Jair Bolsonaro grew up during this era, witnessing first-hand the military dictatorship and the resulting resistance. He was born in 1955 into a modest family in which his father was the sole breadwinner. As evidenced by his narratives, his family’s political leanings were towards the military-civil alliance: the family reportedly participated in the 1964 civil-military coup that deposed President-elect Joao Goulart. Bolsonaro himself adopted these inclinations. According to his interviews, he assisted the army in pursuing guerrillas and was advised to enrol in military school as a result. He was admitted to Brazil’s primary military academy in 1974.

Bolsonaro hails from a segment of the population that favoured military rule – a sentiment that can be attributed to the era in which he grew up, when he witnessed the military coup and the country’s economic performance under military rule.

However, this acceptance of the military was not universal, as can be seen from the growing resistance against the military. Bolsonaro was himself becoming a major figure within the military, especially due to his criticism of working conditions and wage differentials among the ranks. Inflation was a major issue, and its effects were felt even in the army barracks. Bolsonaro, who was a captain at the time, published an op-ed in a magazine criticising the army’s low wages – a move which enraged his superiors.

Bolsonaro was later identified as one of the masterminds behind a plot to plant a bomb in the barracks by the same magazine, with the aim of drawing his superiors’ attention to the ongoing problems.

While Bolsonaro denied the claims made in the magazine article, the accusation remained a source of contention throughout his military career. Bolsonaro resigned from the army shortly afterwards. Given this history, he did not leave the army on good terms with his colleagues, which he cites as one of his reasons for entering politics in 1988.

As evidenced by the rise of church-affiliated parties, the role of the Catholic Church in re-democratising Brazil had elevated it to a position of prominence in the country’s political environment. Bolsonaro ran in the Rio de Janeiro City Council elections on behalf of one of these
parties, the Christian Democratic Party. He was elected to Brazil’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, in 1990 as a representative of the same party.

Most people in Brazil endured a series of ups and downs during the 1990s. As industries automated, demand for unskilled labour decreased, resulting in a significant increase in income inequality. The loss of job opportunities soured people’s perceptions of the reforms, prompting them to seek a pro- labour leader in the form of Lula Inacio da Silva. Lula was elected president in 2002, representing his own party, the Workers’ Party. His background as a labour union leader who had organised workers against military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with the name of his party, created the impression of a pro-labour leader. Lula’s election was aided by public expectations based on this impression and his past initiatives.

Lula’s pro-labour stance instilled fear in the business community, which viewed him as an anti- capitalist reformer. However, as can be seen, Lula’s approach to governance was more centrist, signalling an investor-friendly approach. He adopted a balanced strategy, similar to what had been done in the 1990s, when privatisation and cash transfers to the poor were carried out concurrently; and he did so more effectively.

As the economy grew, he increased government spending and created jobs and opportunities for the middle class in particular. Increased job opportunities are a tangible change that the masses can see and feel, which contributed to Lula’s popularity. His appeal was further based on the stability he provided during his tenure. As a result, he was re-elected for a second term in 2006 and the Brazilian economy weathered the 2008 financial crisis under his leadership. During his second term, he expanded the number of social welfare programmes, which further boosted his appeal.

In the subsequent elections, Lula stepped down from office, given that the Constitution does not allow an individual to serve more than two consecutive terms in office. Instead, he supported his protégé, Dilma Rousseff, as the next presidential candidate. Rousseff became Brazil’s first female president with Lula’s support.

Rousseff’s tenure was marked by a return to economic mismanagement and corruption scandals, some of which altered Brazil’s political landscape. As in several other developing countries, decades of inherent corruption had built up Brazilian society’s tolerance towards corruption.

This widescale normalisation of corruption is generally addressed only when large-scale corruption scandals are unearthed. The Petrobras scandal was the first such scandal to galvanise the public and elevate corruption to a major issue. Rousseff, along with a number of other high-ranking government officials and elected officials, was implicated in the scandal, which ultimately resulted in her impeachment in 2016.

The magnitude of the Petrobras scandal and its subsequent impact on Brazilian society can be compared to the series of corruption scandals that embroiled the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA-II) government in India. Like the UPA-II, Lula’s brand of politics proved popular in Brazil for nearly two decades. However, in the aftermath of the Petrobras scandal, his chances of re-election were severely dented and his protégé Rousseff was impeached. This was a major change for Brazilian society, as a large proportion of the youth had grown up during the country’s growth period under Lula.

Their focus had now shifted to the widespread corruption that had festered in society even during the presidency of a beloved leader. The Petrobras scandal also had a significant impact on the economy, due to the magnitude of the organisation. The shutting down of Petrobras’s operations had a major impact on employment, as construction projects around the country were halted and employees were laid off, plunging Brazil into recession.

In light of these factors, by the time the next election came round, the public had lost faith in the prevailing political class, most of whom had been embroiled in the Petrobras scandal. This lack of trust in senior politicians paved the way for Bolsonaro, who – despite a lengthy career in politics – avoided the spotlight and benefited when his peers were implicated in corruption scandals.

Having witnessed one of the world’s largest corruption scandals unfold and one of their favourite leaders implicated, the populace gravitated towards Bolsonaro, whose campaign was built on anti-left
rhetoric, a promise to crack down on crime and an emphasis on Brazil’s Judeo-Christian traditions. Bolsonaro’s campaign emphasised social issues, in contrast to those of his predecessors, which focused primarily on economic reforms.

Bolsonaro emerged as the frontrunner for the presidency due to the public’s dissatisfaction with the current leaders and mass resistance towards the ruling political elite. This trend was similar to how voters shifted towards a ‘left-leaning’ candidate when they voted for Lula after increased privatisation caused job losses.

Bolsonaro’s rise to power and the circumstances surrounding it are aligned with those of Modi, Erdogan and Putin. In each case, one can observe how the prevailing political class lost the people’s trust and support, due to either widespread corruption or demonstrated incompetence (in particular, in failing to address instances of corruption when exposed). This disappointment with the status quo paved the way for the rise of an alternative form of leadership: each of the leaders. in focus was hailed as an ‘outsider’ who alone could resolve the people’s social and economic woes.

Like his counterparts, Bolsonaro exploited this ‘anti-status quo’ sentiment and discontent over the poor design and implementation of neoliberal economic policies to carve a niche for himself as a future leader. Such was the popularity that Lula and Dilma had enjoyed at the height of their tenures that the rise to power of such an extremist figure would not have been possible without the revelations of flagrant corruption scandals and the people’s discontent with neoliberal economic policies that had caused widespread inequalities.

Despite these similarities with his counterparts, Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have declined over the last three years. His poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed in particular to this decline While he still retains his appeal among a segment of the Brazilian population, it remains to be seen whether or how he will keep his hold on power – especially since Lula has re-entered politics following the annulment of the corruption charges against himself. Bolsonaro finds himself going up against a political heavyweight such as Lula. It remains to be seen what strategies Bolsonaro will employ to shore up the popularity he gained from the power vacuum that was left by previous leaders – including Lula himself.

Excerpted with permission from Strongmen Saviours: A Political Economy of Populism in India, Turkey, Russia and Brazil, Deepanshu Mohan and Abhinav Padmanabhan, Routledge.