Who is Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new far-right president?

Former army captain rides wave of discontent over corruption, crime and economic downturn to win presidency.

Jair Bolsonaro will assume office on January 1 [Mauro Piemtel/AFP]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – To detractors, he’s a dangerous cheerleader for dictatorship. To supporters, he’s the leader capable of delivering salvation from Brazil‘s political, social and economic crises.

Jair Bolsonaro, a divisive far-right firebrand and self-styled political outsider, has been sworn in as the 38th president of Latin America’s largest democracy. 

Bolsonaro won 55 percent of the vote in a runoff against Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) on Sunday.

He previously suggested that he would not accept the result if he did not win the election. His running mate, former army general Hamilton Mourao, later walked back those comments.

Remarkable rise

Bolsonaro won a place in the runoff after topping a field of 13 candidates during the first-round vote on October 7 with 46 percent of the vote.

The result marked a remarkable political rise for the 63-year-old after decades of relative political obscurity.


Bolsonaro has served as a congressman for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil’s lower house Chamber of Deputies since 1991, switching parties on numerous occasions.

He was hardly known outside the city until 2014, however, when Brazil slid towards the economic malaise in which it now finds itself.

“He was always an unimpressive backbencher, he was never a party boss … or had a programmatic agenda that was of any significance,” Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at the Brazil-based Getulio Vargas Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

“Until four years ago, Bolsonaro was not a household name in Brazilian politics.”

Seizing on crises

According to political analysts, critical to Bolsonaro’s emergence was the convergence of several different crises within Brazil, which have slashed public faith in democracy and the country’s political class.

“The overall discreditment of establishment politicians resulting from the worst recession in 100 years, the biggest corruption scandal ever detected – according to the US Department of Justice – and this never-ending deterioration in crime and homicide have caused the rise of Bolsonaro,” said Brian Winter, vice president of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly.

More than 12 percent of Brazilians are jobless, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, with the economy still struggling to recover from a seismic recession that dragged on for more than two years before officially ending in 2017.

A supporter of Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro is seen in front of Bolsonaro's condominium at Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro [File: Sergio Moraes/Reuters]
A supporter of Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro is seen in front of Bolsonaro’s condominium at Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro [File: Sergio Moraes/Reuters]

Amid the downturn, several high-level corruption scandals erupted at the height of which was a major anti-graft probe known as Lava Jato, or “Car Wash.

Since 2014, more than 150 Brazilian business leaders, corporations and politicians have been prosecuted – including former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva – as part of the investigation and other interlocking probes.

“The corruption scandals linked to Lava Jato are really quite revolutionary in Brazil, there’s never been this range of action against politicians, public officials and businesspeople … It’s really shaken the establishment,” Richard Lapper, an associate fellow at the UK-based institute of international affairs, Chatham House, and independent analyst on Latin American politics, told Al Jazeera.

“[And] Bolsonaro has identified with this move against corrupt politicians,” he added.

“His great success is that he’s been able to mobilise outside of the political system against traditional politicians. He’s used social media very effectively and so he’s capitalising on the mood that’s anti-political in Brazil.” 

Crime and security

While Bolsonaro has tapped into widespread discontent with the economy and political elites, he’s also played on fundamental fears about security amid widespread violent crime.

Violence has surged in many parts of Brazil, home to seven of the world’s 20 most violentcities, in recent years.


Last year, homicides rose to a record high figure of 63,880, up 2.9 percent from 2016, according to the Brazilian Forum of Public Security.

“Crime is a major popular concern … and it is an issue across the country, which affects all social classes, although the poor most,” Spektor said, adding that Bolsonaro had a “message on crime” and Haddad didn’t.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has pledged to tackle the security crisis by militarising the police, cracking down on criminal offenders by allowing officers greater freedom to kill, and loosening public gun laws.

Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters during a campaign rally in Brasilia [File: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo]
Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters during a campaign rally in Brasilia [File: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo]

His proposals are unlikely to prove successful, however, according to Spektor.

“The solutions he is offering have been shown to have no effect on troubling crime, on the contrary, the notion that a tough hand on crime works has been proven incorrect by existing evidence,” he said.

“What there is evidence of is that the further militarisation of police increases very dramatically the number of homicides and killings.”

In Rio, Bolsonaro’s electoral stronghold, a military takeover of policing since February in response to acute violence throughout the city has coincided with a rise in homicide rates compared with the same period last year.

Style, not substance

According to Lapper, Bolsonaro’s appeal is not driven by well-considered policy ideas, but rather his ability to present “simple answers to complex problems”, regardless of their efficacy.

In his more than two decades in Congress, Bolsonaro has only had two of his own bills passed into law, despite having proposed about 170 pieces of legislation.


Allesandra Maia Terra de Faria, a professor of social science at the Rio-based Pontifical Catholic University, said Bolsonaro’s strategy has never been about having “a clear plan, or any kind of stability”.

“He’s always got one phrase to sum up everything, but which also means nothing,” de Faria said.

This rhetoric, however, has enabled him to unite various voting blocs within the Brazilian right, according to Lapper.

“There are three bits of the right in Brazil: the nostalgia right, who yearn for the security of the military dictatorship; the social right, which is linked to this very big evangelical community in Brazil; and a liberal right, who are always railing about the hypertrophy of the Brazilian state,” he said.

“All these things have come together in Bolsonaro.” 

Rejection and resistance

But while Bolsonaro’s bid for office proved successful, his candidacy also met forceful resistance from large sections of Brazilian society.

The opposition to Bolsonaro has been driven by his numerous discriminatory comments on race, gender and sexual orientation, as well as remarks in favour of torture and Brazil’s former military dictatorship, in power from 1964 to 1985, which have angered and alarmed millions of Brazilians.

Bolsonaro has described having a daughter as a “weakness”, told a congresswoman she was “too ugly” to be raped, claimed some black people were not “even good for procreation”, and said he would rather one of his four sons “die in an accident” than be gay.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro [File: Nelson Almeida/AFP] 
Demonstrators take part in a protest against Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro [File: Nelson Almeida/AFP] 

In September, he was stabbed while campaigning in the city of Juiz de Fora, in southeastern Minas Gerais state. 

His suspected assailant told authorities he had been “ordered by God” to carry out the attack, which forced Bolsonaro to withdraw from the public campaign trail while he recovered from injuries sustained in the assault.

On September 29, hundreds of thousands of people marched in cities throughout Brazil as part of the social media-driven and women-led #EleNao (#NotHim) protest against his candidacy.

“We have a society in transition and he represents everything that is old and more conservative in Brazil,” de Faria said.

This is the saddest thing about Bolsonaro.”

Source: Al Jazeera