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Just how far right was Bolsonaro?

Oliver Pieper | Jean-Philip Struck
December 30, 2022

On January 1, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will be sworn in as Brazil’s new president — a good time to assess the far-right legacy of his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

Jair Bolsonaro (center) at a parade for Brazilian Independence Day in 2019
Jair Bolsonaro (center) at a parade for Brazilian Independence Day in 2019 Image: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

How far to the right is it when a Brazilian president and his supporters officially celebrate the 1964 anniversary of the military coup that began a dictatorship in the South American country? Or when he gives a much-applauded speech in support of demonstrators who two years ago called for military intervention and the closure of the Supreme Court? Or, in a style reminiscent of a slaveholder, incites against ethnic minorities such as Indigenous people and Afro-Brazilians and rails against the rights of women and gay people?

If anyone can answer this, it's David Magalhaes. A professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, Magalhaes in early 2020 founded the "Observatorio da Extrema Direita" (OED), which closely observes radical right-wing movements in Brazil and beyond.

He makes a distinction between outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro and his government. "There are a number of institutional constraints there that limit Bolsonaro's ability to act, and therefore I classify his government as radical right, not extreme right, in the ideological family of the populist radical right," he said.

"Bolsonaro, on the other hand, we can classify as a right-wing extremist leader because he has been an apologist for the most violent period of Brazil's military dictatorship and does not accept the rules of the game of democracy."

Undermining democracy

And then, of course, there is Bolsonaro's political movement, which Magalhaes does not classify as a homogeneous bloc. Rather, it includes violent far-right groups, as well as parts of a market-liberal right, religious conservatives and nationalist militants.

He argues that this movement, the government and Bolsonaro should each be considered separately. And as to the result of their interplay over the past four years in Brazil? "When the radical right is in power, it tends to undermine liberal democracy in homeopathic doses, as has happened in Hungary under the Orban government," Magalhaes said.

According to the Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country's domestic intelligence agency, the term "radical right-wing" describes a current that doesn't necessarily violate the principles of basic free democratic order. But if right-wing enemies of democracy reject this basic order and aim to establish an authoritarian or even totalitarian state system through potential violence, they are to be classified as right-wing extremists.

A far-right caricature

"What is special about Bolsonaro is that he 100% combines the repertoire of extremists like no other," said Georg Wink, a professor of Brazilian studies at the University of Copenhagen. "When one compares with other prominent politicians on the right, they don't show the same radicalism in all of their attitudes. They are not necessarily always misogynist or homophobic, for example. Bolsonaro has it all — he's the caricature of the far right." 

Federico Finchelstein, author of "A Brief History of Fascist Lies," agrees with this assessment. "Bolsonaro is a populist, far-right politician who often behaves less like a populist than a fascist. Bolsonaro has that mix. Populism happens in formal democracies, and he was elected in a democracy. But he's a leader who sometimes looks like he wants to destroy democracy from within and establish a fascist dictatorship."

Ignacio Lula da Silva at a press conference in December 2022
Ignacio Lula da Silva already served as president from 2003 to 2011 and will take office again as 2023 beginsImage: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Yet when Bolsonaro took office on January 1, 2019, some had hoped that the new president would "normalize" himself in power and adopt a more conventional stance. But Bolsonaro continued to pursue the same radical stance, openly opposing the judiciary and the Congress, promoting police violence and mass movements to intimidate opponents, not to mention fueling doubts about his loss of the presidential election in October with a lawsuit.

Taking to the streets

"God, homeland and family" was one of Bolsonaro's most-used slogans during his four years in office, recycling that of the Portuguese dictatorship under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1933-1974), and Brazil's Integralist Action (AIB), the main fascist group in the 1930s.

Bolsonaro sought proximity to right-wing populist politicians such as Donald Trump, Italy's Matteo Salvini, and Hungary's Viktor Orban during his time in office. In Germany, he was praised by politicians with the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. One of his sons, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, has close ties to American political agitator Steve Bannon. Bolsonaro has also served as a the right-wing role model in the region to leaders like Keiko Fujimori in Peru, Rodolfo Hernandez in Colombia or even Jose Antonio Kast in Chile.

Bolsonaro with US President Donald Trump in 2020
Bolsonaro in 2020 with US President Donald TrumpImage: Allen Eyestone/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Bolsonaro and the extreme right may have narrowly lost the presidential election to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but they are far from defeated politically, said extremism expert Magalhaes. "Bolsonaro has succeeded in uniting several sections of the Brazilian right and organizing a movement that has taken a liking to street demonstrations and is extremely active on social networks," he said. "It also legitimized extremist and violent groups. This right will continue to take to the streets, make noise, demonstrate and intimidate the left that will take power in 2023."

This article originally appeared in German.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.