Rogerio Schlegel argues that the popularity of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro reflects part of Brazilian society’s deep-seated aversion to equality. Ideally, the second round of elections on 28 October can be a rallying point for a pro-democracy alliance.

This past Sunday, 7 October, over 116 million Brazilians went to the ballots to elect a new president, governors, and representatives for federal and state legislatures. Jair Bolsonaro, a former army parachutist, fell short of winning the presidency in the first round by less than four percentage points. This development has sounded an alarm for those who stand for democracy. Thirty years after the end of military dictatorship (1964 to 1985), many Brazilians voted for a politician who advocates violence as a tool to curb escalating crime, openly justifies torture, and despises the democratic system of representation. Ironically, an operation aimed at freeing the state from corruption may have contributed to his rising popularity.

The lure of Bolsonaro’s candidacy comes from his ability to galvanize widespread disenchantment with politics and politicians – a plot far from exclusive among countries that recently started flirting with anti-democratic politicians and policies. In Brazil, this follows over three years of scandals involving bribery, political parties, and Petrobras, Brazil’s giant state-run oil company. The Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, inspired by Italy's Mani Pulite, revealed how deeply intertwined corruption, commercial interests, and party financing are in Brazilian politics. Its impact was all the more overwhelming because the public was largely oblivious to the hidden political agendas of officials responsible for the investigation, including of some within the judiciary.

Other factors also played a role in the campaign, such as an economic crisis that has eroded the purchasing power of the minimum wage since 2015, and a concern with crime that led to federal intervention in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The recent presidential election outcome suggests the consequences of Operation Lava Jato reach far beyond the Workers’ Party (PT), which was its main target. Traditional parties and their leaders virtually sank at the ballot boxes.

Bolsonaro, the Social Liberal Party’s (PSL) candidate, succeeded in selling himself as an alternative to the establishment. Bolsonaro has demonstrated contempt for women, open racism, and has criticized the democratic decision-making process. His proposed tough-on-crime policies allow for killing accused suspects without trial. He advocates that the army should deal with immigrants, refugees, and indigenous peoples. He distrusts the electronic voting system used in Brazil for decades and has declared that any outcome different from his victory would be suspect. He campaigned heavily through social networks, avoiding interviews in traditional media outlets.

Bolsonaro has been a representative of the state of Rio de Janeiro in the Chamber of Deputies since 1991, and part of his credibility arises from the fact that his far-wing and extremists speeches are not new.

"I am in favor of a dictatorship," he declared to The New York Times in 1993. "We will never resolve serious national problems with this irresponsible democracy."

During Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s terms from1995 to 2002, Bolsonaro argued for the president’s execution as part of the dictatorship’s unfinished business.

Both candidates that made it to the second round represent Brazil’s past, but at different points in time. Bolsonaro is nostalgic of the dictatorship that curbed freedom and killed hundreds of opposing citizens. On the other side is Fernando Haddad (PT), who has the support of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Lula is under a controversial imprisonment, disputable even among members of the Supreme Court, and was forbidden to run for presidency by provisional orders of Appeal Courts. Haddad earned a PhD in Philosophy from the most prestigious university in Brazil, was Lula’s Minister of Education, and served as mayor of Brazilian largest city, São Paulo, from 2012 to 2016. Haddad was the vice-presidential candidate on PT’s ticket until one month before the election.  

The first-round presidential election results expressed the country’s rejection of a relevant part of the electorate for the Workers’ Party – another factor that fuelled Bolsonaro’s impressive performance. In any election, voters must balance enduring political beliefs with ongoing circumstances. My hypothesis is that Bolsonaro was the candidate that best vocalized the deep aversion to equality shared by part of the Brazilian population.

Lula’s policies prioritized income redistribution and a state-centered approach towards economic growth. They benefited from the expansion of domestic consumption and the increase in commodity prices in the world market. Lula left the government with close to an 80 percent approval rating and resisted the temptation of changing the Constitution to have a third term – an enticement that seduced some of his counterparts in the Pink Tide which led left wing politicians to power in Latin America.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, faced the challenges of growing inflation, explosive public deficit, and stagnation. The combination of economic crisis and political mismanagement led to her impeachment in 2016. But PT’s heritage, especially its focus on the poor, was enough to take its candidate to second place and reawaken objections to equalizing policies.

Since democratization, five out of seven presidential elections have required second rounds. In all five instances, the runoff confirmed the winner of the first round. However, this is an atypical election and the plebiscitarian logic that has prevailed thus far may lead to unprecedented outcomes.

During his campaign, Bolsonaro was stabbed on the street—a crime attributed to a lone wolf in profound disagreement with the candidate’s ideas—and was hospitalized for weeks, preventing his opponents from engaging in an aggressively negative campaign against him. A pro-democracy alliance uniting different forces of the political spectrum might be more viable now. At the same time, the rejection of PT and the reminders about its connections with corruption are bound to be more strongly explored. With three weeks left before the decisive voting day on 28 October, the future of the Brazilian democracy itself is at stake.


Rogerio Schlegel is an associate professor at the Federal University of São Paulo and a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Institute of Latin American Studies.