on all stations, divided proportionally to their representation in Parliament. The bigger the coalition is, the more air time a candidate has.
There is no record of a candidate with little time making it into the 2nd round. “However, Bolsonaro is not your ordinary candidate. He won’t hold back on attacks and insults of other candidates. Also, his presence on social media is incredible,” reveals Melo.
In over a year, Bolsonaro’s followers on Facebook have gone from 2.5 million to 3.8 million. Not to mention the hundreds of unofficial Bolsonaro President pages.
“Savior of the nation”
The dreadful state of Brazilian democracy has created a fertile ground for populists. And no one embodies this image of “savior” better than Bolsonaro. The icing on the cake? His middle name is even Messias – literally, the “Messiah.”