Bolsonaro’s Perfect Storm in Brazil: From Outraged Voters to Extreme Right-Wing Votes

By Carolina Botelho


A pro-Bolsonaro demonstration. (Photo by Gabriela Felin).

Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the race for the presidency of the Republic of Brazil surprised many analysts around the world. While still a candidate, the former army captain ran a campaign praising the Brazilian military dictatorship and the use of torture, criticizing social movements and minority groups, and voicing disdain for the country’s civil and social rights achievements in the past 30 years. As his running mate, Bolsonaro chose General Hamilton Mourão, who a few days before the election made public statements that he would be in favor a “self-coup,” if necessary.

Much debate continues about the rise and swell of a “conservative wave” in various countries around the world, a trend that may have contributed to the victory of far-right leaders in Brazil. However, I will not use this phenomenon to analyze Bolsonaro’s victory. Rather, in this brief article, I’ll focus on some issues that deserve more attention and that are intimately connected to the contemporary political and economic environment of Brazil. I also want to stress that this election, like any other, is a vast, multidimensional phenomenon, and thus, it has many interpretations. For sources, I rely primarily on the results of Brazilian public opinion polls carried out by Pulso Brasil of Ipsos Public Affairs. Some additional data will also be cited from the Instituto IDEIA Big Data, Datafolha, IBOPE, IBGE, Brazil’s National Treasury, Brazil’s Central Bank, and the World Bank.

President Jair Bolsonaro during a plenary session.  (Photo by Edilson Rodrigues/Agência Senado).

Candidate for Change?

Jair Bolsonaro is not an inexperienced politician, nor is he new to Congress, yet he managed to catalyze the indignation and frustrations of millions of Brazilians hard hit by the political crisis and the serious consequences of economic catastrophe.

The parliamentary career of the former army captain is a long one and always hand in glove with traditional politicians. Yet, even though he served in parliament for many years, Bolsonaro produced little in the way of prominent legislation. Over the course of nearly three decades, despite a campaign based on an anti-corruption and pro-public-security discourse, he has little parliamentary work to speak of: he only approved two bills which were in defense of military projects. There’s nothing else in his legislative history, nothing in defense of the fight against corruption, nothing related to public security policies. These insignificant efforts allowed him to pass unscathed on the Brazilian political agenda.

Nevertheless, regardless of the former captain’s political trajectory and despite his discourse touting a moral commitment to society and against corruption, throughout his career in parliament Bolsonaro was affiliated with right-wing and center-right parties plagued by reports of corruption: the PP (from 2005 to 2016, he was a member of this party, which had the most charges and convictions in Operação Lava Jato, including Paulo Maluf among its ranks), the PTB (the party of Deputy Roberto Jefferson, who was convicted in Lava Jato), as well as parties such as the PSC, PFL, PPR, PDC, and PPB (the former acronym of what is today the PP). Bolsonaro joined his current party, the right-wing, conservative Partido Social Liberal (PSL, Social Liberal Party) in 2018 — just in time to throw his hat in the presidential race,

So how has Bolsonaro been able to capitalize on the discourse for change and against corruption, when his trajectory as a deputy has been enmeshed with parties convicted in corruption cases, not to mention the accusations from the press regarding his personal accumulation of assets? Let’s look at some pertinent information that may answer this question.

Opposition members in the parliament during a plenary session. (Photo by Jonas Pereira/Agência Senado).

