‘Tropical Trump’ Poised for Victory in Brazil: Latin America Expert on a Potential Political Upheaval

On Sunday, Oct. 28, the citizens of Brazil will choose their next president in a run-off vote between Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad and right-wing firebrand and front-runner congressman Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro's expected victory would signal the official end of the liberal PT party, which has governed Brazil for most of the 21st century.

However, Americans will pick up a strong echo of President Trump in the Brazilian candidate. Bolsonaro's proud nativism, militarism and outsider status have earned him the nickname "The Tropical Trump."

We talked to Britta Crandall, visiting assistant professor of Latin American studies, for her perspective on the likely outcome of the election and its implications in Brazil and in the United States.

What should Americans know about Jair Bolsnaro, the "Tropical Trump"?
There are a lot of echoes between this election in Brazil and the 2016 general election in the United States. First, in the first round of elections earlier this month, almost 50 million Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro, in spite of his incendiary comments against gays, blacks, indigenous people and women. And polls indicate that Haddad has not been able to close that lead. Voters are holding their nose as they cast their vote because this is an election of repudiation. Despite 26 years in the Brazilian Congress, Bolsonaro has effectively portrayed himself as an outsider at a time when the political establishment has lost all credibility. Brazilians are disgusted with "business as usual."

How did the mainstream political parties lose their hold on the public?
The PT, the Worker's Party, has been in power more or less since 2002 when the beloved leader "Lula" won the election after four attempts. However, over the past four years, the "Car Wash" scandal-a seemingly endless corruption probe-has wiped out one leader after another. Lula is now in prison for corruption, and investigations continue into an estimated 70 members of congress, three governors and eight ministers. (Tellingly, the current president's own Minister of Transparency was forced to resign for attempting to subvert the corruption probe.) Brazil's public prosecutor's office estimates that the investigation has resulted in excess of 200 convictions for crimes ranging from embezzlement to drug trafficking, and it has implicated high-level non-Brazilians, such as former presidents in Peru and Colombia.

And that has opened the door for Bolsonaro?
Yes, Bolsonaro represents change. Despite his general loutishness, he has not been tainted in any way by the scandal. The fact that he is seen as non-corruptible is an enormous asset and represents a shift from the ruling class' theft of the state that Brazilians so desperately want.

He has also capitalized on a surge of crime across Brazil. Right now, it's hard to take a stroll on Copacabana beach without fear that your cell phone or even your towel might get stolen. People try not to stop at traffic lights in some areas for fear of getting mugged or carjacked. The constant threat of petty crime has left the populace completely exhausted. More tragically, already high homicide rates are also on the rise again in parts of Brazil.

Bolsonaro has been almost militaristic in his approach to stopping crime. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has a reputation for talking tough. He has espoused a zero-tolerance approach to crime that many Brazilians find attractive.

He also has shown himself to be the ‘pro-business' candidate as well, right?
Absolutely. He enjoys support from the financial community as well as the so-called BBB block: Bullets, Bible and Beef. While the economy will not be his focus, he'll likely roll back regulations on business. Brazil may also follow the United States in its withdrawal from the Paris Accords.

If he wins, what do you expect to happen in the short-term?
It's a scary time because I expect an uptick in violence. Police impunity has been a problem in Brazil for a long time, but I think they will feel empowered to act even more boldly. I expect an increased death toll-it could look something like President Duterte's regime in the Philippines. Bolsonaro has encouraged vigilante-style justice against drug dealers and promises to enable security officers to use lethal force against criminals while also making it easier for Brazilians to bear arms.

We are likely to see an erosion in Brazil's democratic institutions. I expect Bolsonaro to enjoy carte blanche, at least for a while. There is just so much anger and frustration with the status quo that he will be given a lot of leeway. It helps him that his anti-corruption and law and order agenda will have support in Brazil's fragmented congress.

Jay Pfeifer


  • October 26, 2018