Progress | Centre-left Labour politics
Jair Bolsanaro

Could Bolsonaro be Brazil’s Trump?

Felipe Krause asks if a system that favours moderate coalitions will be able to stand up to the rising tide of populism

Although right wing populism is on the rise all over the world, the most significant factors behind its recent appeal in Brazil are unique to the South American country: a failing economy, intolerable levels of violence, and the sudden and frightening exposure of what are in fact ancient systems of corruption.

Some factors are shared with other Western democracies. One important similarity with the political climate in the United States, for example, is the discomfort among conservative sections of the middle class with fast-changing social norms. The questioning of traditional gender roles, the acceptance of same-sex marriage, the celebration of racial diversity, the use of politically correct language – all this has provoked a backlash.

The results are similar to what can be observed in the United States, Britain or Italy. Brazil is undergoing a phase of increasing scepticism towards establishment politicians and mainstream political ideas. Tapping into a pre-existing conservative and aggressive mindset among a large part of the electorate, ‘outsider’ candidates and ‘tough’ policies have suddenly become very attractive.

Enter congressman and presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain known for his hateful outbursts against minorities and sparse knowledge of the actual functioning of government. By no means an outsider, Bolsonaro is in his seventh term in congress, having transitioned through nine political parties throughout his career. Three of his sons are in politics, the eldest now a leading contender for a seat in the senate.

Bolsonaro, however, successfully portrays himself as an outsider by ‘speaking his mind’, promising to radically change everything, bringing an end to corruption and, especially, to the violence. His method? More violence. Human rights? Only for the ‘right humans’. A good bandit, he asserts, is a dead one.

So what are Bolsonaro’s election prospects? In a word, strong. If former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva  is excluded from the ballot – which is likely to occur, due to a corruption conviction – Bolsonaro is the leading contender, with 17 per cent of intended votes. Next come Marina Silva (13 per cent), Ciro Gomes (eight per cent) and Geraldo Alckmin (six per cent). These numbers have held somewhat steady over the past few months, indicating that Bolsonaro would not win in the first round, but has a solid chance reaching the runoff.

This is where things get could get complicated for the right-winger. With his polarising views, Bolsonaro’s rejection rate of 32 per cent is the highest among the leading contenders. Marina Silva and Ciro Gomes, in contrast , both have rejection rates of 18 per cent. Projections for the second round have shown that Marina Silva would beat Bolsonaro by ten percentage points. On the other hand, Bolsonaro would tie with Ciro Gomes and could beat Geraldo Alckmin in a runoff. It should be noted, however, that the last (reliable) opinion polls were conducted over a month ago, and the scenario may very well have shifted since then.

If there is a change, however, it is unlikely to be favourable to Bolsonaro. In the last few weeks, he has suffered at least one major setback – difficulty finding a running mate. At least three offers were declined before a retired army general from a small rightwing party finally accepted the position. Selecting a strong running mate is important in Brazil’s ‘coalition presidency’ system, where a vice-president from another party can guarantee wider support and more resources from the public fund for campaign finance. In Geraldo Alckmin’s case, the choice of a prominent right-wing female senator will probably steal much of Bolsonaro’s thunder.

Not unlike Donald Trump, support for Bolsonaro among the poorest segment of the population is weak. Furthermore, while his race-tinged comments on ‘banditry’ are well-received in the south-east of the country, Bolsonaro struggles among the largely Afro-Brazilian north-eastern electorate, who still stand by former president Lula. If Lula is indeed impeded from running, it is likely that many of those votes would be transferred to Marina Silva, who herself comes from the north of the country.

Studies have shown that Brazil’s fragmented political party system tends to favour moderate coalitions, rather than polarising candidates, at least in the context of presidential elections. The upcoming elections in Brazil are atypical and it is impossible to predict what will happen. But there are solid reasons to believe that – much like the French elections of 2002 and 2017 – Brazilian voters will unite behind a moderate candidate when, in the second round, they are faced with the real prospect of having a rightwing extremist as president.


Felipe Krause is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge


Photo: By Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Felipe Krause

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