Supporters of far-right authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro flooded the streets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo Sunday after the former army officer won a landslide victory in Brazil’s presidential elections.
Military police personnel joined in the celebrations with parading jeeps after Bolsonaro landed 55.1 percent of the vote to defeat leftist candidate Fernando Haddad.
It marked the end of a divisive campaign during which Bolsonaro was stabbed and hospitalized.
In his victory speech, the 63-year-old vowed to “change the destiny of Brazil,” be a “defender of freedom” and work to protect those who “follow their duties and respect the laws.”
“The laws are for everyone, this is how it will be during our constitutional and democratic government,” he said.
Bolsonaro will replace conservative Michel Temer who has ruled the country since the 2016 impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Temer is deeply unpopular in Brazil, with a record low approval rating of just 2 percent.
Donald Trump, to whom Bolsonaro has been compared, congratulated the president-elect Sunday, with White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders saying, “both expressed a strong commitment to work side-by-side to improve the lives of the people of the United States and Brazil.”
But Bolsonaro’s critics have voiced concern that the new president could regress Brazil to an era of militaristic rule; the former paratrooper has repeatedly voiced his praise for the country’s past dictatorship. Bolsonaro has also said he supports torture, has called for political opponents to be shot and made racist and misogynistic comments.
Who is Bolsonaro?
Bolsonaro was for many years considered a punchline in Brazilian politics, but he has capitalized on growing anger and despair directed at the leftist Workers’ Party, which oversaw soaring rates of crime and corruption and economic stagnation.
He is known for incendiary comments towards black, gay and indigenous Brazilians, as well as women. Bolsonaro told lawmaker Maria do Rosário in 2014 that he wouldn’t rape her because she’s “not worthy of it.”
His comments came after Rosário criticized the human rights abuses of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985. Bolsonaro has voiced his admiration for Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the notorious commander of a police unit that murdered and tortured scores of people during that period.
What does his victory mean?
Bolsonaro has promised to rid the country of the corruption and restore military-style law and order. Part of his plan is to relax Brazil’s gun control laws, which he believes will combat out-of-control crime rates. “Every honest citizen” should own a gun, Bolsonaro has said.
The president-elect stands for free market economics and has indicated that he wants to open up tracks of the Amazon rainforest to development, raising concerns from environmental groups. Bolsonaro has also said he may pull out of the Paris Climate Accord.
Pushing through major legislative change could be difficult, as the Workers’ Party remains the largest party in Congress with 56 seats, although Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) won huge gains in elections earlier this month.
One of the biggest concerns surrounding the incoming administration is human rights. Bolsonaro has said he would shoot political opponents, told “leftist outlaws” to leave Brazil or face jail, and threatened to double the size of the Supreme Court and pack it with people who share his views.
“Brazil has independent judges, committed prosecutors, and public defenders, courageous reporters, and a vibrant civil society,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Monday. “We will join them in standing up against any attempt to erode the democratic rights and institutions that Brazil has painstakingly built in the last three decades.”
A deeply divided Brazil
An already polarized electorate was divided further by a vitriolic campaign that saw both sides on the attack. Fake news, viral videos and conspiracy theories flooded social media networks and messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Observers worry that Bolsonaro’s reign is unlikely to heal that divide, and many worry that his polarizing opinions will serve to drive the wedge even deeper between left and right.
“The extreme right has conquered Brazil,” Celso Rocha de Barros, a Brazilian political columnist, said in an election-night webcast of Piauí magazine. “Brazil now has a more extremist president than any democratic country in the world. We don’t know what is going to happen.”
Cover image: Jair Bolsonaro, far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), gestures during a runoff election, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil October 28, 2018. (REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)