On Sunday, Brazilians elected a far-right populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose charismatic campaign has dramatically reshaped the country’s political landscape. Ever linguistically playful, Brazilians invented a series of nicknames: On the right, “Bolsominions” (the president’s most fervent followers) sold T-shirts lauding their guy as “O Mito,” or “The Myth.” On the left, supporters of candidate Fernando Haddad adopted the hashtag “#Bolsoasno” (Bolso-donkey).
Bolsonaro’s supporters seemed to revel in his inflammatory rhetoric and disparaging comments toward women and minorities, in the mythos of his surviving an ill-conceived September assassination attempt, and in his messianic campaign promises.
What does Bolsonaro’s victory signal?
The rise of a candidate like Bolsonaro is surprising in a country that has long ranked near the top of the region on indicators of political tolerance. Under the leadership of the center-leftist Workers’ Party from 2003 through 2016, Brazil was known globally for its pragmatic approach to governing — the counterpoint to more radical brands of leftism in Venezuela and elsewhere. As recently as 2010, outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva enjoyed approval ratings near 90 percent.
Is Brazil undergoing a seismic shift from historical tolerance and moderation? Will Brazilians adopt the harsher tone of their new leader when addressing political opponents, women, racial minorities and the LGBT community?
Tolerance was already under fire
Brazil’s democratic and tolerant political culture had started to erode long before any political buzz about Bolsonaro’s potential candidacy. When this year’s campaign officially began in July, Brazilians had seen five years of stagnant or even negative economic growth, massive corruption investigations, divisive presidential elections, dueling protests and the impeachment of a sitting president. The 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, brief interludes, were largely forgotten — though the large public works associated with these events may have abetted corruption.
Support for democracy has been on a downward trend in Brazil at least since 2010. Qualitative interviews we conducted in September 2017 make it clear that many Brazilians had reached a point of despair about their political system. As one interviewee remarked: “It is sort of a complicated business, I think … to not have hope.… I never ever thought about leaving Brazil, but if I did not have family here, I would have already gone.”
Bolsonaro’s campaign profited from this skepticism
Bolsonaro did not create this crisis of democratic confidence. Rather, his campaign exploited it by portraying the candidate as a law-and-order outsider who could restore discipline.
Bolsonaro’s campaign also weaponized old social biases and divisions. Our prior work shows that, despite popular myths affirming Brazil as a “racial democracy,” racial and gender discrimination are common. Despite large reservoirs of tolerance, Brazil has historically had high rates of anti-LGBT hate crimes. And even prior to the campaign, most Brazilians endorsed negative stereotypes of impoverished families participating in the Bolsa Família social safety net program, which had become less popular amid the economic crisis.
So now what happens to the political culture of democracy in Brazil?
The supporters of the “Myth” who took to the streets to celebrate last Sunday will be looking for quick results. Yet Bolsonaro’s administration will face numerous policy and governability challenges, including crime, corruption, health care, taxes and pension reform. It is unclear whether this self-admittedly “untrained” leader will be able to maneuver the complex politics of building legislative coalitions in a Congress with 30 distinct political parties.
Disappointment with Bolsonaro could exacerbate democratic cynicism among his supporters — many of whom already exhibit weaker attachment to democratic norms than their fellow citizens, according to our research.
The opposite scenario, however, may present the greater danger. Bolsonaro’s followers may defend their leader zealously — even helping him limit others’ civil rights. Prior to the election, electoral authorities authorized police to enter public universities and classrooms to remove pro-democracy and anti-fascist documents, computer drives and banners. These actions were ostensibly aimed to prevent illegal campaign advertising, under the dubious and worrisome argument that pro-democracy speech constituted criticism of Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy. After the election, one newly elected legislator has set up a WhatsApp hotline for students to submit complaints regarding and recordings of anti-Bolsonaro speech by their professors.
It may be a hard time for female, minority and LGBT Brazilians
Bolsonaro’s leadership is likely also to contribute to growing intolerance of women, racial minorities and the LGBT community. Brazilians have historically voiced strong support for the norm of equality. Yet political science research finds that, over time, voters tend to adopt the views of their chosen “team.” A moderate who affiliates with an extremist candidate for unrelated reasons can be gradually radicalized. And in times of perceived crisis and threat, voters are more vulnerable to authoritarian appeals.
Still, it is important to remember that only a plurality of the Brazilian electorate voted for Bolsonaro this past Sunday. Nearly 30 percent of registered voters abstained or cast null/blank ballots in the second round, despite the country’s compulsory voting rules.
Supporters of Bolsonaro’s leftist opponent Haddad now face the uncertainty of offering political resistance to the resurgent right while rebuilding an electorally competitive coalition. On Tuesday, they took to the streets in São Paulo, voicing anxiety over Bolsonaro’s radical anti-democratic rhetoric. These demonstrations may presage more turmoil ahead, particularly if pro-Bolsonaro security forces seek to repress future activism.
The good news is that the losing side — perhaps still harboring the historical memory of Brazil’s brutal 1964-to-1985 military regime — seems committed to democratic procedures. As a consequence, it appears that Brazil will experience yet another peaceful transfer of executive power — the eighth since the end of the military regime in 1985. Barring another surprise in Brazilian politics, the opposition will have to wait four more years for the chance to replace the president.
Matthew Layton is assistant professor of political science at Ohio University.
Amy Erica Smith is associate professor of political science at Iowa State University and is author of Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God (2019, Cambridge University Press).