Watch Out for Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Trump, Pulling the Big Lie After His Likely Defeat
But he’s probably too weak and unpopular to mount a successful coup
Heading into next week’s presidential election, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is trailing in the polls, just as he has all year. Though he has recently gained on his main rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Bolsonaro is still widely expected to lose.
This is no mean feat, considering his opponent. Da Silva (known as Lula), served two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, but was convicted in 2017 of corruption and money-laundering and later served time in jail. Facing yet other charges, he was freed in 2019 pending resolution of his appeals and later made eligible to run for president only after his trial was voided on a technicality. The resurrection of Lula, a Castro- and Chavez-loving leader of a leftist Workers Party tainted by corruption, is a sign of how far Bolsonaro’s stock has fallen with the people.
But if Bolsonaro’s fate appears sealed, so does his response to it: He has already laid the groundwork for declaring the upcoming election a fraud. In fact, he may claim election fraud even if he wins—after all, he has done that before. Such sad and bizarre behavior provides non-Brazilians a glimpse of just what Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Donald J. Trump, has subjected his country to.
A Rise Aided by His Adversaries
The stage for Bolsonaro’s first—and so far only—presidential term was set on October 28, 2018, when 57 million Brazilians elected him president. He had risen to national attention as a peculiar politician—a reactionary outsider with a military past, anti-elite rhetoric, a fondness for dictatorship and a nearly 30-year career in Congress in which he got only two irrelevant proposals approved by his peers. His career as a backbencher and his outrageous remarks gained him some media attention, and he was often featured on television shows focused on debating controversial topics, such as gays kissing on television, with a live audience shouting back at the participants.
As he entered the 2018 presidential election, Bolsonaro had several advantages. The first was the memory of a left-wing government so bad that voters were desperate for almost any alternative. Lula’s protégé and successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, had been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption, and she was impeached and convicted for violating Brazil’s budget laws. Lula, despite being in jail at the time, initially insisted on remaining a candidate, hampering the emergence of a Workers Party’s left-leaning alternative. Adding to the public’s discontent, the economy was only slowly recovering from its worst recession in history, and a feeling of helplessness toward crime prevailed in the country’s biggest cities.
Against this backdrop, Bolsonaro appeared to be whatever people wanted him to be. He courted wealthy people promising to become a normal politician—a man able to lead a stable and fiscally responsible administration, cut the size of government, champion family values, and, in particular, keep the corrupt left away from power. Evangelical Christians, an important and growing demographic among Brazilian electors, abandoned their previous collaboration with left-leaning presidents and jumped on the Bolsonaro bandwagon—despite his being on his third marriage and having no particular connection to a church—because he gave voice to their worries about the sexualization of young people and attacks on peoples’ faith. For most Brazilians, his appeal lay in his toughness on crime and his promises of being the total opposite of whatever the left-wing Workers’ Party government, formerly led by Lula and Dilma Rousseff, had been.
Even a failed attempt on his life just weeks before the 2018 election helped him. It created public sympathy, even as it excused him from confronting his critics directly in televised debates, which are still an important campaign feature in Brazil. This allowed this odd politician and talk-show guest to be elected by relying on direct communication with his aficionados, encouraging them to work hard on his behalf on social media and stoking anger against “communists”—a term he expanded to mean anyone who ever disagreed with him, his family members or his fans. Bolsonaro did all this with far less money, political clout, marketing organization and party structure than previous presidential candidates had needed.
The Triumph of Hope Over Experience
Politicians often lie, but no one can say that Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil pretending to be someone he is not. His views on dictatorships and dictators were never a secret: His office in Congress had portraits of military dictators on the wall. His views on democracy and human rights were also never hidden: He openly praised Augusto Pinochet’s oppressive regime in Chile and lamented that the 21-year Brazilian military dictatorship of the 1960s through the 1980s didn’t kill enough opponents. His lack of decency was also well-known: He once told a congresswoman that he wouldn’t rape her because she didn’t deserve it. There is no better demonstration that political civility is outdated in a society than electing such a man to a country’s highest political office.
Of course, Donald Trump said some pretty bad things too, as we know, but Bolsonaro was now in charge of a country much weaker institutionally than the United States. And although Bolsonaro, like Trump, had risen to power through the soft power of media fame and aggressive use of social media, Bolsonaro was a former army officer, now president of South America’s largest democracy and a man who showed no respect or commitment to the most basic liberal democratic values.
Yet hope blinded a lot of people. Questioning Bolsonaro’s illiberal opinions and his open sympathy for dictatorships and dictators became an indication not of principled liberalism, but of a personal grudge against this politician. Even when his defenders admitted that he did say some horrible things, they argued that at least he was not corrupt and would save the country from the Workers’ Party (which, to be fair, also liked dictatorships and dictators). Millions therefore put their hopes for a lean state on a man who once argued that former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso should have been executed for privatizing a company.
Many believed that Bolsonaro could be domesticated, despite his consistent opposition to democratic and liberal values throughout his decades-long political career. Maybe the stature of the presidential office would make him behave appropriately. They thought perhaps he could be a pawn amusing the angry masses while the country was reformed.
Sadly, Jair Bolsonaro had ideas of his own. He was perfectly content to turn Brazil into an object of frequent international criticism while showing very little inclination to modernize the corrupt and inefficient Brazilian state.
