Bolsonaro, a nationalistic populist, falls to the far-right political alignment with a conservative ideology. His political agenda focuses on the growth of businesses, fighting crime and violence, and restoring Brazil to a more conservative society of traditional family values. On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro emphasized the slogan, “Brazil above everything; God above everyone.” This message won him the 2018 election, making him the first Brazilian chief executive on the right to do so in decades. Four years later, he is running for re-election against a leftist former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula established the Bolsa Familia social welfare program, among other initiatives, during his tenure in the 2000s.
The Bolsonaro presidency has been marked by controversial rhetoric, some legislation, and further polarization of Brazil’s population. Since his inauguration, Bolsonaro has experienced a steady decline in his approval rating. He sits at 24% as of January 2022, down from 40% in January 2019. Climate change poses a particular risk to Brazil, home of the Amazon Rainforest, and that issue has defined the Bolsonaro administration amid forest fires and continued deforestation.
Moreover, as the president enters this term’s final year, Brazil has entered an economic recession and has registered over 620,000 COVID-19 deaths. His administration has replaced several ministers as they either resigned or were fired for disagreeing with the president. All in all, Brazil’s political climate has undergone immense challenges and changes with the Bolsonaro administration.
Constituency Marked by Change
Bolsonaro’s electoral success was in large part due to the promises he made for change in a system seen as untrustworthy, corrupt, and broken. His appeal as a self-proclaimed political outsider made people from many walks of life more comfortable with electing him, despite his controversial rhetoric. Those in the increasingly powerful evangelical church threw their support behind Bolsonaro for his tough stances on abortion and defense of traditional family values. Business executives and the upper-middle class of Brazil supported him for his promises to prioritize business growth and put Brazil first. Poorer classes were drawn to his promise of decreasing crime and violence.
In his 2018 election, a growing conservative base was largely stoked by Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric and outsider appeal which ultimately helped him win the election. Bolsonaro won a runoff election against Fernando Haddad with 55% of the vote, securing the Presidency as an affiliate of the Social Liberal Party (PSL). It should be noted, however, that Bolsonaro left the PSL soon after, and he is campaigning as a member of the Liberal Party (PL) in 2022.
In his first year, Bolsonaro successfully passed the Pension Reform Act through the legislature, a move many economists argued was much needed for Brazil to achieve “more sustainable” economic growth. This reform effort had actually stalled for decades, including under former-President Lula, Bolsonaro’s main 2022 opponent, so observers labeled it one of the president’s greatest first-year achievements. The murder rate in Brazil has also dropped during Bolsonaro’s tenure, a key component of his fight against crime. On the foreign policy front, Bolsonaro recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, a pushback on Nicolás Maduro’s antidemocratic tendencies from the most populous democracy in Latin America.
A Controversial Presidency
Bolsonaro’s presidency has been marred by public fights and disputes, both at home and abroad. French President Emmanuel Macron was one of many who criticized Bolsonaro for his response to the 2019 Amazon Rainforest fires. Throughout the pandemic, Bolsonaro has also faced backlash regarding his stance on coronavirus restrictions and vaccines. Domestically, a Brazilian congressional panel has accused Bolsonaro of “crimes against humanity.” At the international level, his anti-vaccine stance has been met with opprobrium from the World Health Organization.
Bolsonaro has also inspired controversy by how he has called out domestic opponents, journalists, and his own appointed cabinet. Brazil ranked eighth worldwide in 2021 on the Committee to Protect Journalists’s Global Impunity Index.
It should also be noted that Bolsonaro was accused of corruption in 2021, leading to widespread protests. The scandal in question involved an “irregular” deal to secure 20 million doses of the Indian Covaxin COVID-19 vaccine, which lacked regulatory approval. Bolsonaro ran, in part, on stemming corruption in the government. These allegations, seen by many to contradict that, were followed by decreasing approval ratings and culminated in calls for the president’s impeachment.
The president is running for reelection in October 2022. He is challenged most seriously by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who served as Brazil’s chief executive himself from 2003 to 2010. Covid has become a defining campaign issue, as are the economic troubles that have accompanied it.
Observers believe the large Christian population that elected Bolsonaro four years ago could be receptive to the president’s vaccine skepticism, despite efforts by the Catholic Church to encourage inoculation. Moreover, those voting based on the economy agree with Bolsonaro that restrictive policies would do more damage than keeping the status quo would. The narrative that pandemic policies represent a corrupt elite’s attempt at population control could resonate with voters who recall Lula’s history of corruption charges.
Bolsonaro has preemptively called the integrity of the Brazilian election system into question, in preparation for a possible defeat. Most consequentially, he has implied that he will not accept the results of the election should he lose. In September 2021, the Brazilian president told a crowd that “only God” could take his office away from him. Bolsonaro has criticized the judiciary as well, casting doubt upon the Brazilian Supreme Court’s impartiality.