On Sunday the world’s fourth-largest democracy decided to elect a neo-fascist. Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, cruised to victory in Brazil’s elections with 55.54 percent of the votes, compared to just 44.46% from his leftist rival Fernando Haddad.
Bolsonaro has called for a cleansing of leftist criminals from Brazil, publicly praised the country’s former military dictatorship, and promised to open up the Amazon for mining and logging — potentially with catastrophic results on the fight against climate change. He also called a congresswoman too ugly to rape, described refugees as the “scum of the world,” and said “a gay son is the result of a lack of beatings.”
So why did he receive a substantial portion of support from groups he has viciously mocked and insulted?
“Long live the military police!” “Viva a PM!” pic.twitter.com/OHA1viX0yi
— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsin) October 29, 2018
According to one survey last week, nearly 30 percent of LGBTQ individuals planned to vote for Bolsonaro. In another, 44 percent of Brazilian women were supportive of him. As Foreign Policy noted, Bolsonaro has also received widespread support from Brazil’s poor northeast, which is the home turf for Haddad’s Workers’ Party (PT) and outperformed in major cities in that region — which are home to many black Brazilians, whom Bolsonaro has repeatedly insulted.
Brazil is currently in the midst of several political crises, including a soaring crime rate and a recession from which the country is just beginning to emerge. But a major part of the anti-establishment anger that helped propel Bolsonaro to power was a sprawling anti-corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash.
It all started back in 2012, when Brazilian police arrested known money-launderer Alberto Youseff as part of an investigation into a car wash in Brasilia which was allegedly being used to launder money. Youseff then testified that he was laundering money for executives from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, as part of a sweeping corruption conspiracy.
In a nutshell, a secret cartel of construction firms would systematically charge Petrobras outrageous sums for building contracts. A group of Petrobras employees would then turn a blind eye, allowing the construction cartel to pocket the rewards of the inflated contracts, which they used to reward their Petrobras contacts, as well as donate heavily to the re-election campaigns of friendly politicians. The sums of money involved were staggering — prosecutors estimate that more than $5 billion was involved — and also included a huge inventory of gifts, like $3,000 wine bottles, yachts, and helicopters.
It wasn’t just a “right-wing wave.” It was a torch-bearing, full-throated, take-no-prisoners uprising against establishment that led Brazil into its worst economic collapse in 100+ years while indulging in massive corruption & failing to stop horrifying crime
— Brian Winter (@BrazilBrian) October 28, 2018
But the scandal didn’t end there. In 2015, the country’s Supreme Court announced it was looking into 34 politicians suspected of being involved in the corruption scandal. Eventually, Brazil’s former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached, and her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was eventually imprisoned.
Both Lula and Rousseff were members of the PT, but they weren’t the only party involved. In 2017, nearly a third of President Michel Temmer’s cabinet — members of the Brazilian Democratic Movement — were implicated in the scheme.
To make matters worse, the scale of the Car Wash scandal became apparent at the same time Brazil was entering into its worst recession in 30 years. The combined weight of the Petrobras corruption scandal and the recession meant that more than half of Petrobras employees lost their jobs, further fueling anger among the working class.
In this environment, the rise of Bolsonaro, who has fashioned himself as an outsider despite spending 27 years in Congress and has promised to crack down on corruption, makes more sense. As Americas Quarterly noted, polls show that 94 percent of respondents want the Car Wash investigation to continue “at whatever cost,” and corruption frequently appears at the top of voters’ concerns. It didn’t help matters either that the PT tried to nominate Lula to run against Bolsonaro — despite him being in prison.
Giving me flashbacks to 2016, when ppl would ask "who do you work for" before letting me interview them
Except those asking this were supporters Dilma & the Workers Party
Antagonism towards press did not begin w Bolsonaro
I'd say it began w 2013 protests—this whole moment did https://t.co/ja3sSUAwMO
— Cleuci de Oliveira (@CLEUCl) October 29, 2018
“I don’t idolize Bolsonaro and I don’t know if he will govern well, but we are hopeful,” Tatiana Cunha, a 39-year-old Bolsonaro supporter told Reuters after the election results came in. “People want the PT out, they can’t take any more corruption.”
It’s important to note that, as was the case during the Trump election, there is no one “magic bullet” to explain Bolsonaro’s rise. He was heavily supported by upper-class Brazilians as well as the business elite, and was able to use online misinformation to help make his campaign go viral. But his ascent to the presidency has been significantly aided by the searing anger created by the Brazilian establishments ready embrace of corruption.