Former army captain Jair Bolsonaro is no longer seen alone in the halls of Brazil’s congress, as was once common. Now the representative from Rio de Janeiro makes lightening speeches for passing visitors and students. He is always surrounded by cell phones, further fueling his growing profile on social networks. Supporters queue for a photo in front of a backdrop at the entrance to his office – a national flag emblazoned with his name – which he had painted for the purpose.
Long regarded by colleagues as eccentric – if not beyond the pale – now everyone wants to meet the potential far-right candidate for president in the 2018 elections. In an epoch of economic and political strife in Brazil, he has won a legion of admirers with outspoken, authoritarian and openly bigoted stances. He currently has the support of as much as 20 percent of the electorate, placing him second only to the once-untouchable former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, polls indicate.
‘Traditional family values’
His direct, popular and nationalist rhetoric, speaking in defense of the traditional family and Christian values, has resonated with in an increasingly conservative electorate angry with mainstream politicians, a deep recession and rising crime (57 percent of Brazilians agrees with the saying “a good bandit is dead bandit”). The moment has allowed him to break away from his standard base of police and military personnel and attract more educated, younger, and wealthier voters.
Verbal violence is one of his hallmarks and a tactic to captivate his audience. An appeals court this month dismissed the 62-year-old’s appeal against a ruling he should pay BRL 10,000 (USD 3,190) in moral damages to fellow representative Maria do Rosário, who he told he would not rape because she “does not deserve it.”
Such incidents pepper his parliamentary career: he has said in speeches and interviews that he is “very proudly prejudiced”, that he “would be incapable of loving a homosexual son”, that “women should earn a reduced salary while they are pregnant”, that “the dictatorship should have killed about 30,000, starting with Fernando Henrique Cardoso [who served as president of Brazil from 1995 to 2002],” and that, when he served in the army, his “specialty was killing.”
Now, facing the possibility of a competitive presidential run, he is exploring worlds that were previously completely alien to him. He is talking to banks and investment funds, as well as entrepreneurs and image consultants, as well as reaching out to the Jewish community and the agribusiness lobby. He says he will not change his stances to become more amenable to vested interests. “I will not make an agreement with the devil to elect me,” he said. “Forget it.” Most investors and analysts believe that if he is elected, the stock market would fall dramatically, and the real would devalue significantly against the dollar.
For a politician who has run his career practically alone, without the structure of a large party or strong ally, the consolidation of his presidential project puts him on another level. He has been aided greatly by the swing against the Workers’ Party, which held the presidency from 2002 to 2016, until Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment.
Nearly a Messiah
Born in the interior of São Paulo state in 1955, he was nearly baptized as Messias (meaning Messiah) on the wish of his mother. But his father prevailed, and he was named after Jair Rosa Pinto, a footballer who starred in the 1950 World Cup.
In 1973, he was admitted the army, aged 18. His military career was nothing glorious: he engaged in acts of indiscipline and was caught planning to set off bombs on military bases. He was placed under internal investigation and, in 1988, he was prematurely excluded from active service and placed on reserve duty. In the same year, he was elected to the city council in Rio de Janeiro for the first time.
Despite his relationship with the army being plagued by mistrust, today there are signs of sympathy towards him. One of the 17 generals who make up the army high command has already publicly praised Bolsonaro. As a reserve officer, his approach to the armed forces has a strictly political explanation: convenience.
Married three times with five children, in 1996 he helped elected his first wife, Rogéria, to the city council in Rio de Janeiro. The couple had three children (who Bolsonaro calls Zero One, Zero Two and Zero Three) but split shortly afterwards. In 2000, he had his elected son (whose actual name is Carlos) stand against and beat his mother who, without Bolsonaro’s support never won another election. Zero Two (Flávio) and Zero Three (Eduardo) have also won elected office.
A federal representative for more than 25 years, Bolsonaro has had one of the most erratic careers in congress. In 2014, when he was re-elected for the sixth time, he won the most votes in the state of Rio de Janeiro with a campaign that was cheap by national standards. In this session, he has sponsored only one bill of his own.
At the last election, he declared assets of just over BRL 2 million (USD 660,000), including an apartment in Brasília, three properties in Rio de Janeiro, a beach house in Mambucaba along the coast, cars and a boat.
A gift for Lula?
Lately, he has been concerned about his image and, about a year ago, he sat down with a celebrated image consultant. But the Workers’ Party, who possess the most effective electoral machine in Brazil appear unmoved. “His is the best name on the ballot for Lula to win,” said federal representative José Guimarães.
Bolsonaro says he will remain the radical outsider he always was, a fantasy that enables him to maintain his anti-establishment credentials. “I am alone against everything and against everyone who is there [in power],” he said. “And everyone is getting scared of me.”