Bolsonaro’s government has been erratic, unable to build support, and rather than working across congress to pass legislation, the Brazilian leader has tended to antagonise his critics and play to his ultra-conservative, right-wing support base.
Bolsonaro has no doubt fanned the flames of Brazil’s political, social, and cultural tensions. He faced a considerable backlash within Brazil for his response to fires in the Amazon, and has been criticised for his nepotism and historic photos taken with high-profile criminal suspects. Ongoing instances of misogyny, homophobia, and racism – not to mention bizarre activity on Twitter – have contributed to further political and social polarisation.
Still, as we argue in our recent book Understanding Contemporary Brazil, Bolsonaro is not necessarily the cause of Brazil’s political polarisation, but rather a symptom of more deep-seated democratic problems.
Polarisation has long contributed to political fragmentation in Brazil’s congress, which currently has 30 political parties. This imposes high costs in terms of time and resources on any president who wants to fulfil his or her agenda. Brazil also remains a socially conservative country, prone to instances of sexism, racism, and indifference to protecting human rights. These factors lie at the structural and cultural roots of the current political polarisation in Brazil, and recently they have started bubbling to the surface.
Conditions for victory
So, if these issues were latent in Brazil for decades, what explains their recent emergence, bringing about the election of a right-wing extremist like Bolsonaro?
First, it’s worth remembering that if former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were not in prison, it’s likely he would have won the election. And, second, despite widespread anger at Lula’s Workers’ Party over political corruption – a factor crucial for explaining the election result – Bolsonaro is not all that popular in Brazil.
According to the most recent polls, only 31% of Brazilians think he is doing a good job, and 55% “do not trust” the president. All this suggests that what might really be growing in Brazil is frustration with politics more generally, including anger against the political system.
Related to this are a host of reasons for why voters opted for Bolsonaro during the election. Brazil’s growing evangelical population generally favour Bolsonaro for being socially conservative. Connected to this are millions of people who fear rising levels of violent crime, and are drawn to Bolsonaro for his hardline rhetoric. Some researchers argue this helps to explain why surprising numbers of low-income urban residents voted for him.