The Election That Turned Brazil Upside-Down

On October 28th, after a dramatic election wrought with violence, fake news, and corruption allegations, Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil by an ample margin. Even though various Latin American countries, such as Chile, Argentina, and Colombia, have recently elected right-wing leaders, Brazil’s shift seems to be the climax of this trend. Bolsonaro raised controversy throughout the campaign for comments perceived as sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-democratic, and pro-military. Despite being one of the most controversial candidates in recent history, Bolsonaro tapped into the anger and discontent of the Brazilian populace over government corruption, lack of public safety, and economic hardship. The rising anti-establishment sentiment allowed Bolsonaro to go from being an obscure congressman to the president of the fifth largest nation in the world.

Prior to the rise of Bolsonaro, the socialist Workers’ Party (PT) dominated Brazilian politics. However, in the wake of Operation Car Wash, the PT’s influence in Brazilian politics began to wane. Initially, former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, the face of the PT, was running for his third term and was leading in the polls, until his conviction in Operation Car Wash forced him to end his candidacy. The revelations of the Car Wash investigations drove Brazilian voters away from the PT and towards their main rivals, Bolsonaro and his Social Liberal Party (PSL), who have promised to crack down on corruption.

Brazil has also faced severe public safety issues. For example, last year alone, 63,800 people were murdered, a 3% increase from 2016. Bolsonaro made Brazil’s crime rate a key issue of his campaign. Through controversial proposals such as granting judicial immunity to police, Bolsonaro portrayed himself as a candidate who was tough on crime, an widely popular approach in an increasingly dangerous country. The failure of previous administrations to curb Brazil’s murder rate seems to have driven voters to Bolsonaro.

Another key force behind Bolsonaro’s victory was Brazil’s economic crisis. The Brazilian economy is finally starting to climb out of a recession that lasted much of the past decade. High unemployment and a rising deficit have exacerbated the situation caused by rampant corruption and rapidly deteriorating public safety. Many voters blame the PT for mismanaging the economy during its years in power. Notably, Bolsonaro has tapped conservative economist Paulo Guedes to head the Ministry of Finance. Guedes, an advisor to Bolsonaro during the campaign, has pledged to turn the economy around by instituting various market-friendly reforms, such as tax cuts and the privatization of state-owned entities. In addition, he has been very critical of the Mercosur trade bloc. Based on past statements by Bolsonaro, it seems that Guedes will have free reign over economic policy in this administration, which has excited investors. Brazil’s stock market has rallied considerably since Bolsonaro took the lead in the polls during the campaign

Notwithstanding, Bolsonaro’s administration will face many challenges. One of his most controversial proposals is to withdraw Brazil from the Paris Climate Agreement and loosening restrictions on cattle grazing and agriculture in the Amazon rainforest. These positions have faced great opposition both within Brazil and in the international community. Bolsonaro also continues to face backlash for his comments in support of Brazil’s prior military dictatorship and against the rights of women and minorities. Due to his controversial campaign, Bolsonaro will enter the presidency with a strong opposition in Brazilian society as well as in Congress, where the PT is still the dominant party. It remains to be seen if Bolsonaro will be able to soften his rhetoric and pass the social and economic reforms he envisions for Brazil.