Episode 2 — Brazil’s Bolsonaro

(Sounds of crowd cheering)

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:12] That is the sound of thousands of Brazilians packing the streets of Rio de Janeiro to cheer on the man who's poised to become the country's next president.

(More cheering)

IT: [00:00:28] I'm Imtiaz Tyab. And you're listening to The Take. One story every week powered by Al Jazeera's journalism.

Jair Bolsonaro: [00:00:41] Petralhada, vai tudo vocês (sic) pra ponta da praia! Vocês não terão mais vez em nossa pátria, que eu vou cortar todas as mordomias de vocês!

IT: [00:00:45] That's Brazil's presidential front runner, Jair Bolsonaro, just last weekend talking to his supporters about how he's going to take back the country. He's talking about purging the nation of his political rivals. It'll be a clean up, he says, the likes of which Brazil has never seen.

IT: [00:01:20] Bolsonaro is a former Army captain who served seven terms in Congress. But until now, he's been on the fringes of the far right. What he's really known for is saying a whole lot of racist, sexist, and homophobic things.

IT: [00:01:37] But people love him. This month, he won 46 percent of the vote in a crowded field of candidates and forced a runoff.

Lucia Newman: [00:01:46] The future of Latin America's largest country will be decided in a runoff between ultra right wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, the candidate of the discredited left wing Workers Party.

IT: [00:01:59] That's Lucia Newman. She's Al Jazeera's Latin America editor and has been covering Brazil since the early 80s, back when it was still run by military dictators. And she's been following Bolsonaro's wild ride from the start.

LN: [00:02:15] I mean this has been a political earthquake. A bomb. I mean nobody could have predicted that this was going to evolve the way it has.

IT: [00:02:25] Brazilians go back to the polls on Sunday. There's a lot at stake. Brazil is still recovering from its worst ever recession. Murders are at an all time high. People are worried about their livelihoods, and their lives. But mostly, people are angry. Really really angry.

IT: [00:02:49] A lot of it has to do with corruption. Dozens of politicians are currently under investigation. Some are being tried. Others have been convicted and removed from office.

LN: [00:03:00] And so Brazilians are disenchanted. They're angry, they're- they're really really pissed off. They're pissed off at the left. There are pissed off at the center left. They're looking for solutions everywhere and suddenly, this is where Bolsonaro comes in. And he was just sort of there representing a very obscure right wing political party. And you would think he would be the man least likely to succeed.

Protestor: [00:03:24] He’s fascist. He’s sexist. He is homophobic and he’s like the new Hitler in the 21st century.

IT: [00:03:33] Despite it all, his campaign got very good at getting a lot of attention. And then something happened. Something big.

(Headline in Portuguese)

LN: [00:03:46] There was an assassination attempt.

News presenter [00:03:49] It was an attack that happened fast. Jair Bolsonaro, one of the country’s...

IT: [00:03:53] It was at a packed street rally. Bolsonaro was sitting on the shoulders of some of his supporters when somebody stabbed him in the stomach. The whole thing was captured on video. And Bolsonaro's face grimacing in pain was all over the world news.

LN: [00:04:12] It nearly killed him but it didn't. But what it did do was really help him, his popularity surge. So you know there was sympathy vote. But it also took him out of the running. He couldn't campaign. He couldn't take part in the debates, which means people were just left with this image of a guy that had really strong simple solutions to very complex problems, but he didn't have to explain them.

IT: [00:04:37] You know his stabbing really kind of underscored this campaign message of his, that violence in Brazil is is out of control. Why did this tough on crime message play so well with voters?

LN: [00:04:50] Crime and insecurity and violence. You have to live it to understand just how how much it is changed people’s lives for the worse. And nobody, until now, who's been in government, has not only been able to control it- it's only expanded. So people feel very very unsafe in their most basic need and that is to stay alive. I know that sounds very melodramatic but I mean we're talking about 63,000 people murdered just on the streets. Stray bullets everywhere. It's across the board. It doesn't matter if you're rich, middle class, or very poor. In fact the very poor are the ones who are the biggest victims. They want somebody to come in and do something about this. Make them feel safe again. And none of the others do that.

