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Mar 23, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

Meet the Man Who Could Unseat Brazil's Entrenched Leaders

The Brazilian political scene is ripe for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro.
(ANDRESSA ANHOLETE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Brazil's widening corruption scandal, coupled with rising unemployment and instability, will pave the way for political outsiders to gain electoral ground ahead of next year’s presidential election.
  • Right-wing lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro will be particularly well-positioned to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction to build support for his campaign.
  • In response, the country's traditional political parties will consider fielding nontraditional candidates in hopes of improving their chances of winning the presidency.

Last year's impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff has not brought the measure of political stability to Brazil that many had hoped it would. Most of the activist groups that called for her removal in August are still protesting against rampant corruption in the government, much of which has come to light throughout the course of an ongoing investigation into the scandal surrounding state-owned energy giant Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobras). In fact, activists with the Free Brazil Movement, the Online Rebels, and Vem Pra Rua plan to hold a demonstration on March 26 in support of the probe, which has expanded to include hundreds of politicians in Brazil's current administration.

That the bulk of the country's political establishment is under investigation — at a time when the economy is still mired in recession and Brazilian police are threatening to go on strike over unpaid wages — has created fertile ground for anti-establishment forces to take root. And one rising star, Jair Bolsonaro, is particularly well-positioned to capitalize on the public's grievances ahead of next year's presidential election.

A Challenge to the Establishment

A former military officer and political outsider, Bolsonaro won his current seat in the National Congress by a landslide in Rio de Janeiro's 2014 elections. According to a February poll by Parana Pesquisas, his popularity has only grown since then: Though former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is still the leading contender for the country's 2018 presidential race, with support from around 22 percent of voters, Bolsonaro has crept up to join Sen. Aecio Neves and Marina Silva, an ecologist and activist, in a three-way tie for second place with around 12 percent. Interestingly, another poll conducted by CNT/MDA showed that over 50 percent of Brazilians would refuse to vote for da Silva — while only 17.9 percent said the same of Bolsonaro. Taken together, these polls suggest that da Silva would have a hard time winning a second round of the presidential election, assuming he is allowed to even compete while there is a lawsuit open against him for charges of corruption and obstruction of justice. 

Considering more than half of Brazilian voters are still undecided as to whom they will back, Bolsonaro's candidacy bears watching. Brazil's center-right elites are certainly keeping a close eye on his progress, wary of his ability to siphon away votes from their support base. The Social Democracy Party of Brazil (PSDB) — one of Brazil's largest center-right parties — has even begun to discuss the possibility of fielding Sao Paulo Mayor Joao Doria as its candidate in 2018. (Doria won his post last year, in part, on the strength of his narrative as an outsider from the traditional political establishment.) Unlike the other politicians on the PSDB's shortlist, the businessman and television star also doesn't have accusations of accepting illegal campaign donations hanging over his head.

An Outsider's Agenda

Doria is not the only potential roadblock in Bolsonaro's path to the presidency. After all, Bolsonaro himself is a highly controversial figure. He has, for example, praised former Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who participated in the torture of leftist activists like Rousseff under the military government that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. Bolsonaro has also made disparaging remarks about human rights activists, homosexuals and indigenous peoples while vowing to fill half of his Cabinet with military officials.

Nevertheless, some of Bolsonaro's stances have also made him quite popular with certain segments of Brazilian voters. His vocal opposition to corruption — and so far, his immunity to the allegations that have destroyed the careers of many of his peers — has earned him many followers. The same is true of his tough stance on crime, promotion of gun ownership, and steadfast support for the military. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro's positions against gay marriage and abortion have made him the darling of evangelical and orthodox Catholic groups, an increasingly powerful constituency in Brazil. Over the past decade, the number of evangelicals in the country jumped by more than 60 percent, and many experts estimate that they could surpass their Catholic counterparts by 2030. It is no coincidence that the Brazilian Republican Party — a movement with strong ties to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God — is working to recruit Bolsonaro as its next presidential candidate.

Of course, as is true for many Brazilian politicians, Bolsonaro's standing varies by region. The anti-system candidate has a much stronger base of support in Brazil's wealthier southeastern states than he does in the poorer north, where many citizens have gained from the social programs instated by the ruling Workers' Party. Bolsonaro's repeated criticisms of these policies as ineffective means of developing the country have not sat well with their biggest beneficiaries.

The lawmaker's take on the economy is not as clear as his views on social and security issues. For instance, Bolsonaro has argued that the government should play less of a role in the Brazilian economy, while at the same time calling for Brasilia's intervention in the central bank to lower interest rates. He has also proposed allowing the government to renegotiate the terms of its public debt. Bolsonaro has voted in favor of permitting international energy companies to hold bigger shares in Brazil's pre-salt oil exploration ventures, and he has advocated against environmental regulations on farming. But he has also called for greater state intervention in the mining sector and the protection of national industries.

Should Bolsonaro win Brazil's presidential race next year, he will assume control of a country divided.

Bolsonaro's approach to foreign policy, on the other hand, is a little more straightforward. The congressman has repeatedly urged the Brazilian government to introduce more flexibility into the rules governing the Common Market of the South, a customs union and trade bloc commonly known as Mercosur. He has also suggested that Brazil distance itself from Venezuela and Cuba and instead forge closer ties with the United States and European Union.

Changing the Status Quo

Should Bolsonaro win Brazil's presidential race next year, he will assume control of a country divided. In order to get things done, he would have to achieve the daunting task of forming and maintaining a complicated network of political alliances — particularly with actors in the country's north, where his support base is weakest. In an effort to safeguard his position, Bolsonaro will likely try to partner with parties that have close ties to Christian churches and groups, such as the Brazilian Republican Party, the Party of the Republic and even the larger Progressive Party. But as Bolsonaro is no doubt aware, Brazilian presidents who enter office backed by fragile coalitions have a history of being impeached. As a result, he will probably seek out a wider array of allies than those who fall within his immediate ideological camp — a move that could force him to moderate his political views once campaign season begins.

Either way, Bolsonaro's reputation as a political outsider will give him a leg up against many of his rivals. Brazilian voters are dissatisfied with their country's current state of affairs, and some will no doubt vent their frustrations at the polls. As the Brazilian economy continues to founder, unemployment has gradually risen from 5 to 12 percent over the past two years. And despite having staunch allies in Congress, President Michel Temer's Cabinet has become embroiled in several corruption scandals since taking power less than a year ago. (On March 14, for example, Brazilian General Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot asked the country's Supreme Federal Court to open an investigation into at least nine Cabinet ministers suspected of taking illegal campaign donations and bribes from Brazilian engineering firm Odebrecht.)

Brazilian states, meanwhile, can no longer afford to pay their police forces' salaries because of the heavy toll the enduring recession has taken on their finances. Determined to receive their delayed paychecks, police officers have gone on strike in the states of Espirito Santo and Rio Grande do Sul. The unrest is now threatening to spread to Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais states, while prison riots in the north have left hundreds of inmates dead. And as Brazil's instability and economic prospects worsen, calls for a leader willing to be tough on crime and pursue difficult changes will grow louder.

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