With just days left before the final vote in Brazil’s toxic presidential election, it is clear that, barring a seismic change in fortunes, Jair Bolsonaro will become Brazil’s next head of state. The authoritarian former army captain, who last week said he wants to return Brazil to the way it was 40 or 50 years ago, has a commanding double-digit lead over his leftist rival Fernando Haddad ahead of Sunday’s run-off ballot.
(Dom Phillips is a Brazil-based journalist writing as a columnist for Reuters. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Brazilians like Bolsonaro’s radical plans for addressing soaring violent crime that include loosening gun control, giving Brazil’s police impunity to shoot crooks, and chemically castrating rapists. They admire the anti-graft discourse from one of the few politicians in Brazil who has not been tainted by scandal. But while his promises to make Brazil a great nation resonate, few have considered how his likely mandate may upend the world’s view of Brazil.
They are unconcerned by Bolsonaro’s notorious racist, homophobic and sexist comments – declaring that homosexuality could be beaten out of children, that refugees were the scum of the earth and that women should get paid less than men. They either ignore or condone his support for the military dictatorship that ran Brazil from 1964 to 1985, torturing and executing opponents. That he wants Brazil out of the Paris climate agreement and supports economic exploitation, not environmental protection, in the Amazon rainforest barely registers. But this all creates a deep sense of alarm abroad.
Among the tens of millions of rich and poor Brazilians now backing Bolsonaro, many previously voted for two-time leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – Lula. Others see Bolsonaro as the least worst option to Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT), which was tainted by the enormous graft scandal unveiled while his successor Dilma Rousseff was in power and the debilitating recession that followed. Bolsonaro supporters crow over the 12-year prison sentence Lula is serving for graft and money laundering.
Bolsonaro’s traditionalist, moralist, pro-family position appeals in this profoundly conservative, Roman Catholic country with its booming evangelical Christian population. Influential televangelists, police officers and military personnel support him. Voters are subject to a relentless barrage of propaganda and downright lies from Bolsonaro’s supporters on social media and the WhatsApp groups that big Brazilian families use to keep in touch.
Some of the more extreme among Bolsonaro’s supporters have even accused Haddad and his party of promoting incest and sexualizing children. In a country with high cellphone use, where a third of the population is functionally illiterate, some of these slanders stick.
The propaganda all pushes the same argument – that Bolsonaro is the savior who will rescue the fatherland from ruin, reverse moral decay, save Christianity and the traditional, heterosexual family and halt an irreversible slide into Venezuela-style collapse.
And after tens of thousands of women demonstrated against Bolsonaro under the slogan ‘ele não’ – ‘not him’ – Carlos Bolsonaro, one of the candidate’s lawmaker sons, tweeted a photo of a man being tortured in a plastic bag, captioned with the same phrase.
The Workers’ Party has aided its own humiliation with an ineffectual campaign, and its followers have spread their fair share of false news and lies. Haddad – an academic who served as mayor of São Paulo and Lula’s education minister – became its last-minute candidate when a court ruled Lula out. The party has refused to admit any involvement in graft, denies any culpability for the recession, and officially supports oppressive leftist regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Cid Gomes, brother of Ciro Gomes, a leftist candidate who came third in the first round of voting, laid into a PT meeting last week. “You have to apologize,” he told militants in a speech, “you are going to lose badly.” Video of the speech went straight into a Bolsonaro campaign commercial, fueling more self-righteousness and confirming the conviction that the man supporters call “legend” has come to save Brazil from the decadent communist hordes.
In a speech on Sunday delivered by video-link to thousands of supporters gathered in São Paulo, Bolsonaro threatened his Workers’ Party rivals with prison or exile. “These red marginals will be banned from our fatherland,” he said. “It will be a cleansing never seen before in Brazilian history.”
For Bolsonaro’s more passionate supporters the candidate can do no wrong. When the Economist called him a “menace” who would make a disastrous president, they were incensed. When the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan said that Bolsonaro sounded like their kind of guy, they attacked a “fake narrative.” (Bolsonaro rejected the endorsement, tweeting that he “refused any support coming from supremacist groups.”) When FC Barcelona, one of the world’s most successful soccer clubs, distanced itself from former player and Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho over his endorsement of Bolsonaro, they simply ignored it. And when reports of dozens of attacks, including two murders, by Bolsonaro supporters on leftists, women, reporters and LGBT people emerged, they rubbished them as leftist lies.
The disconnect is absolute. Supporters believe Bolsonaro will deliver the long-awaited “country of the future.” Instead, as he himself said, he wants to take it back into the past – and the Amazon may be where that is felt hardest.
Bolsonaro wants to free up mining in the Amazon’s protected indigenous reserves and end Brazil’s environmental protection policies. Luiz Nabhan Garcia, Bolsonaro’s top agriculture adviser, recently said he thought there was a lot of “fantasy” and “legend” in the science of global warming.
But this is not the 1970s. There is certain to be international pushback once his agribusiness allies start tearing down the Amazon. Customers could stop buying Brazilian beef – one of the country’s main exports. Pop stars concerned about the likelihood of alienating international fans may turn down lucrative opportunities to perform for wealthy Brazilians. Instead of making Brazil great again, Bolsonaro could end up presiding over a country that has become an authoritarian, human-rights abusing, environmental tragedy.
Dom Phillips is a British journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. @domphillips
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.