LN: [00:05:41] Bolsonaro was a genius. Certainly his campaign managers were geniuses too. He only had eight seconds of paid legal propaganda on television because of the- he belongs to such a tiny party. Eight seconds while everybody else had several minutes. But he used the social networks to get his message across. And in Brazil, unlike in other places, Facebook plays a big role and Instagram, but WhatsApp is the message bearer, if you can believe it. More than half of Brazilians have their WhatsApp connected 24/7 and they started- every- all the all the parties did. But particularly the Bolsonaro supporters a campaign of fake news that was amazing. And it really did, it did work.

IT: [00:06:33] What also worked in Bolsonaro's favor, is that his main rival was sitting in jail. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was banned from participating in the election just weeks ahead of the first vote.

Lucia TV Package: [00:06:51] Before surrendering to authorities, he vowed to stage his political comeback from prison.

IT: [00:06:57] Let me tell you a little bit about Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, or Lula, as everyone calls him. He's the leader of the left wing PT or Worker's Party and served as Brazil's president from 2003 to 2011. It was a time of major economic growth. And he wasn't just popular. He was really popular.

LN: [00:07:19] Brazil has always been described as a kind of an airplane that never manages to take off. And when Lula da Silva, the Workers Party president, took office everything sort of converged to make it seem as though Brazil was finally going to take off. The high prices of commodities, the economy really became very strong and stable, and he managed to get an estimated 30 million people out of poverty and into the middle class, lower middle classes. And people were thrilled. The whole world was in love with Lula.

(Crowd chanting Ole, ole ole ole, Lula! Lula!)

LN: [00:08:01] I remember President Obama said that he was the most popular politician in the world. President George Bush loved him too. Everybody loved Lula.

LN: [00:08:11] Until he had to sort of hand the baton over to his successor Dilma Rousseff. And in the midst of all of that there was all these rumblings of corruption scandals, mega mega multibillion dollar corruption scandals, but people just didn't pay that much attention because they were doing well. But when the economy collapsed, that was the end of the story.

IT: [00:08:29] One of the biggest scandals linked to Lula's party, the PT, is called Operation Car Wash. It's one of the largest and most complex corruption cases in South American history.

News presenter: [00:08:47] It began in 2014 as a money laundering investigation. It then expanded to include allegations of corruption at the state controlled oil company Petrobas, where investigators say bribes were paid in return for contracts.

IT: [00:08:58] Prosecutors said leaders stole billions from taxpayers. Dilma Rousseff, Lula's hand picked successor, was impeached in 2016 after the details came out. And earlier this year, Lula himself was sentenced to 12 years in prison in connection with the case. He claims he's innocent.

LN: [00:09:14] I have spoken to so many people who voted for Lula, who adored Lula, who was idolized the way some people now idolize Bolsonaro. And who say, anybody could have stolen. Anybody could have become corrupt, but not Lula. That's like a stab in the back. We didn't expect that from him, we can't forgive him for that. And whether he did it or not, they believe he did. And we all know that the Workers Party did. As did, as did other political parties, but they were the ones in charge. So they're taking the flak for this. And so lots of people voted for Bolsonaro because they hate the PT so much. They say, I'd rather vote for anybody rather than the Workers Party. In a country like Brazil, you also have to remember its constitution has only been in place for 30 years. Before that it was a military dictatorship. So it's a very young democracy with weak institutions, or at least young institutions, that has been subverted by corruption. And that has made people completely lose faith in their, in their democracy and in their institutions specifically and their political parties. And that's what makes people then turn to someone who is totally different.

IT: [00:10:21] For a lot of those people, different means more like the past. That past, under military rule, was really dark. From the mid 1960s to the mid 80s, Brazil's generals maintained law and order through systemic brutality. Thousands were tortured and hundreds were killed or disappeared. And yet...

