Bolsonaro’s Brazil: Sexism, Crime and the Economy 


November, 2018

  • Jair Bolsonaro has risen from relative obscurity to become the leader of South America’s largest economy.
  • Bolsonaro’s controversial remarks about women have been criticised by those who believe the leader of a democratic country should not hold such beliefs.
  • Shifts in social and cultural attitudes have coincided with economic stagnation in Brazil.

  • The support from women may surprise some observers, but identity politics has been ousted in favour of other considerations such as crime.

By delving deeper into the current state of Brazil, we can begin to understand why the Brazilian people elected such a controversial president.’

You could be forgiven for believing Brazil has grown tired of democracy. In the Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey, just 8% of Brazilians held the view that representative democracy is very good. There is a simple answer to why this is. Scepticism of representative democracy is tied to people’s views on the economic conditions inside the country. A struggling national economy has led people to be less likely to support representative democracy as the best way forward.

It wasn’t always like this. From 2000-2012, Brazil was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with average annual GDP growth sitting comfortably at 5%. The memory of economic prosperity is distant for many Brazilians. Over the last decade, economic decline has culminated in high unemployment (above 12%), a significant budget deficit and the worst recession on record. Coupled with the imprisonment of Lula Da Silva, arguably the most popular leader in Brazilian history, on corruption charges, democracy became a synonym for chaos and disorder.

Enter Jair Bolsonaro. To label the President-elect a controversial figure would be an understatement. Bolsonaro is a highly polarising figure; his critics have condemned his past off-coloured remarks about women and Brazil’s previous military dictatorship. Bolsonaro’s undignified approach was highlighted in 1999 when he was suspended from Congress after calling for the military to assassinate the former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Bolsonaro’s personality has been dissected and examined in vast detail, with fears emanating that he will take Brazil back in time with little regard for democratic institutions or liberal-democratic values. By delving deeper into the current state of Brazil, we can begin to understand why the Brazilian people elected such a controversial president.

A shift in social and cultural attitudes has realigned Brazil with traditional-conservative values and ideas. According to a 2016 survey, 54% of Brazilians held conservative beliefs, up from 49% in 2010. Today, more Brazilians are in favour of legalising capital punishment, lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults and life without parole for individuals who commit heinous crimes. The shift towards conservative beliefs is also apparent in the religious context. The percentage of those who identified as evangelicals in Brazil grew from 6.6% in 1980, to 22.2% in 2010.

In a country where one in every four voters is evangelical, it is surprising that Bolsonaro’s opponents did not see his victory coming. Brazil has historically been a deeply religious country and with this naturally comes an element of conservatism. Bolsonaro’s message resonates with the religious contingent who wish to repeal the promotion of LGBT rights set up under Lula’s government. Although Lula drew support from the evangelical community, they disliked his more liberal policies. They were only willing to overlook this because they believed he would help the economy. As the economy has deteriorated, Brazilians have lost trust in the ability of representative democracy to deliver prosperity. Thus, cultural issues have risen to take precedence over economic ones.

That is not to say that economic issues have lost all significance. Instead, we are seeing that Brazilians value other factors which they feel are important in their lives. In Brazil, the issue of corruption ranks highly. The Workers’ Party found themselves embroiled in a corruption scandal dubbed ‘Operation Car Wash’. Since March 2014, an investigation has been launched into allegations that executives at the state oil company Petrobas had been bribed into awarding construction companies contracts at inflated prices. Alongside the Brazilian construction mammoth Odebrecht, who has also been accused of bribing officials, these funds were allegedly used to pay off politicians and help fund political campaigns. The culture of corruption has reached the highest levels of the Brazilian government, shown through the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the infamous sentencing of Lula Da Silva this April to 12 years in prison. In Bolsonaro, the people of Brazil believe they have a president who will not stand idle to impunity and can restore faith in representative democracy.

In the eyes of his critics, the typical Bolsonaro voter is sexist, racist and aligned with radical far-right politics. How then do we explain his rapport with women? History may have the answer. Five decades ago, women were at the forefront of the opposition to President Joao Goulart, which resulted in a military coup and twenty years of right-wing dictatorship. In the era of transnational feminism, conservative women, particularly in Brazil, have seen their beliefs marginalised. The statistics show that 82% of Brazilian women are against the legalisation of abortion and 40% are against same-sex marriage. Women hold many of the same beliefs as men, and this has been downplayed by focusing solely on Bolsonaro’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Women see Bolsonaro as the answer to a perennial issue facing Brazilian society: criminal violence. Violence in Brazil disproportionately affects women. In 2017, more than 60,000 women were raped and 1,133 were killed because of their gender and 606 cases of domestic violence were registered every day. Bolsonaro aims to address this by increasing the powers of the police to enforce the law and, in the same vein, relaxing the laws restricting the ownership and carrying of guns. Is this a step towards authoritarianism and chaos?  Or, as the women who voted for Bolsonaro see it, a necessary step to protect citizens? Despite some opposition, namely in the form of the #EleNao (#NotHim) movement, women who feel vulnerable have a strong affinity for Bolsonaro. Instead of being defined by their group identity, many women in Brazil have defied the norm and are prioritising the politics of survival over the politics of identity.

In conclusion, identity politics and liberal-democratic values have been pushed aside in Brazil. This has been a long time coming. A combination of economic decline, the re-emergence of conservative social and cultural attitudes and the backlash against the political establishment (i.e. liberal representative democracy) created the conditions for Bolsonaro’s victory. The outrage fuelled by his appointed should not take away from the clear and undeniable support Bolsonaro has received. People who feel unfairly targeted by the current socio-economic situation or feel as if their beliefs have no place in society have rallied around Bolsonaro, irrespective of whether his beliefs threaten liberal values. The future for Brazil under Bolsonaro is uncertain, yet one thing is for sure: he has the task of leading a deeply fractured and polarised nation.


Written by Abdi Buwe. Edited by Tanya Kekic. 

Warwick Congress Blog

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