A President Too Small for the Moment
In fairness, President Bolsonaro managed to keep a reasonable level of popular and political support during his first year in office. Despite his hostile relationship with leaders in the National Congress, he managed to pass beneficial bills such as the reform of the pension system and the new sanitation framework. But meaningful governing seemed unimportant to him. Even as his administration delivered positive changes—modernizing access to identification documents or creating a tool for instantaneous money transfers at no cost—Bolsonaro was always busy in verbal battles with the Chinese over their supposed creation of COVID-19; the Europeans for financing environmental protection in Brazil and expecting results; Angela Merkel for criticizing Brazil’s record on deforestation; Joe Biden for winning a supposedly dubious election in which “Trump was doing well”; Brigitte Macron for not being as pretty as Bolsonaro’s wife; or any artist who was someone on TikTok or Twitter.
The Bolsonaro administration’s popularity was never high. His divisive politics didn’t help him to expand the coalition of supporters that elected him in 2018. The frequent presence of his three adult sons in official settings produced conflicts with the press and political allies, as well as unnecessary tension in his government.
Despite such controversies, the level of his popularity remained stable until the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country. Given new political and financial powers, he was expected to act.
Yet it was never clear that the national government had a strategy to beat COVID and return to normality. People were losing their jobs and incomes, and worse, family members and neighbors, while the president was preoccupied with other things.
A single incident sums up his government’s entire response: One afternoon Bolsonaro gathered his ministers and journalists for a televised address. For 30 minutes, he spoke about his neighborhood in Rio, its doorman, the type of houses one could find in his block, and how his youngest son probably slept with everyone in the vicinity. He then returned to his written statement, spoke quickly about policies against COVID, and left.
Later, as the developed countries started their vaccination campaigns, Bolsonaro openly displayed his skepticism regarding the vaccines’ efficacy. An enthusiast of the so-called “early treatment,” which included his personal favorite, chloroquine (sound familiar?), he argued that “there was no hurry” to vaccinate the population. In the end, the pandemic took almost 700,000 lives in Brazil.
Attacking the Elections That Brought Him to Power
Now, facing a likely defeat in the election, he is a threat to the country’s relatively peaceful electoral process. He does not even try to hide it.
Since his 2019 inauguration, Bolsonaro has stated countless times that Brazil’s electoral system, particularly its electronic voting system, cannot be trusted. He recently said that Brazil shouldn’t have gone ahead with its local elections in 2020, because the system cannot be audited—a statement that is factually untrue.
Bolsonaro has even questioned the results of the presidential election he won in 2018. Brazil has a two-round presidential election, with the top two vote recipients advancing to a decisive second-round run-off election if no one receives a majority in the first. Bolsonaro claims that the 2018 elections were actually decided in his favor in the first round and that that election was stolen by the left. Somehow, he eventually defeated them in the second round, when, apparently, they couldn’t steal the election anymore.
Bolsonaro took these claims to a new level in July, when he invited an astonished audience to yet another one of his public rants about the Supreme Court, politics and electoral system in Brazil. This audience was astonished, however, only because it was not the usual crowd of Brazilian politicians and members of his administration. Instead, these were foreign ambassadors, invited to a horrid presentation of conspiracy theories and flat-out lies delivered directly by the Brazilian head of state. Amazingly, no one had asked Bolsonaro to give a talk on the Brazilian voting system to Brazil’s international partners; it was something he did on his own initiative.
Defeat and the Populist Death Spiral
If Bolsonaro loses the election in October and claims it’s the result of fraud, he will have completed his imitation of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
And like Donald Trump, he is unlikely to prevail in his claims about the election. During the current campaign season, as Lula has risen in the polls, it has become clear that Bolsonaro has alienated many of the power centers that might have helped him remain in office, including local governors, the judiciary, and even the military. The possibility that Bolsonaro might lead a successful coup d’etat with the support of military and civil leaders is unlikely.
This does not mean that Bolsonaro will not contest the election results—or that he won’t argue that his loss was caused by a conspiracy, or that he won’t incite his remaining supporters to take to the streets to protest the voting machines, the Brazilian Supreme Court or the media. These protests could evolve into physical attacks on institutions, such as Congress or the Supreme Court, much in the style of Trump’s supporters on Jan. 6. However, rumors abound in Brasilia of Bolsonaro allies’ already speaking with members of Lula’s team. Such conversations will certainly get more intense in the next few months, granting stability to the country’s transition of power and diminishing Bolsonaro’s odds of disrupting it.
Bolsonaro’s claim that he alone was fighting a corrupt system made him a hero to a few, but distanced him from other supporters whose votes were vital to his remaining in power. It is hard to build a permanent political movement within a democracy when your premise is that all democratic institutions have been corrupted by your adversaries. Without power or even a political party to call its own—Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, like most Brazilian parties, is ideologically weak and diverse—Bolsonarism is unlikely to remain a relevant political force in Brazil in the next decade. The Workers’ Party, however, will probably survive.
Sad is the nation that replaces a right-leaning populist with a left-leaning populist. Once again, those who stand for the principles of a liberal and open society, a fiscally responsible government, and a president who doesn’t praise dictators will start another presidential term firmly in opposition to the new occupant. Brazil should not elect Lula, who is still facing legal charges that should have been completely resolved before he was allowed to run for president again.
But Jair Bolsonaro is an anachronistic echo of the inept authoritarian generals of the 1970s and a threat to Brazil’s stability as a democracy. I will not be sad to see him go.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.