LN: [00:10:44] Some people, here in Latin America, believe that the good old days when you had military rule were much better than these kind of chaotic times that we're living in now. Back in those days, they say, everything was in order. There was a strong hand. That's how they see it. And they they yearn for that. There's a nostalgia for that. And I think that you can't underestimate these- this feeling which people thought it but they didn't say it out loud.

LN: [00:11:20] He's saying two things: weapons, arms to the ordinary citizens. So let's everybody let's get our guns so we can defend ourselves from the criminals. And B, send in the police and the military and let them shoot them and ask questions later. He says that. I'm not making this up. And by the way, Bolsonaro's running mate is a former general who says that a military intervention in this country is not out of the question. If necessary.

IT: [00:11:53] I guess this sort of leads me to my next question which is, and this is a comparison that Bolsonaro has made himself, which is a lot of people are making a comparison between him and the U.S. president Donald Trump. What do you make of that comparison?

LN: [00:12:09] Well I would say their personalities are not dissimilar. But this is a phenomena. This is a political wave. This wave that is, I would call it authoritarian. We're seeing it in other parts of the world as well. Where the normal rules of the game of political institutions just don't seem to apply the way they used to. And you see that with Donald Trump and you certainly see it with a man like Bolsonaro.

LN: [00:12:41] Steven Levitsky, he's an American political scientist, he says that we're living through in very dangerous times. Because he says that in the past, democracies used to die in the hands of people with guns, military coups, and things like that. But now it's a lot more subtle. He says that democracies die in the hands of elected leaders who use the institutions of democracy to subvert it. And we're seeing that more and more and certainly in Latin America.

Kyana Moghadam: [00:13:16] Hi guys. This is Kyana Moghadam. I produced this episode of The Take. If you're listening to this on your phone, just pull it out right now. Take a look. You see that link in the episode description? That is going to take you to a survey where you can give us feedback on the show. What you like, what you don't like, what you want us to tackle in this first season. We really want to hear from you. OK. Back to the show.

IT: [00:13:44] There's another set of players in the story of Jair Bolsonaro's success: Brazil's powerful evangelical churches. Which some find pretty surprising, given Bolsonaro is a Catholic who's been married three times.

Bolsonaro supporter (in Portuguese): Firstly, he is honest. It's not anyone's duty to be honest. People have tried to find something against him, but there is no evidence against him or anything...Secondly, he is conservative, a family man.

IT: [00:14:11] This is a woman being interviewed this week in Sao Paolo about why she's voting for Bolsonaro. She's saying he's honest and fights corruption. He's a conservative, a father and a family man. He's bringing back the values we've lost.

IT: [00:14:25] Tell us a little bit about the evangelical community in Brazil and why they're so powerful and more importantly, why they're supporting Bolsonaro.

LN: [00:14:33] Well, why they're supporting Bolsonaro is probably not so surprising, but how they got to where they are is. This is supposed to be the world's largest Catholic country. I don't know if you know that. But like everywhere else in the world, Catholicism is going through a tremendous crisis. And that means that the evangelical sects, evangelical religions have been growing steadily and very very strongly throughout this whole region. More probably than anywhere else in the world. Brazil is no exception. But they've also managed to do it in a way where they've become very rich.

LN [00:15:09] When you go to church, you give every Sunday 10 percent of your salary to the church. They have established television networks that are broadly seen all over the country. So they've been competing very successfully and they've been extremely involved in politics. Bolsonaro has tapped into everything that they believe in and that is specifically this family values thing. This idea that families have to stay together and that children can only be had between a man and a woman. They reject abortion. They reject same sex marriage. They feel attacked by this. And so of course they're going to support somebody like Bolsonaro, who speaks their language.

IT: [00:15:50] So who is running against this guy? Who is the alternative? It was a crowded field until the first round of voting. Lula insisted on being the Workers Party candidate from jail. But at the last minute, he was forced to pick a stand in. Fernando Haddad. But all of Haddad's campaign posters were of Lula. All the ads were also of Lula. And the campaign slogan, Haddad is Lula, Lula is Haddad. But Haddad came in second. Lucia, what happened? Why didn't this work?

