On Brazil’s Choice of Extreme Right

The success of Brazilian populist leader Bolsonaro is termed as a classic case of ‘protest vote’ by the disillusioned middle classes with the leader ‘playing grievance politics’ … 

Brazil’s evangelical Christians have emerged as an increasingly powerful political force, as confirmed in the highly polarised presidential and congressional elections held on 28 October. Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right member of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) and former army captain, is Brazil’s next president, with 55.7 percent of votes. Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro’s closest opponent and the large leftist Workers’ Party’s (PT) replacement for Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, failed to secure majority. Although Haddad promised to restore the economy to its former state of health under Lula’s presidency from 2003 to 2010, most of the Brazilians have little faith left in the country’s political class after numerous high-level corruption scandals surfaced since 2014 as part of the Lava Jato, or Car Wash, anti-graft probe and other interlocking investigations, which also involved Lula who is now serving 12 years in jail and was barred from running in this election.

While Bolsonaro’s victory has been referred to as a political earthquake, a disaster for the Amazon and global climate change and a blow to antifascist activists, the Brazilians have clearly made their choice for the extreme right. Significantly, about 147 million Brazilians headed to polls against a backdrop of widespread dissatisfaction prompted by a stuttering economy, worsening violent crime rates and several recent high-profile corruption scandals. While it is South America’s largest economy, a regional powerhouse and is part of the so-called five-member ‘BRICS’ group of major emerging economies alongside Russia, India, China and South Africa, Brazil is nevertheless battling several threatening challenges amidst increased unrest and widening polarisation among the country’s citizens. Beginning in mid-2014, a more than two-year deep recession rocked the country and stagnated growth.

Although the country has managed out of the recession, the economy is still struggling to recover and unemployment stands at above 12 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Violent crime has also surged in the last few years as in 2017, a record 63,880 homicides took place in Brazil, up 2.9 percent from 2016; in the grip of a worsening public security crisis, Brazil is now home to seven of the world’s 20 most violent cities.

Choosing two ideologically opposed candidates in the first round of polls held on 7 October, Brazilians have been called ‘disillusioned’, frustrated by four years of severe economic crisis and corruption in the country. Brazilians’ disaffection with the current state of the government explains why the anti-establishment presidential candidate performed so well in the elections. Bolsonaro has been described as the ‘Trump of the Tropics,’ in reference to policies he advocates that are similar to those of US President Donald Trump. Bolsonaro has styled himself as a political outsider untarnished by corruption and pledged to end Brazil’s security problems by militarising the police and loosening gun laws.

His numerous discriminatory comments on race, gender and sexual orientation have angered and alarmed tens of millions of Brazilians. Despite all these controversies, for a huge number of Brazil’s low income voters, Bolsonaro means change. Although his rhetoric had often been blasted as violently anti-poor, misogynist, racist and dismissive of social safety nets and workers’ rights, by other candidates, many low income voters, tired of all the violence and ‘corruption of the left’, voted for the candidate who promised to make things different. 

Considering the waves of populism and neopopulism in Brazilian history, the ‘electoral shock’ of Brazil’s authoritarian populist in fact might not come as a shock. Where populism is rising in the United States and Europe by attracting votes with anti-immigration and anti-globalisation rhetoric, populist voices had fallen conspicuously silent in Latin America. However, Brazil and several other Latin American states have witnessed the rise and fall of many populist leaders in their history. The electoral shock is perhaps the return of populism to the country.

The success of Brazilian populist leader Bolsonaro is termed as a classic case of ‘protest vote’ by the disillusioned middle classes with the leader ‘playing grievance politics’. With Brazil being a fledgling democracy with weak institutional checks on executive excesses, Bolsonaro is expected to fill his cabinet with countless military men, promising to bring about stability under firm ‘iron-fisted’ leadership.

Although Brazil may witness years of stability in future, Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendency, violent anti-crime policies and the militarization of Brazilian politics could spell disaster for the country’s democratic institutions; the obvious risk being the politicisation of the armed forces at the expense of democratic control over men in barracks, who previously ruled the country for more than two decades (1964-1985).

Jair Bolsonaro is not the first political candidate, and certainly not the last, to use the phenomenon of the ‘politics of disillusionment’ to win elections. This phenomenon has helped conservative outsiders to win in the United States, Italy and Hungary. With the new president’s populist ambitions and militaristic instinct as well as promises to purge leftists from the country, Brazil is set to witness the change Bolsonaro promised to bring. The next few years will not only set a new course for Brazil’s young democracy but for the whole region and the world has placed its eyes on Brazil to witness what may be called a ‘revival’ of populism in the country.

The author Faria Pitafi is an intern at the PIIA. 


Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica, https://www.ibge.gov.br/

Seguridad, Justicia Y Paz, https://www.seguridadjusticiaypaz.org.mx/ranking-de-ciudades-2017/

RJ Reinhart, ‘Brazilians Face Confidence Crisis Ahead of Election’ GALLUP,  https://news.gallup.com/poll/243161/brazilians-face-confidence-crisis-ahead-key-election.aspx

According to Helder Ferreira do Vale, Associate Professor, Graduate School of International and Area Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, when voters do not believe in their politicians or government institutions, candidates who tap into voter disdain for the political system can find success through the phenomenon of ‘politics of disillusionment.’ 

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Filed under Accountability, Brazil, Corruption, Discussion, Economy, Human Rights, Immigration, Pakistan Horizon, Police, United States

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