The recent attack on far-right candidate and congressman, Jair Bolsanaro, has plunged Brazil’s upcoming presidential election into chaos and enhanced the prospects of a dangerous candidate who has expressed deplorable views and promotes an anti-environmental agenda.
A right-wing populist, Bolsonaro poses a major threat to his nation’s climate commitments, promising to follow President Donald Trump’s lead and withdraw Brazil from the Paris Agreement.
Bolsonaro, described by The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman as the “most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world,” was stabbed at a campaign rally on September 7. Although he lost 40 percent of his blood, he is improving and remains in the race. In the first poll since the attack, Bolsonaro rose in popularity to a high of 30 percent, with no other candidate getting more than 12 percent.
A Bolsonaro victory would land a devastating blow to Brazil’s democracy. Bolsonaro, who is currently capitalizing on a global wave of right-wing populism, has a history of making derogatory statements about marginalized groups. He has shown a contempt for democratic norms, boasting at a campaign rally that he would like to shoot corrupt members of the popular Workers’ Party (PT) and has referred to the nation’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship as a “very good” period.
“Like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro is a racist,” says Paulo Lima, a Brazilian journalist and Executive Director of the non-profit Viração Educomunicação. “He is also a defender of guns. He is against the rights of the LGBTI population and against the women’s rights movement.” Paulo Lima, Brazilian Journalist.
The Lula Effect
The prospects of a Bolsonaro presidency rose dramatically on August 31 when Brazil’s Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) declared former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or “Lula,” ineligible for a third term. He is currently in jail, and could appeal a 12-year sentence for corruption and money laundering.
Prior to being declared ineligible, Lula was consistently polling ahead of Bolsonaro. According to one CNT/MDA study in August, Lula polled at 21.8 percent, while Bolsonaro was at 18.4 percent.
While Lula’s center-left PT differs considerably from Bolsonaro’s far-right Social Liberal Party, Bolsonaro could attract Lula’s populist-minded voters.
“The ‘outsider’ and ‘maverick’ image Bolsonaro tries to project in his campaign has also attracted non-ideological voters who would be with Lula if he was the candidate,” says Bruno Heilton Toledo Hisamoto, a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the University of São Paulo, speaking to La Ruta del Clima. “That is, voters who like Lula’s style more than PT’s ideological platform and see this style in Bolsonaro. Thus, from the right, Bolsonaro gathers the votes that would traditionally go to a moderate Brazilian Social Democracy Party and manages to capture some of the votes that would go to Lula in normal circumstances.”
The Rise of Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro’s message has resonated with a Brazilian electorate fed up with rampant corruption in their country. Current President Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement party has had an approval rating in the single digits for months. Since assuming power following the controversial impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff, Temer has been besieged with charges of corruption and obstruction of justice.
To rally support, Bolsonaro has vowed to take on corruption and crime, while attacking marginalized groups in the process.
“Bolsonaro draws heavily on the discourse of Donald Trump, to whom he repeatedly paid public tribute since before his election,” says Toledo. “Like Trump, Bolsonaro wants to project the image of an outsider willing to challenge the political establishment and to end traditional politics, despite the fact that he has been a congressman for almost 30 years, with his sons holding elective positions in all areas of the legislature.” Bruno Heilton Toledo Hisamoto, a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the University of São Paulo.
A retired captain of the Brazilian army, Bolsonaro also appeals to a militaristic nationalism and accuses the left of being “globalist,” says Toledo. “At this point, he also resorts to xenophobia, rejecting the entry of immigrants into the country since they can ‘steal jobs’ from Brazilian workers.”
Bolsonaro and the Paris Agreement
While climate change has not played a major role in this year’s presidential campaign, and Bolsonaro’s intentions to leave the Paris Agreement have been little more than a footnote in his campaign message, withdrawal would have serious ramifications for both Brazil and the international community. Brazil, which is home to the world’s largest rainforest and ninth-largest economy, is also considered the likely host for the 2019 climate negotiations.
Bolsonaro’s proposed withdrawal was met with harsh criticism from UN Environmental chief Erik Durkheim, who stated: “A rejection of the Paris Agreement is a rejection of science and fact. It’s also a false promise, because politicians who present climate action as a cost to society have got it all wrong.”
However, as Toledo notes, it would be difficult for Bolsonaro to withdraw Brazil from the Paris Agreement because the text was ratified by Congress and the President does not have immediate power to denounce it. “In addition, many Brazilian states also have climate commitments that are independent of federal government action and virtually all large Brazilian companies in all economic sectors are signatories to international declarations in favor of climate actions.”
“My fear here is more practical than legal. A hypothetical Bolsonaro government could sabotage important measures to facilitate the achievement of Brazil’s targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially in deforestation combat and agriculture. If Bolsonaro loosens only land-use change legislation, the effects on national greenhouse gas emissions would be large.” Bruno Heilton Toledo Hisamoto, a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the University of São Paulo.
Concern has also been expressed by Lima, who is fearful:
“If Brazil were to abandon the Paris Agreement, it would have huge consequences for us and it would be a big setback. First of all, Brazil would cease to be a major player in the international arena and in negotiations within the UNFCCC and the Conference of Parties. Brazil would become a major planetary threat because the Amazon would run the risk of totally disappearing. Bolsonaro wants to further strengthen agro-business and the advancement of livestock in the Amazon. This means more deforestation plus increased carbon dioxide and methane emissions, the principal greenhouse gases.” Paulo Lima, Brazilian Journalist.
Much is on the line when voters in the world’s fourth-largest democracy go to the polls this October. A Bolsonaro victory would deliver a devastating blow to the nation’s social, democratic and environmental prospects.