LN: [00:16:36] Haddad himself is a moderate. If it had been up to him, he would have done a very different campaign, or so I'm told. And it wouldn't have been based on Haddad is Lula and Lula is Haddad. But if you're telling people that he's the same thing as Lula and there wasn't an iota of remorse publicly, of mea culpa, of saying we we messed up. He never owned up to it. On the contrary, the campaign was all about, and this was the slogan, happy days are here again, or will be coming again.

IT: [00:17:09] And now, all those posters and ads of Lula, they're gone. Haddad's campaign message has changed, too. To sum it up, vote for him because he's the only one who can stop a Bolsonaro presidency. .

IT: [00:17:31] With the runoff only a few days away, we called Lucia again. Things in Brazil are getting pretty ugly.

News presenter: [00:17:37] Violence against minorities is nothing new in Brazil, but in the current climate it’s on the rise. With the perpetrators often feeling they have the freedom, the impunity, and sometimes even the encouragement from the very top to carry out the attacks.

LN: [00:17:52] Well a lot of things have happened and none of them are very good. First of all, there's been a tsunami of fake news. We already had some of this. And then what we're also seeing here is a marked rise in violence. Really sort of ugly incidents of violence. We've seen things like a woman having a swastika carved in the back of her neck with a knife because she was sporting a Haddad T-shirt. We've seen a person killed in Bahia because he was supporting Haddad. People beat up, lots of violence and lots of threats of violence and of death on the social networks against journalists as well. Lots of intimidation like we have never seen, certainly not since the days of the dictatorship in Brazil.

IT: [00:18:43] Haddad has denounced the violence and told Brazil not to fall for the misinformation campaign.

LN: [00:18:47] He's been saying all the obvious things, but he hasn't really explained why he would be any different or would be better for the country or why he would why the PT if it were to be elected back into power wouldn't keep making the same mistakes that it made in the past. So people aren't listening. And the polls show it.

Jair Bolsonaro: [00:19:10] Sem mentiras, sem fake news, sem Folha de São Paulo!

IT: [00:19:16] It's hard to see a scenario where Bolsonaro doesn't get elected as president. So what does the Bolsonaro presidency look like?

LN: [00:19:24] I think we're going to see a huge spur in crimes that have to do with intolerance. Intolerance against minorities, and against people who think politically differently. And what I don't know is what's going to happen to the economy. What was once the third or fourth, world's third or fourth largest economy, it sunk. Whether he even has the ability to improve the situation or not is another story altogether. But I think things are going to get a lot worse.

LN: [00:19:55] I feel concerned, very concerned about the democracy. But it has less to do with Bolsonaro than with the quality or lack of of Brazil's still fledgling democracy. It's a system that has been riddled with vices. Corruption, an excess of political parties, that has been distorting and debilitating the political system as a whole. And everybody knows it but nobody's wanted to change it because it keeps the same people in office over and over and over again. It perpetuates a system that the very people who are benefiting from it would have to change. We see that in other parts of the world but in Brazil it's extremely obvious what has to be done.

LN: [00:20:47] They need a political reform. The PT talked about it but never did it even when they could have done it. And there's and so these vices, people have just become so disenchanted with their politicians that the so-called anti politician that Bolsonaro paints himself as being, could be seen as the salvation. That's why they're, they're- they're voting for him.

IT: [00:21:26] Lucia Newman, thank you very much.

LN: [00:21:18] Thank you.

IT: [00:21:49] That's it for this week's episode of The Take. Kyana Moghadam produced this episode. She had production help from Morgan Waters, Jasmin Baoumy, Jordan Marie Bailey and me, Imtiaz Tyab. The sound designer was Ian Coss. Graelyn Brashear is the show's lead producer. Special thanks to Leah Granger, Pilar Tejarina, Ivan Torres, Rafael Pieroni, and Lucia Newman. We'll be back next week.