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17 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:23pm

Why Brazil’s far-right challenger Jair Bolsonaro has already won

For decades, Bolsonaro was considered too toxic to be taken seriously – now people wonder if he can be stopped at all.

By James Noyes

Rio de Janeiro can rarely be characterised as “bleak”. But there is no other means of describing the mood that overcame the Laranjeiras district after the first round of the Brazilian presidential election on 7 October. 

Laranjeiras is an upper-middle-class leftist haven; it consistently elects progressive politicians and hosts marches for causes such as feminism and gay rights. On the district’s streets, residents feared that Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right leader of the incongruously named Social Liberal Party, would surpass 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, eliminating the need for a run-off. Other voters muttered darkly about “exile” and “repression”, words that had long been consigned to historical accounts of the 1964-85 military dictatorship. These were not defiantly subversive cries in the face of coming authoritarianism: this was a dying world, not no pasarán (“they shall not pass”), but more y ya pasarán (“and they will pass”).

Elsewhere, there was celebration on the streets. In the equally upper-middle-class district of Barra da Tijuca, Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former army captain who was stabbed by a voter during the campaign, was hailed as a “legend”, cheered on through a mixture of military slogans and evangelical dogmas.

“Brazil above all, God above everything else,” his supporters chanted, a somewhat less catchy line than the Trump-style “make Brazil great again” but much more revealing in its alliances.

Later that evening, the group found that power was not yet theirs: Bolsonaro failed to surpass the 50 per cent margin needed for outright victory (he won 46 per cent, easily trumping Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad’s 29 per cent).

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Though this dampened the initially boisterous mood, there was a justified sense of triumph. For decades, Bolsonaro, who entered Congress in 1991, had been considered too toxic to be taken seriously: a racist, misogynist and homophobe; a defender of dictatorship and a supporter of torture. Now, people wonder if he can be stopped at all.

It is tempting to view the Brazilian election as a beginning: a new duel between democracy and authoritarianism; another rise of the global populist tide. From the outside, it’s an understandable view; the truth, however, is that, like a revelation in the comic book Watchmen, Brazilian democracy is not “at risk”. It died “35 minutes ago”.

When did Bolsonaro’s rise truly begin? The most obvious moment was in 2016 when he praised the military torturer Brilhante Ustra during the successful impeachment of former Workers’ Party president Dilma Rousseff (who held office from 2011-16). No moment better crystallised what was to come: Ustra had tortured the dissident Rousseff – but nothing came of Bolsonaro’s words.

If Brazilian democracy no longer exists, nor do its promises. If a man such as Bolsonaro can speak as he did in Congress in 2016 with no consequences, then Brazilians no longer believe in democracy as an ideal worth defending. If half of the country chants “queers, Bolsonaro will kill you” at the other half, how can unity later be forged?

It does not truly matter whether, as opinion polls suggest, Bolsonaro wins the second round against Haddad on 28 October. The insurgent candidate has given hatred a political possibility; whatever he might shy away from, his followers will attempt.

There was a second beginning to Bolsonaro’s rise. Fittingly for the farce that is Brazilian politics, it occurred during the candidate’s appearance on the humorous TV programme CQC, which supposedly mixes comedy and journalism to “expose hard truths”. Bolsonaro’s presence was intended to demonstrate how backwards Brazilian politicians could be. Instead, he captured hearts and minds.

Every time Bolsonaro was mocked, the public’s sympathy for this errant national uncle grew. This is Bolsonaro’s biggest lesson for other far-right populists. Like Donald Trump, he is permitted to speak his mind without fear of the consequences. How can you debate someone who is always “just kidding”? Liberals are inclined to believe that exposing quasi-fascist rhetoric will negate it. In fact, this merely increases its appeal to voters.

In Britain, Boris Johnson has made a career out of  benefiting from ridicule. But in Brazil, “he doesn’t mean it” acquires a different tone when what we are being asked to forget is the systematic murder of Brazilian minorities.

The earliest beginning for Bolsonaro was, in fact, the return of democracy to Brazil in 1985 and successive governments’ decisions not to promote accountability and fight corruption. “Yes, I’m in favour of a dictatorship! We will never resolve grave national problems with this irresponsible democracy,” Bolsonaro told Congress in 1993.

There would be no Bolsonaro if we had shown blood-soaked generals to be monsters. Through decades, Brazil lived with a wound it was told would soon scar. Instead, it festered and took over. Like a gangrenous limb, the dictatorship was never cut off from the body; now it threatens to consume it.

If there are beginnings aplenty to Bolsonaro’s success, there is one distinct middle. In mid-March, Brazilian city councillor Marielle Franco was shot dead in her car as revenge for her campaign against a local Rio militia composed of corrupt policemen. Franco was not a polarising politician; she was attentive to policemen’s widows and mothers frightened for their troubled sons. A normal country would be able to mourn her and ensure the passage of justice.

Instead, Franco was killed a second time: slandered as the wife of a drug lord and derided for her bisexuality – many of Bolsonaro’s supporters called her death well deserved. The candidate himself, when asked about Franco’s murder, declared that anything he said would be too polemical. That was the final warning to Brazil’s people. Hope, it now seems, can no longer grow here; this is a country of endings.

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This article appears in the 17 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war