News, Opinion

Brazilian Election: The Bolsonaro Phenomenon

By Beatriz Blank ‘20 with Talia Levin ‘20


Since the results of the Brazilian elections came out, many people have said to me: “I am so sorry that Bolsonaro won.” Well, first of all, don’t be. Although he would not have been my first candidate, he is the best shot Brazil has at recovering from years of corruption and crisis. The Bolsonaro phenomenon is not recent. It began a few years ago when Brazilians started to realize that the old, corrupt political class in power was incapable of making the country move forward.

The Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato in Portuguese) began in March 2014, commanded by Judge Sérgio Moro. It is an ongoing criminal investigation carried out by the Federal Police of Brazil, with the aim of catching criminals among the two most acclaimed Brazilian Parties – the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB). As the years passed, it further expanded to the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), PT’s long-held rival. Many PT leaders were indicted in this process; president Dilma Rousseff was impeached in August 2016 and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was arrested in April 2018.

These outcomes opened Brazilians’ eyes to how corrupt the old political class was and solidified the people’s desire for a better government. Bolsonaro, after 30 years of political work, had never been involved in a corruption scandal. Having come from a military background, he stood up for political ethics and conservatism, pillars that slowly attracted most of the dissatisfied Brazilian population.
If someone told me two years ago that Jair Messias Bolsonaro would become president someday, I would laugh. At the time, he was too extreme of a politician, and his unpopularity was huge. Currently associated with the Social Liberal Party (PSL), he had been a member of the Chair of Deputies since 1991. He was very conservative in values, and even more conservative in the economy, defending a strong state government, which prevented him from having a shot at the presidency. He was too far-right in the political spectrum for me to support him, and the idea of him winning seemed more like a joke. No one thought he would go forward with his candidacy.

However, two years ago, Bolsonaro started to embrace a liberal economy, raising his chances of being a potential candidate. Previously, he had been considered outdated. Bolsonaro allied with Paulo Guedes, one of Brazil’s most famous liberal economists, who helped him realize what Brazil needed: a free market, a minimum state, reduction of taxes, and privatization of state-owned enterprises.

To give you some background, the Brazilian president is elected to a four-year term by an absolute majority vote through a two-round system. There are about 10 to 15 candidates in the first round and the two candidates with the most votes go to a second round if one of them does not achieve more than 50% of the valid votes in the first one. Also, voting is not optional – everyone is obligated to vote. Bolsonaro benefited because all of his major opponents represented the old political class, while he was a new figure in the presidential elections. He went to the second round with PT candidate Fernando Haddad, the only candidate whose disapproval rating was almost as high as Bolsonaro and proved to be even higher over time.

Bolsonaro unexpectedly achieved 47% of the votes in the first round, which, in my opinion, represented Brazil’s cry for help. In the second round, he won with 55.13% of the valid votes. This partly happened because he was competing against a candidate whose party had been in power for the last 12 years, causing enormous damage to the economy and led Brazil into a huge national crisis. Additionally, during his campaign, Bolsonaro promised to fight corruption and invest in public safety, two social pillars that Brazil has constantly failed to address over the past years.

Bolsonaro’s first move after being elected was nominating qualified people as ministers for his government, rather than relying on the old personalities that had been in power for years. Judge Sérgio Moro, who commanded the Lava Jato Operation, will now become Minister of Justice, and Paulo Guedes will become Minister for Economic Affairs. This has given the Brazilian people high hopes and expectations.

It is important to mention that Bolsonaro has made polemical declarations in the past, and has been accused of racism, homophobia, and sexism; this is one of the reasons why I don’t sympathize with him as a person. I’m not trying to justify his actions at all, but I do want to point out that most of his problematic statements that are frequently quoted are from at least 10 years ago, and I believe (or hope, at least) that people can mature and change. However, none of his statements made during the campaign or after his election included hate speech. He seems to be gradually leaning towards more moderate behavior.

Additionally, Bolsonaro is hoping to strengthen Brazil’s relationship with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he will probably attend Bolsonaro’s presidential inauguration on January 1st, and Bolsonaro now says he plans on moving Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Overall, the election results make me hopeful. Managing to remove PT from power was a huge step in the right direction, and Bolsonaro’s proposals are extremely promising. The main reason why my family decided to move to New York was the threat of violence in Brazil, and I am glad to hear that fighting against violence is one of Bolsonaro’s priorities. Even though I used to live in a “good” area in Rio de Janeiro, I was in constant fear of my surroundings. For instance, people stopped using their phones in the streets, out of fear not only of being robbed but also of being hurt or murdered in the process. Coming back home late at night became harder and harder, and parents were only able to sleep well at night only if they knew their child was taking a bulletproof car. Brazil’s situation has come to a point where no place feels safe anymore, and hopefully, Bolsonaro will address this issue. If the previously safe areas in the country are at such great risk, imagine how most of the population must feel about their safety! Furthermore, the fight against corruption sets the tone for society as a whole, and from the moment the government starts setting a good example for their people, I believe that things will definitely change. Although there is still a long, hard road ahead, Bolsonaro’s election marks the beginning of a new era for Brazil.


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