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Daniel Hamilton was the Conservative candidate for Stockport in the 2017 election and is Managing Director of a business consulting firm.

Brazil’s 150 million voters went to the polls on Sunday in the first round of the country’s presidential election.  With the votes now counted, the clear leader is Jair Bolsonaro, the veteran firebrand Congressman  – possibly the most controversial character to ever seek Brazil’s highest office.

Having polled 46 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting, Bolsonaro faces a run-off against Fernando Haddad, the leftist former Mayor of São Paulo who was actively supported by the jailed former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.  While victory isn’t yet assured, Bolsonaro need attract only a sliver of the votes of other rightist candidates to win the run-off on October 28th.  

Bolsonaro’s breakthrough – and what it says about the state of the country – is a watershed moment for Brazil.  

I cast my ballot at the Brazilian Embassy in London (effectively wasting it on João Amoêdo from the upstart, pro-business liberal party NOVO). Even on the streets of London, the levels of excitement for Bolsonaro’s candidacy were palpable.  In 2014, voting at the Embassy took less than thirty minutes; this year it took four hours.

Queuing to vote in a line that stretched from Trafalgar Square to half way up Haymarket, it struck me how diverse the Brazilian community in the UK is – black, white, Asian, mixed race; smart-suited, down-at-heel, hipster, and hippy.  Differences aside, views among the diaspora appeared to be starkly aligned: anger at endemic corruption, frustration at endless violence on the streets and a lack of economic opportunities in the country.  

Bolsonaro received 51 per cent of the votes of diaspora Brazilians in the UK – largely because his message struck a chord and offered a genuine chance for a decisive break from “business as usual”.  In that respect, some loose parallels can be drawn between the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the vote for Brexit in the UK both in terms of the tremendous weight of expectations on one hand and anguish on the other that they have generated.

As Bolsonaro continues his transformation from sharp-tongued bigot on the political fringes to the likely next President of the world’s fifth largest country, his policies will necessarily face increased scrutiny.

On law and order, he strikes a tone not dissimilar to that of Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines  – albeit Brazil’s constitutional protections would likely prevent him using the army and police force as a personal plaything.  He has been strong on rhetoric but short on specifics, barring his pledge to liberalise gun laws, harness the power of the army to pacify slums and end the sale of illegal drugs and introduce longer sentences for attacks on women.

His economic plans remain uncosted, yet there is merit to many of them; particularly his pledge to privatise the Banco do Brasil and sell off the notoriously corrupt state oil firm Petrobras, which previous presidents have been apt to view as their personal piggybank.  There have been pledges, too, to slash government spending, simplify the country’s tax code and shift the emphasis away from corporatism towards SMEs.

Bolsonaro’s views regarding trade have, throughout his parliamentary career, been a moveable feast; ranging from protectionism to his current, more free market, outlook.  His team have, however, made initial overtures towards the US Government to seek Brazilian inclusion in the new US, Canada and Mexico trade deal. A post-Brexit trade deal with the UK should theoretically be within reach, presuming Brazil’s vast agricultural lobby does not seek to overplay its hand in its demands.

While Bolsonaro has avoided highlighting social issues during the course of the campaign, he retains a raft of antediluvian views on LGBT rights, the role of women, and the rights of minorities, which have rightfully drawn condemnation from Brazilian civil society and overseas leaders.  The extent to which he views these as rhetorical vote-drivers among Brazil’s rapidly-expanding evangelical community rather than actual programmes for government remains to be seen.

Bolsonaro’s near-fatal stabbing last month has largely kept him away from the campaign trail and his media; appearances have been largely confined to evangelical TV networks run by his supporters and short social media clips.  

As the run-off looms, he has confirmed he will face Haddad in six prime-time debates.  What kind of Bolsonaro are we likely to see? There has been some speculation that he will use the opportunity to tack to the centre and present a softer image but that would in effect curtain his je ne sais quoi – an air of insouciance towards established political norms and a hatred of the political classes.  

Instead, one can expect a focus on his core law and order and anti-corruption messages with some occasional red meat for the business community and poorer voters concerned as to the future of their social welfare payments.  His campaign has defied traditional socio-economic boundaries, so he will likely see no need to adhere to a coherent political ideology.

Ahead of the elections, a large number of media outlets including The Economist speculated that, if successful, Bolsonaro may have difficulties in drawing together a coherent working majority in Congress in order to govern.  

Looking at the results of the election, the reverse seems to be true.  

Whether or not one agrees with his policy platform – and there is a great deal of jingoism and bigotry with which one can contend – the people of Brazil appear to have overlooked his failings in favour of what they see as an uncompromising message on law and order.  

This has had savage consequences for the political classes: of the 32 Senators who sought re-election on Sunday, 24 of them were defeated, with similarly low re-election rates in the House of Representatives. 

Among those defeated in races considered easy wins was Dilma Rousseff, who served as President from 2011 until her impeachment in 2016.  While she received 43 million votes nationally on the same day in 2014, she could barely manage an ignoble fourth-place finish in the Senate race in agricultural Minas Gerais on Sunday.

Being from outside the political establishment, and lacking many of the airs and graces Brazil’s famously silver-tongued, vainglorious politicians have, the “bloque do Bolsonaro” will be a wild and unruly bunch – particularly if their man snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.  

Assuming he wins, the composition of the new Congress offers little hope for strong and effective scrutiny of a future President Bolsonaro.  The chief reason for this is the improbability of victory so many newly-elected Senators and Congressman have and the fact they directly owe their mandates to Bolsonaro himself, or the Bolsonaro family.  

In the City of Sao Paulo, Eduardo, his son, was the most voted-for Congressman and, due to the country’s electoral system, the strength of his vote carried seven others into parliament.  In Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo’s brother Flavio topped the poll in the Senate race, dragging with him a hitherto unknown octogenarian into the state’s second seat. Another Bolsonaro-fuelled victor is a Rambo-style former shooting instructor who campaigned on his former military title of “Major Olimpio”.

Regardless of whether Bolsonaro manages to secure a second round victory, his allies and political brand are now the largest force in Congress – a remarkable achievement given he secured the support of just seven out of 513 MPs when he ran for the Presidency of the Chamber of Deputies two years ago.  

It is possible, of course, that the country’s leftist and centrist forces will reach an uneasy accommodation which sees Haddad eke out a last-minute victory.  But that seems improbable and may indeed only set the stage for an even more bitter, more divided campaign in 2022 – one Bolsonaro would surely win.

One can only hope that, despite his divisive rhetoric, he veers towards pragmatism in office and parlays his rightful anger at the corruption and crime plaguing Brazil into practical reforms rather than spiteful vendettas.  

His own campaign managed to strike a chord with rich and poor Brazilians.  He must now unite them under one flag.

6 comments for: Daniel Hamilton: Bolsonaro, Brazil’s firebrand, sweeps the political establishment away – inspiring hopes and fears

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