The Scenario Before the Election

For the past four years, Brazil has been experiencing an extended period of severe economic crisis, with high unemployment and a significant fiscal imbalance. In addition to a drop in GDP even longer and deeper than that of the Great Depression, unemployment soared in 2015 and 2016, during the second term of President Dilma Rousseff, the successor of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (both of the PT). Lula ended his second term in 2010 with his popularity at a record high and helped get Dilma elected. She was re-elected in 2014, but after losing popular and parliamentary support due to the recession and corruption scandals that hit the state oil company, as well as several members of the PT, Dilma was impeached in 2016 on charges related to manipulating the federal budget. In April 2018, Lula himself was arrested on corruption charges. PMDB party member Vice-President Michel Temer, who stood as Dilma’s running mate twice in a row, took office as President of the Republic of Brazil in May 2016. His economic reform agenda was hobbled by new corruption scandals, and while the GDP began a slow recovery (growing 1 percent in 2017), unemployment barely improved, hovering at around 12 percent. Temer boasts a record of unpopularity almost unmatched around the world: the percentage that consider him to be “great” or “good” is as low as the margin of error in the opinion polls.

In 2014, Brazil’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Federal Police, and the Judiciary began a series of investigations and operations to fight corruption, beginning with Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash). This initiative was responsible for investigating and convicting several political leaders from traditional parties, most notably the PP, PMDB, and PT, but it also affected the PSDB, PTB, and many others from the more than 30 parties active in the country. At the same time, public safety has deteriorated sharply, another grave concern for the Brazilian people. In 2017, there were some 60,000 homicides in Brazil. A 2017 World Bank review of 182 countries revealed that 94.5 percent have homicide rates lower than Brazil. Increasingly distressed by the economic crisis and outraged by allegations of corruption that continued to surface, the population was already indicating that they was ready for some changes.

President Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer during her swearing in ceremony. (Photo by Jefferson Rudy/Agência Senado).

Brazilian Opinions About Politicians and the Future of the Nation

The opinion polls of the voting public in Brazil converged in similar directions. More than 80 percent of Brazilians viewed President Dilma as “bad” or “terrible” in October 2015, contrasting with 20 percent who held this poor opinion of the president less than a year earlier. The main problems cited by Brazilians were unemployment and corruption, followed by violence and public health concerns. The need to continue Lava Jato “no matter what it cost” was defended by 90-96 percent of those surveyed in all polls conducted from 2016 to 2018.

Brazilians were dissatisfied with the government; they neither trusted and nor identified with the politicians currently in office. Nonetheless, despite his imprisonment, Lula continued to hold a lead in all the polls until a month before the election, when Fernando Haddad was presented as the PT candidate in Lula’s stead. However, while former president’s popularity did not totally transfer to Haddad, sentiments against the PT did.

In polls carried out in 2017 and 2018, more than 90 percent of respondents agreed that the politicians currently holding office did not represent them, and more than 80 percent did not feel represented even by the politicians that they had voted for in the most recent elections. In addition, 55 percent of respondents would not give their vote to the same candidate that they had voted for in the last presidential election; 63 percent said that corruption was the subject that most worried them; and 30 percent wanted to vote for a candidate outside of the traditional politics in the next presidential election.

While political institutions are widely rejected, the Church (61 percent), the military (46 percent) and judges (42 percent) are ranked as most credible. The predominant feelings about the country’s future, which were “optimism” or “enthusiasm” for 60 percent of Brazilians under Dilma’s first term, had turned into “disgust” or “worry” for nearly 80 percent on the eve of her impeachment, and 90 percent expressed these negative feelings under the Temer government. While in 2010 more than 80 percent of those surveyed agreed with the course that the country was taking, those who objected to the nation’s current trajectory was as high as 93 percent in 2015 and 95 percent a month before the 2018 elections.

With Lula out of the presidential race and unable to transfer his votes to Haddad, public opinion polls showed that most people were calling for changes to the political system. Such sentiments paved the way for new candidates: either complete unknowns or politicians who offered a “clean slate.”

In addition to these issues, there are still two concerns deserving more extensive study by researchers that were very important for Bolsonaro’s victory: the support of evangelical leaders and the influence of “fake news” on certain groups of the population.

