With the election six months away, Brazil awoke Thursday morning to an open presidential race. The overwhelming frontrunner, corrupt socialist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, would now begin his 12-year prison sentence for money laundering and accepting bribes.
As this is Brazil, going to jail does not necessarily mean that Lula’s campaign is over. He can still apply to be on the presidential ballot and has one more appeal on his conviction left. But as O Globo notes, the man Barack Obama once called “the most popular politician on earth” is most likely out of political office forever.
The Supreme Federal Tribunal’s (STF) decision to deny the defense’s habeas corpus petition and not amend existing precedent for the benefit of a powerful man is a watershed moment in Brazilian history. After becoming home to one of the most pervasively rotten corruption schemes on the planet during Lula’s first term as president, Brazilians appeared to finally, categorically, proclaim that no man is above the law.
The decision is also a deer-in-the-headlights moment for Brazil’s right wing and its leader, conservative lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro, a loose cannon candidate cut from the same cloth as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and, Bolsonaro himself claims, American President Donald Trump.
While outrageous stunts may have been a recipe for political success for former Congressman Tiririca the Clown (PRB – Sao Paulo), Brazil now needs Bolsonaro to either get serious about addressing the real problem the country faces—endemic, multi-partisan corruption—or step aside and let a conservative win the race on the merits.
Whereas Lula campaigned as a “man of the people,” representing the voice of the poor even as he spent their money on a luxury beachfront property, Bolsonaro has campaigned on law and order, family values, and opposition to socialism. For a country neighboring Venezuela, that last point is crucial. On paper, Bolsonaro is offering the dejected Brazilian voter exactly what he or she has been demanding for years:
- support for a police force so poor they have to ask for toilet paper donations
- vocal opposition to the Maduro regime, which enriched Brazil’s most corrupt while impoverishing its own people
- support for “national sovereignty” in a country ravaged by the globalist money-grabs that are Summer Olympics and World Cup
- no concrete record of corruption to his name
- support for free-market principles and a plan to attract foreign investment by cracking down on corruption
For American conservatives, Bolsonaro’s support for gun rights and “family values” will also appeal.
While all these stances are technically part of the Bolsonaro platform, in practice, they often remain obscured by controversies on topics that do not affect the Brazilian voter. Most outrageous among Bolsonaro’s political errors is a long history of defending 20th-century military dictatorships known as gross violators of human rights. Most of his remarks occurred before he began his presidential campaign, and yet Bolsonaro has largely failed to keep them from becoming the major debate surrounding his candidacy.
Bolsonaro has remarked that Chilean military leader Augusto Pinochet “did what had to be done” (he drowned suspected communists in the Pacific Ocean with abandon); taunted protesters with the lament that Brazil’s military dictatorship was wrong to “torture and not kill;” lauded the Brazilian dictatorship as “20 years of order and progress;” and somehow even managed to praise Hugo Chávez, himself a military dictator, as a “hope for Latin America” in a 1999 interview.
When the national conversation on Bolsonaro is not about his military remarks, it focuses on a throwaway remark to a lawmaker that he would never rape a woman as ugly as her, or his declaration that his sons would never date men or black women because they were too “well-educated,” or his firm stance against the acceptance of transgender people and gender fluidity.
Left-wing media outlets, of course, will use any remarks from any point in time to defame a conservative. This is what Bolsonaro has argued when challenged.
“Trump faced the same attacks I am facing—that he was a homophobe, a fascist, a racist, a Nazi—but the people believed in his platform, and I was rooting for him,” Bolsonaro said in September. Rather than shift the conversation to his policies, Bolsonaro has largely embraced being a villain to the left. His campaign website, which presents only a cursory political platform, makes a note of the fact that he is “strongly opposed by leftist ideology parties.”
When he has had a chance to refocus on policies that matter, Bolsonaro has instead provided memorable embarrassing sound bites. Last month, while presenting his free-market plans to investors, Bolsonaro told them, “I don’t even know what I’m doing here, I don’t understand anything about economics.” Funny as the joke may have sounded in his head, this is simply bad politics.
Being opposed by the left is not enough. Hoping the media will give you, a conservative, the benefit of the doubt, is not enough.
While Bolsonaro has been busy defending outrageous old comments and railing against “gender ideology” in a country too busy being robbed blind to have the transgender bathroom debate right now, his opponents have chipped away at his strengths barely contested. In January, Folha de Sao Paulo, a left-leaning newspaper, published Bolsonaro family assets totaling 15 million reais (about $4.5 million). The newspaper noted that, upon entering public life in 1988, Bolsonaro owned about 10,000 reais in documented assets ($3,000). Reporters found no evidence of misconduct; they merely proposed that the numbers did not add up, given the meager official salaries of lawmakers.
“Bolsonaro is already stuttering to answer basic questions about his assets,” Veja columnist Maicon Tenfen wrote of the reveal. “I thought he would get tangled up in the radicalism of his own speech, not in suspicious acquisitions or undue aid he admits he is receiving as a representative.”
Tenfen predicts that no one will care about the revelations because “everybody knows that the Brazilian voter is not at all worried about … evidence of corruption. If he or she were, we would not see Lula leading in the polls.” Yet those attacking Bolsonaro know that his supporters are extremely concerned about rampant corruption in the country and – if they are taking these kinds of shots at him – clearly believe tainting his record with corruption will do more damage than relitigating 1960s Brazilian politics.
The Jair Bolsonaro that surfaced on Twitter following the Lula decision appears to understand this, as well. “Brazil scored a goal against impunity and corruption, but just one goal. One enemy is eliminated,” he said, adding that Brazil must elect “a president, man or woman, who is honest … and a patriot.”
Após decisão do STF cabe a cada um de nós se empenhar para mudar o destino da nossa Pátria. https://t.co/eeNOKjt1Nd
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) April 5, 2018
Even on Wednesday, Bolsonaro was campaigning online with a warning against socialism: “When Venezuelans took to the streets, it was already too late.” Fears of allowing corrupt socialists to turn Brazil into Venezuela are paramount on Brazilians’ mind, and this week’s trends in the Bolsonaro campaign show potential that the candidate may finally understand this. Given how he has campaigned so far, however, he may revert to distractions at any time, and anti-corruption voters deserve better than such a high level of risk.