‘I’m devastated’: Despite Bolsonaro’s victory, Brazilians have little faith in their next government
Analysis: Many believe president elect poses threats to democracy, and that any economic 'honeymoon' will be short-lived
Far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro swept to victory in Brazil’s elections last night, winning 55 per cent of the vote. In the immediate aftermath, raucous celebrations erupted from fans clad in Brazil’s national green and yellow, who had gathered outside Bolsonaro’s house in Rio de Janeiro in anticipation of the results.
However, concern over the country’s future remains strong – even among Bolsonaro voters. Marcelo Cotrim, a 34-year-old who works in marketing, says he voted for Bolsonaro and his Social Liberal Party simply to boot the Workers’ Party (PT) from power after its 13 years leading the country.
But Cotrim is not jubilant at Bolsonaro’s triumph, seeing it instead as simply necessary. “For him to have won, it’s kind of that feeling that you’ve overthrown your opponent,” he says, grimacing.
For the 45 per cent of Brazilians who voted for Bolsonaro’s opposition candidate, the PT’s Fernando Haddad, the election result is also nothing to be celebrated.
“I really had hope,” says Juliana Pina, a 23-year-old communications student. Pale-faced and barely able to speak, she relates her shock at having felt afraid for her own safety earlier that evening as Bolsonaro supporters confronted nearby PT voters.
“I’m devastated. I truly never imagined that what has happened today would happen,” she says. Further reports of violence elsewhere in Rio, São Paulo and Bahia states followed during the hours after Bolsonaro’s victory announcement.
Pina, like many Brazilians, is worried by the threats that Bolsonaro has posed to individual civil rights and to democracy itself.
Throughout Bolsonaro’s 27 years as an elected politician, he has gained notoriety for an aggressive discourse attacking the rights of women, black Brazilians, the indigenous population and LGBT+ individuals.
Additionally, Bolsonaro’s continued comments in support of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, have added to voter fears that his commitment to democracy is weak.
While many Bolsonaro voters like Cotrim can look past Bolsonaro’s comments, others believe that it is gives dangerous licence to the underbelly of Brazilian society.
“The organic voter base of the new president is neo-Nazi, violent, and is in the streets to provoke and kill minorities,” says Edgar Monteiro, a criminal lawyer who works with underprivileged Brazilians from low-income communities.
Monteiro believes that Bolsonaro’s extremist discourse, having gained legitimacy among the population with the election result, will only worsen for minorities and for poorer Brazilians.
“He’s firmly aligned with this new global extreme right,” he says. “Political figures are being substituted with ‘outsiders’ – judges, pastors, military.”
The military has loomed large in Bolsonaro’s campaign. Brazil elected the highest number of military and police candidates this century, totalling 74 representatives – four times higher than the 18 elected in 2014. He is also expected to appoint military figures to senior cabinet positions, such as the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s vice-president Hamilton Mourão, a retired army general, said shortly after the first round of voting that the military could carry out a “self-coup” in cases of “anarchy”, although he has since tried to “clarify” this comment. For the federal politician and son of Brazil’s next president, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the choice was strategic.
“I always advised my father: you have to choose a ‘knife in the skull’ guy to be vice,” he told Brazilian media in August, referring to the logo of Brazil’s special operations police (BOPE), known for their brutally violent approach to crime-fighting. “It has to be someone whom it wouldn't be worth seeking to impeach.”
Despite a track record of autocratic comments, experts say it remains unclear how drastically Brazil’s governance will change when Bolsonaro assumes the presidency on 1 January.
For many, it has yet to be seen whether Bolsonaro can pull off the promised changes which excited international markets and attracted investors. However, discussion of a further military appointment to oversee state-owned oil company Petrobras has raised eyebrows as an indication of what may follow.
“If you look at his voting record over the years, [Bolsonaro] has always been an economic nationalist,” says Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at business school Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV).
Stuenkel also believes that Bolsonaro’s economic advisor, neoliberal think-tank founder Paulo Guedes, is politically inexperienced, and that Bolsonaro’s likely economic “honeymoon” period will be short-lived if he fails to push through pension reforms that are as wildly unpopular among Brazilians as they are popular among international investors.
“I think the market is way too optimistic about what’s possible for this government from an economic point-of-view,” says Stuenkel.
“He is, like all other Brazilian presidents, a minority president – and will have to engage in the same kind of horse-riding that all other presidents have had to engage with.”
But other legislation may become easier to pass.
In addition to growing military presence in Brazil’s political houses, this year’s election has also seen further growth for the “Bullets, Bible and Beef” caucus, an alliance of congressmen who advocate for the advancement of religious, firearm and agribusiness-friendly policies.
Silvio Costa, founder of political watchdog Congress in Focus, says that Bolsonaro’s proximity to these morally conservative political benches could see huge rollbacks to civil rights.
“Previously, evangelicals [in congress] aimed to just keep legislation where it is today. Now, you have an extreme-right government and an even more conservative congress,” he says. “They’re going to aim for stricter legislation with regards to things like drugs, to abortion.”
Meanwhile others warn that faith in Brazilian institutions themselves could be in trouble, placing the country’s democracy closer to danger.
Tai Nalon, journalist and founder of fact-checking organisation Aos Fatos (translated as “to the facts”), says that fake news frequently targeted Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) – something that Bolsonaro himself also incited when he questioned the reliability of electronic voting stations.
“We know that fake news accelerates polarisation in elections. The TSE has lived under the fire of fake news which attempted to invalidate the legitimacy of the voting process,” Nalon says. She fears that if Bolsonaro’s unfriendly treatment of the free press continues, it will be followed by greater public polarisation as people further lose faith in institutions.
While experts believe that Brazil is unlikely to return to dictatorship, Maurício Santoro, an international relations professor at Rio state university (UERJ), says the next four years – Bolsonaro’s first term as president, although there is a two-term limit – will follow the same pattern as other countries which have elected extremist leaders in recent years. But as a much younger democracy, with weaker institutions than other countries, Santoro says that there may be a lot at stake for Brazil.
“These countries continue to have elections, and there’s a certain level of political freedom, but democracy ends up weakened,” he says. “There are challenges to press freedoms, social movements are repressed and there are attacks against minorities. That’s the big risk I see for Brazil in the coming years.”