Bolsonaro: A Threat to Liberal Democracy?

Anyone who has followed this blog in its five years of existence – notwithstanding the last twelve months where it has lay dormant –  will be acutely aware of the affinity I have with Brazil. I love that amazing country. It literally changed the direction of my life. An initial three-week visit in 2012 inspired me to leave full-time employment, and pursue jiu-jitsu. From there, I spent nearly two years living in Rio, the majority of which, I stayed with a Brazilian family who took me in and accepted me as an honorary member. I acquired another family on the mats at the Fernando Terere Academy. I was part of a brotherhood – I had sisters there, too – that could only be accessed by committing to all-out warfare. Every single day we renewed our bond by attempting to strangle one another to death. Some of my happiest memories lie on the mats and the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

With that being said, I was not blind to problems the country faced – I would literally have had to bury my head deep in the sands of Copacabana not to see them. My stay coincided with the worst recession in a century. In the past decade the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) pulled millions from poverty and presided over one of the fastest growing economies in the world. However, those gains were squandered by the very party that had achieved them. Political corruption was rife and everyone knew it. The disproportionate distribution of wealth was truly startling. Living in the Cantagalo favela, the home of my Brazilian family, I saw first-hand the poverty and the violence that many were forced to live with.

While I have not had the opportunity to return for two years, I have retained a deep connection to my second home. Thus, I have been glued to the coverage of Brazil’s presidential election – which has been getting an unusual amount of coverage from news outlets here in the UK. It shocked me to witness vast swathes of the country fall for the allure of a far-right demagogue. Last weekend when Jair Bolsonaro – leader of the ironically titled: Social Liberal Party – was elected president, I was honestly horrified.

In the Western press Bolsonaro has been gifted the moniker: Trump of the Trumps. Perhaps this comparison, with the buffoonish American president, is main reason this story has received so much coverage. Ostensibly, there are a number of similarities. They were both able to create populist movements under the aegis of being political outsiders – this is despite Bolsonaro serving in congress for almost three decades. They similarly side-stepped traditional media and spoke directly to their supporters – Bolsonaro’s chosen platform is Facebook. And each man has been lauded by their supporters for their willingness to “tell it like it is”. Furthermore, both threatened they would not accept the outcome of the election if it was unfavourable.

Brazilian author, Luiza Sauma described Bolsonaro as “Trump on steroids” – this description gets us closer to the truth. Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia – Bolsonaro has issued rape threats, infamously telling a journalist she was too ugly to rape. Trump’s rhetoric has led to the “Othering” of the LGBT community; Bolsonaro claimed he would murder his own son if he came out as gay. Trump claimed, asininely, that climate change was a Chinese hoax. Bolsonaro described climate science as “greenhouse fables”, and is prepared to carve up the Amazon rainforest selling off land to the highest bidder. Trump has polarised American politics; his detractors feel a visceral hatred towards him. His Brazilian counterpart is loathed, by some, to such a degree that they would attempt to murder him. He suffered a punctured lung and nearly died after being stabbed at a campaign rally.

Jair Bolsonaro is the latest in a line of right-wing populists that have recently risen to prominence. However, not only is his rhetoric more hateful than his contemporaries in Western Europe and the United States, he is far more dangerous. There are, in my view, two main reasons for this:

First, Bolsonaro is an evangelical ideologue – with a clear and unwavering sense of morality. Unfortunately, the morality derived from his religious conviction is one which is disdainful of the “Other”. He explains, “God above everything. There is no such thing as the secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change.” His willingness to marginalise minority groups is justified by these fundamentalist beliefs. Revealed knowledge allows him to denigrate homosexuality with zero thought for the human cost. His unbridled misogyny is spoken with the certainty of a zealot.

Second, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, makes no attempt to hide his authoritarian tendencies. He speaks favourably of the military junta that controlled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, championing Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a man responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds of left-wing activists. Bolsonaro advocates an ultra-hard-line policy towards criminals, he believes the police should shoot to kill – this is a police force who last year killed a mind-blowing 5,000 people. He proposes loosening gun laws; arming private citizens as a means of combating record levels of crime. One of his most inspired ideas involves providing Brazil’s farmers with shotguns, which will allow them to defend themselves against –unarmed – protest groups who occupy their land. His plan to bring a number of ex-generals into his government appears to foreshadow the sign of things to come.

The combustible mixture of evangelical ideology and authoritarian demagoguery is one to be very afraid of.

Following the election result, I spoke with a number of my Brazilian friends – admittedly more affluent and left-wing cats – who were certainly angry but not in the least bit shocked. One friend explained to me, during the campaign, “the environment was anti-PT rather than pro-Bolsonaro”. The country’s most impoverished felt the economic crisis the most acutely, they blamed the Workers’ Party for their suffering, and voted against them in protest. Another friend explained that: many people were willing to overlook his hateful rhetoric because they believed that he could solve the endemic corruption and high-levels of crime that plagued Brazilian society. For those living in Brazil’s favelas, here was a man that promised to end the violence their blighted their daily existence, looking at it from their perspective, it is possible to appreciate his allure. This was the position taken by members of my Brazilian family – who were vocal supporters of Bolsonaro – they explained to me, simply: that all law-abiding citizens were in favour of him.

In victory he attempted to offer a conciliatory message, explaining: “This country belongs to all of us… Brazil is a country of diverse colours, opinions and orientations”. Going forward, will his rhetoric and his policies reflect this sentiment? One can only hope.

I am worried about my family. I am worried about my friends. I am worried about Brazil’s already marginalised minority groups. Perhaps most importantly, I am worried about the very survival of liberal democracy. A democratic system is predicated upon the smooth transition between elected leaders, if this fails, democracy is dead. Bolsonaro will be inaugurated on 1 January, at that time we will discover whether Brazil has a despot on their hands.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *