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Who is Jair Bolsonaro?

October 28, 2018

Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate and congressman, could be elected Brazil's next president on Sunday. He served in the military under the dictatorship and has hounded left-wing lawmakers since.

A journalist watches Jair Bolsonaro on Facebook live
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Pimentel

For many of Bolsonaro's fans, often young or middle-aged men, he is simply, "mito" — "the myth," who is supposed to prevent Brazil from falling into the hands of the socialist left and becoming a second Cuba or Venezuela.

For years, the political establishment had dismissed the 63-year-old former paratrooper as a clown. In Congress since 1991, he has been a typical backbencher for the far-right Social Liberal Party, grabbing attention with profane outbursts and verbal abuse, but never otherwise standing out for his speeches or legislative initiatives. He once told a lawmaker for the Workers' Party (PT) that she was "so ugly that she doesn't even deserve to be raped." He also likes to attack homosexuals, saying he'd rather have a dead son than a gay son.

When voting to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office in 2016, Bolsonaro publicly praised Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who tortured about 40 opposition members to death during the 1964-85 military dictatorship. Bolsonaro himself served in the army from 1971 to 1988. Rousseff, on the other hand, was tortured by the dictatorship.

Read more: Brazil elections: Mistrust, anger driving voters to polls

Jair Bolsonaro threatens Maria do Rosario
In 2016, Bolsonaro was restrained as he threatened the PT lawmaker Maria do RosarioImage: Agencia Brasil/M. Camargo

Popular despite contradictions

Bolsonaro's followers, too, celebrate Brazil's years under military rule. They believe that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his PT are responsible for street violence and rampant corruption.

As a lawmaker, Bolsonaro had long made Lula's arrest his primary issue. Now, the former president is behind bars, locked up since April, when he was convicted of corruption and money laundering. Although he topped the opinion polls, Lula was barred from running. This left Bolsonaro ahead, with about 20 percent — an amount that grew to 36 percent by the eve of the election. He didn't face competition from within Brazil's right-wing camp, which is mired in a swamp of corruption that Bolsonaro, as a lowly legislator, managed to escape.

Bolsonaro has hardly offered a concrete idea for solving Brazil's problems. He is clueless about the economy, he says, and tells people to turn to Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro's desired economy minister, a liberal economist known as "Chicago Boy" for his affinity for deregulation. Bolsonaro wants to place the public schools under the control of the military, and he says he would counter rising violence by arming the "good citizens" while promising police officers bonuses for every criminal killed. Currently on his third marriage, he favors traditional family values. His three sons are professional politicians like their father, and they have all made a fortune on lawmakers' salaries, but he wants to clean up the corrupt political establishment.

Those contradictions do not bother his fans, which is reminiscent of US President Donald Trump's relationship with his own followers. Bolsonaro is, however, in some ways meeker. When asked about his racist, homophobic and misogynistic remarks, he has a tendency to backpedal. It's all just a "joke," a misunderstanding, he says innocently.

Bolsonaro's critics believe that he learned everything he needed to know from comic books. Recently, he said Africans themselves had carried out the trade that brought millions of enslaved people to Brazil, not the Portuguese. His running mate, General Antonio Hamilton Martins Mourao, thinks along the same lines: In 2017, the 64-year-old openly threatened a military coup. "We've inherited inertia from the indigenous culture, while the trickery comes from Africans," Mourao said, to protests from rights groups and cheers from Bolsonaro's supporters on social media. The campaign against "political correctness" is a success and the establishment's criticism is the ultimate culmination.

Improbable — not impossible

The business community has already signaled its approval of Guedes' stated plans to privatize and streamline the state should he be nominated economy minister. One should not underestimate Bolsonaro or hope that, in the worst case, Congress would thwart him should he be elected.

Bolsonaro can count on the support of the agribusiness, the arms lobby and the ultrareligious. The factions of Brazil's BBB coalition — bois (bulls), balas (bullets) and the Biblia (Bible) — were already significantly involved in ending Rousseff's presidency. It is almost impossible to govern against them. But, with their support, even a backbencher could come to prominence.

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