As expected, Brazilian voters turned their backs on a decade of political scandal and offered a presidential mandate to right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro, who handily won a run-off ballot on Sunday against Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT). For voters in the world’s fourth-largest democracy, Bolsonaro’s victory represents a quantum shift in the political spectrum as an estimated 45 million voted for the former paratrooper’s tough love campaign.
The reality is that Brazil’s economic potential has been thwarted by a series of deep and far-reaching corruption scandals that have embroiled the PT, leading to criminal charges and the jailing of former leaders including ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and have tarnished the national reputation and image of the nation. Voters have had enough, and obviously decided that Bolsonaro and his straight-talking style is what Brazil needs right now.
Clearly, president-elect Bolsonaro faces a tough challenge to reset Brazil’s political culture. On the campaign trail, he promised swift and tough action, delivering a populist message with a tough-on-crime and tough-on-corruption message that struck a tone with voters fed up with financial scandals and a soaring crime wave. In the context of South American historical politics, Brazil is no stranger to hard-talking men of the right, and the challenge now for Bolsonaro is to strike a balance that maintains the democratic and judicial culture established in Brazil after the end of a two-decade period of military rule that ended in 1985. Given the chaos that has enveloped neighbouring Venezuela since the death of left-wing president Hugo Chavez, and with other South American nations turning to the left over the past decade or so, it’s not surprising in a broader context that Bolsonaro’s voice of right-wing values struck home.
As we have seen these past two years or so, there is a tone in populist and nationalist politics that has a broad appeal to voters in the United States, Austria, Italy, India, the Philippines, and now Brazil. For progressives who view globalisation and liberalisation as the only path forward, this development is worrying. The reality, though, is that these nations have elected leaders in open and fair political contests, and the power of the ballot box cannot be ignored. Clearly, president-elect Bolsonaro now must build a broad coalition of support, one that will allow him to rein in the corruption that seems endemic in his nation. He must chart a course now that satisfies the voters who have placed their trust in his message of no-nonsense action in dealing with Brazil’s problems — but he must also be aware that he is a president that represents all Brazilians, not just those who bought into his campaign message.