Brazilian far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro gestures as he talks to the press in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on October 25, 2018. The presidential runoff election takes place on October 28 in Brazil. CARL DE SOUZA / AFP
Sometimes called a “Tropical Trump” for his politically incorrect vitriol, Brazilian far-right presidential candidate and heavy favorite Jair Bolsonaro has successfully played to an electorate disgusted with politics as usual.
Bolsonaro, 63, has built an image as a political outsider ready to rough up the establishment — no small feat given that, unlike the US president, he is a longtime politician.
The seven-term congressman has few legislative initiatives to his record but, crucially, has not been caught up in the massive corruption scandals that have made Brazilians furious with the political class in recent years.
However, he has made enemies with his denigrating comments on women, gays and blacks, while fondly recalling Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship (1964-1985), in which he served as an army captain.
“The dictatorship’s mistake,” he said two years ago, “was to torture and not kill” leftist dissidents and suspected sympathizers.
But Bolsonaro has promised that if elected, he would govern “with authority, but not authoritarianism.”
Running against leftist Fernando Haddad in Sunday’s vote, Bolsonaro has promised to relax gun-control laws so that “good people” can take justice into their own hands, in a country fed up with violent crime.
In an ironic twist of fate, he was himself stabbed in the stomach at a campaign rally in September, by an attacker who said God had sent him to kill Bolsonaro.
The front-runner spent three weeks in the hospital. But he did not let his injuries keep him off his beloved social media accounts, where he kept up his virulent campaign.
He survived without long-term damage, but, citing doctors’ orders, has since refrained from campaign rallies and — to Haddad’s chagrin — debates.
Business, beef, bullets, Bibles
Bolsonaro calls himself an admirer of Donald Trump, and has similarly tapped a deep national malaise — in Brazil’s case, one caused by crime, an ailing economy and the never-ending “Car Wash” corruption scandal that has stoked fury at the political class.
“He talks about ‘politicians’ as if he weren’t part of that world. He wants to come across as a strongman, a hardliner, who will fight corruption,” said Michael Mohallem, a law professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
Bolsonaro has sealed the support of the business sector, as well as Brazil’s powerful “Beef, bullets and Bible” caucus — comprising the agrobusiness lobby, security hardliners and Evangelical Christians.
He owes his business support mainly to his choice of top financial adviser: respected liberal economist Paulo Guedes, a graduate of the University of Chicago.
He earned the agro-lobby’s backing with vows to put agriculture before the environment — frightening environmentalists, who warn he would be disastrous for the Amazon rainforest.
Evangelicals meanwhile like his social conservatism — although some frown on the fact that Bolsonaro, a Catholic, has five children by three women.
Attacking women, blacks, gays
Born in 1955 to a Catholic family with Italian roots, Bolsonaro served as a paratrooper in the military before starting his political career in 1988 as a Rio de Janeiro city councilor.
Two years later, he was elected to the lower house of Congress, where he has been since.
He has ignited one explosive controversy after another with his misogynist and racist remarks.
In 2003, he said a female lawmaker he opposed was “not worth raping.”
In 2011, he told Playboy magazine he would rather his sons be killed in an accident than come out as gay.
In 2016, he dedicated his vote to impeach leftist former president Dilma Rousseff to the military officer who headed the torture unit where she was detained as a political prisoner during the dictatorship.
With piercing blue eyes, Bolsonaro was known for his physical strength in his army days — earning the nickname “Big Horse.”
Today, his most fervent supporters have given him another nickname, the “Myth” — an image only bolstered when he survived the stabbing attack last month.
Bolsonaro has four sons — three of them politicians — and, in what he called a moment of “weakness,” a daughter.