Jair Bolsonaro: the Trump of the Tropics set to lead Brazil

Pervasive corruption in Latin America’s biggest economy threatens to propel another populist to power. Jair Bolsonaro, a brash, misogynistic former army captain, could wreak havoc. Jane Lewis reports.


Jair Bolsonaro's casual misogyny has horrified people
(Image credit: Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo)

Brazil has been hit by a political earthquake, says CBS News. The victory of Jair Bolsonaro a "brash", far-right former army captain in the first round of the country's presidential election at the weekend promises to turn the country on its head. Bolsonaro captured almost 50% of the vote and will face Fernando Haddad of the Workers' Party in a run-off later this month.

He promises to restore "traditional values" to Brazil including jailing crooked politicians, giving police "a freer hand to shoot drug traffickers", and allowing private citizens to carry weapons. The fact that he himself was nearly fatally stabbed while campaigning appears to have only boosted his popularity.

Harnessing social media

Bolsonaro's supporters call him "Mito", or "Legend". But he has inevitably been dubbed "the Trump of the Tropics". Like Trump, Bolsonaro has capitalised on social media to communicate directly with the public. And his rhetoric "has also shown stark parallels" with the US president. Bolsonaro's "casual misogyny" ("I would never rape you because you don't deserve it," he once told a leftist congresswoman) and his "nostalgia for Brazil's 1964-85 military rule" have horrified many people in the country, says The Times.

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But he has also "galvanised large swathes" of an electorate increasingly disillusioned with a political culture many see as hopelessly corrupt. The "Car Wash" scandal, centring on the former state-owned oil company, Petrobras, has implicated "four former presidents, a third of the lower congressional house and half the senate". Bolsonaro's "nemesis" and chief rival, the former president Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, is currently serving more than 12 years in jail for corruption.

Bolsonaro, 63, and a father of five, presents himself "as an outsider untouched by the corruption claims", even though he has served seven terms in congress. "I spent 17 years in the Brazilian army. I know what hierarchy and discipline mean," he observed last year. "Yet there have long been questions surrounding the myths underlying [his] carefully cultivated image," says the Financial Times. Born in Glicrio in So Paulo in 1955 to working-class parents of Italian descent, Bolsonaro claims to have been galvanised by witnessing a shoot-out between police and the prominent leftist guerrilla, Carlos Lamarca, in 1970.

Murky military career

But friends say his later boasts of helping soldiers "track the guerrilla in the nearby jungle" are "rubbish". He also seems to have landed himself in trouble several times. He was once accused of "irregular conduct" and of being "unfit to be an officer".

Despite once observing that a former president "should face a firing squad for privatising state companies", Bolsonaro these days paints himself as an "economic liberal". The markets are optimistic, says Citywire. But at what price, asks Gideon Rachman in the FT. Bolsonaro's rise "is not just a Brazilian soap opera", it is an event of global significance: "the latest chapter in an unfolding story about the destruction of liberal norms and the rise of populism".

Until recently, Brazil was seen "as a model of a nation" that had successfully "left the dark days of authoritarianism behind it". Bolsonaro's probable elevation to "the growing club of strongman leaders" is further evidence "we are entering a new and darker phase of world history".

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.