With regard to the first issue, Diniz Alves (2018) used DataFolha data to estimate that in the second round, Bolsonaro’s lead over Haddad was 11 million evangelical votes, which was greater than the difference in total voters. In other words, Haddad won among non-evangelicals and would have been elected if the growing minority of evangelicals had supported him in a proportion similar to that of the rest of the electorate. Bolsonaro also obtained a majority with a strong geographic and socioeconomic polarization, losing only in the poorest regions. In a country with 5,570 municipalities, in the thousand municipalities with the highest Human Development Index rating, Bolsonaro won by 97 percent, while Haddad won in 98 percent of the thousand municipalities with lowest Human Development Index rating.

But there was something else totally unprecedented in the recent Brazilian elections. Bolsonaro was entitled to very little official advertising time on television, but he enjoyed tremendous exposure on the news after being seriously injured in an attack and when he signed an alliance with an evangelical leader who owned a television channel as well as other media outlets. In addition, academic researchers, members of civil society organizations, and representatives of the federal government have discussed the influence of misleading information or “fake news” in the electoral process. Although television is still the most widely used means of communication with voters, the WhatsApp social media platform is very popular in Brazil and was the main disseminator of fake news during the election.

The Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE, Superior Electoral Court) even created an advisory council to discuss these influences on the electoral process, although this group of experts is powerless in practical terms. A poll carried out by IDEA Big Data showed that most Bolsonaro voters believed in a nonexistent “gay kit” supposedly distributed to children when Haddad was Minister of Education, an electronic ballot fraud against Bolsonaro that never happened, and other fake news, including stories claiming that Haddad advocated incest. Even after the TSE prohibited Bolsonaro from spreading fake news, the candidate and his supporters continued (and still continue, even after winning the election) to share some of these stories.

A study by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow published in 2017 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives concluded that fake news had a considerable influence in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. However, in general, Brazilian voters have less formal education and less access to information than the U.S. population. The use of WhatsApp is also very different in the two countries. It would be interesting to explore this research further in the case of Brazil, measuring the social media platform’s influence on several groups. Finally, it would also be important to verify a possible connection between variables such as income, education, use of WhatsApp, and evangelical votes in these recent elections.


An anti-Bolsonaro protest in 2018. (Photo by ideasGraves).


The Perfect Storm

Bolsonaro’s victory was made possible by a simultaneous combination of factors. Most importantly, Lula, the leader in the election polls, was arrested for corruption, and his replacement in the presidential race did not inherit his widespread popularity, but did have to shoulder the rejection of their party.

Despite being a federal deputy for nearly three decades as a member of political parties that faced serious charges and convictions for corruption, Jair Bolsonaro emerged victorious in the Brazilian presidential elections by calling himself the candidate of change and the fight against corruption. The former army captain constructed an efficient discourse and capitalized on the indignation of a tremendous number of voters. His narrative zeroed in on the demands of the Brazilian population: he would be rigorous on issues related to public security, he would fight corruption with all his might, and he would make sure that citizens could once again enjoy an environment that brought jobs back to Brazil. Finally, with the support of many evangelicals and a campaign packed with false news shared by his supporters through the social media platform of WhatsApp, Bolsonaro harnessed winds of a perfect storm.


CAROLINA BOTELHO is a visiting fellow at the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley. She has a PhD in Political Science from IESP/UERJ and a master’s degree in Anthropology and Sociology from IFCS/UFRJ. She was a coordinator and researcher of political science at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a senior consultant at Ipsos Public Affairs, and a researcher at IPEA. She has also worked as a technical advisor for various state and federal government agencies in Brazil. She is the author of several books, including Reforma da Previdência – a visita da velha senhora (Gestão Publica, 2015) and Caminhos trilhados e os desafios da educação superior no Brasil (Eduerj, 2016). She has written for various Brazilian periodicals, including Estadão, O Globo, and Exame.






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1 Response to Bolsonaro’s Perfect Storm in Brazil: From Outraged Voters to Extreme Right-Wing Votes

  1. Pingback: A tempestade perfeita de Bolsonaro no Brasil: do eleitor indignado ao voto na ultradireita | Center for Latin American Studies, UC Berkeley

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