6 Reasons Why the Most Hated Politician in Latin America Became President of Brazil
Jair Bolsonaro is likely to be the most despised politician in Latin America. At least among a certain portion of the population. Some say he is the “Trump of the tropics” — in a pejorative way, of course. Nonetheless, he was elected president of Brazil. So how could that happen? How could a “homophobic, misogynist and racist ‘thing’” (according to a piece published in The Guardian) become Brazil’s leader?
There are several reasons why.
One: He Has Good Timing
The 14 years of Brazilian Workers’ Party’s tenure (2003–2016) ended on a sour note. This was the time of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff was found guilty of breaking budget laws and was removed from office (impeached) in 2016. Lula was convicted of money laundering and corruption and was sentence to jail time in 2018. As both Lula and Rousseff had been elected on the promise to clean up corruption, many Brazilians felt deceived.
To make things worse, the country plummeted into a financial crisis. The public debit reached an incredible 73.44 percent of GDP in 2016. Between 2014 and 2017, the unemployment rate rose sharply from 6.67 percent to 12.83 percent (and nearly 13 million people became unemployed). The crime rates increased to among the highest in the world — and no fewer than 63,880 Brazilians were killed in 2017.
A significant change seemed to be on the horizon.
Two: A Different Agenda
Around 2015, many Brazilians started to claim that the social-market model put into play by the Workers’ Party had failed. An uneasy feeling of economic hangover was felt — a kind of public-expenditure-spree aftermath. Here and there, voices begun to question the notion that government interventionism was responsible for the prosperity Brazil had enjoyed in the early-2000s. Some timidly began to make the case for capitalism, naming markets (the commodity boom, the growth of the industry and the increase in the service sector) as the real cause of the consequent reduction of poverty.
As a result, many voters turned to Jair Bolsonaro, a candidate with no money (with very modest campaign expenditures), no time on TV (just a couple of seconds), and no political capital (distance from the big parties). In short, no realistic chance of winning. At least, that is what the media and its specialists said at the time.
So, the country was eager for a swing toward the economically liberal end of the spectrum (for the motives outlined above) and Bolsonaro appeared to be the only one willing to do that. Many Brazilians decided to ignore his faults (even some serious ones) in the hopes of putting through true economic reform.
Is Bolsonaro the ideal politician? He is far from that. This feeling appears to be almost a consensus. Indeed, he leaves much to be desired. Most Brazilians who supported him do not appear to agree with his collection of harsh and controversial statements on a variety of issues.
But, why support him at all?
Regardless of all the controversies surrounding him, perhaps the main factor for Bolsonaro’s victory is quite straightforward: he was the only one who promised to bring back to life long-denounced policies (still unspeakable for some), such as less government intervention in the economy, reduction in taxes, and cuts in government spending. He also supported a sizable anti-crime package.
And the other candidates? They proposed nothing more than varying degrees of the usual welfare-state agenda.
Three: Left-Wing Missteps
If you want to convince someone of something, do not lambast and insult him for his existing position.
But this is what the Left did with Bolsonaro and his supporters.
Before his arising as the front-runner in the opinion polls, Bolsonaro was not more than a minor deputy — thought to be negligible as a president candidate. But his emergence as a potential winner engendered a strong reaction.
Celebrities (followed by their fans) posted the hashtag #NotHim (#EleNao) in their social media accounts. Mainstream media published furious analyzes, not even trying to sound neutral. Normal people got into daily harangues, upbraiding severely anyone who dared to admit he was considering supporting Bolsonaro.
This frenzy ended up triggering polarization. This hysterical overreaction allowed Bolsonaro to bring together several discontented heterogeneous groups (from conservatives to libertarians) and galvanized them in his favor.
In order to undermine Bolsonaro, his antagonists could have provided a narrative which made more sense than his. Instead, they focused all their efforts on a narrative in which Bolsonaro would represent a step away from democracy and pose a serious risk to the country. Even worse, the voters were told, Bolsonaro was allegedly emboldening his supporters who were mostly fascists or simply fools. The strategy backfired.
A lot of people understood these attacks as an attempt to impose a kind of moral and intellectual elitism. Moreover, it was feared the Left’s strategy was leading to a sort of “democratic certification” under which something (or someone) only could be said to be “democratic” if it conformed to what the cultural elite wanted. Obviously, the tactic of attacking so many Brazilians did not work well and turned out to bolster Bolsonaro’s candidacy as an outsider (anti-establishment). But according to many, that was exactly what Brazil needed.
Four: An Expanded Ideological Spectrum
Bolsonaro remains a pretty controversial figure, no doubt. A former Army captain, his political views were labeled as nationalist and populist, far-right and even fascist. Bolsonaro is anti-abortion, against gun control legislation, and against same-sex marriage. His motto was “Brazil above everything. God above everyone.”
Indeed, with this mindset (alongside a gauche behavior), made him something of a heretic in the context of Brazilian politics. But his support stemmed, at least in part, from the obstinacy of the Left, which tries to label as “far-right” anything that’s right of the center-left.
Indeed, the Brazilian political spectrum was long been constrained to only that which ranged from the far-left up to the center-left. Anything else was deemed “fascism.” By the time of the 2018 election, this limitation on allowable discussion fell apart. And here is the cause of a certain piece of drama: the stout criticism of Bolsonaro’s manners and ideas can be seen (partially) as smoke and mirrors. The real issue for the Left is this defeat of the rules governing the ideological paradigm.
Undeniably, Bolsonaro has many undesirable traits, including his stated his admiration for the military dictatorship. But the truth is that Brazilians were well aware of this and elected him anyway.
For instance, while the other candidates were addressing abstract and fanciful ideas of perfect equality, diversity, and fraternity, Bolsonaro was talking about ordinary (pedestrian) everyday problems, such as public safety, permanent jobs, better wages, etc. While the other candidates promised social programs (more of the same), Bolsonaro announced he was taking advice from renowned market-oriented economist Paulo Guedes and appointed him finance minister. While the other candidates used a soft tone on fighting crime, Bolsonaro promised strong measures. For example, he named Judge Sérgio Moro (taken as a hero by the people fed up with crime) as justice minister soon after the election.
Thus, Bolsonaro’s election represents, at the end of the day, a desperate effort of a country which had potential to be a great nation, but whose sustainable (long-term) development has been blocked by decades of systematic corruption, galloping crime, and an anti-capitalist mindset.
Six: Playing the Democratic Game
In spite of what many claim, Brazilian voters did not act irrationally by embracing Bolsonaro. They were not victims of seductive populism or mysterious ideological manipulation. They did not vote (unknowingly) against their own interests. They were quite rational. One could say they chose what they believed to be the least-bad candidate — the one they thought to be the best one for the country at the time.
And now? Only time will tell whether Brazil did well or not when it pinned its hopes on Bolsonaro.