Nostalgic for Brazil's dictatorship, Bolsonaro looks to presidency

Louis GENOT
Jair Bolsonaro, a provocative right-wing presidential candidate in Brazil, has crafted a Donald Trump-like appeal

Angry Brazilians long for a return to order, and former army officer Jair Bolsonaro, a fan of the dictatorship that stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s, hopes to ride that wave into the presidency.

Often labeled a Brazilian Donald Trump, Bolsonaro, 63, actually seems to enjoy offending his critics in a campaign that seeks to tear up the rules book and offer a tired nation the promise of new leadership.

To opponents, he's a far-right agitator whose insults against gays and women, and his praise for the torturers of the 1964-85 dictatorship, have deepened Brazil's political divides.

But supporters, who have propelled him to near the top of opinion polls ahead of the October election, see him as Brazil's savior. No accident, they say, that Bolsonaro's second name is Messias, or messiah.

Fans know him as "the myth."

For all his deeply conservative views, Bolsonaro is a master of the social media landscape inhabited by young Brazilians, with 1.2 million Twitter subscribers and almost 5.5 million Facebook followers.

Scenes where he gets mobbed by supporters on arrival at airports never fail to show up on Facebook.

Part of his undoubted appeal has nothing to do with left-right politics: simply, he is one of the very few well-known Brazilian politicians who have not been investigated, let alone charged, in the mammoth "Car Wash" graft scandal shaking the elite.

And on another of Brazil's biggest problems -- the epidemic of violent crime -- Bolsonaro offers what to many seems like a seductively direct idea: loosen Brazil's tight gun ownership restrictions to allow self-defense.

Critics say this would just add to the mayhem. But Bolsonaro's message is well received by those who have given up on the ineffectual -- and themselves often corrupt -- police.

"Bolsonaro's the light at the end of the tunnel. He's the only candidate who really represents the Brazilian people and who can stop the corruption," said one supporter, marketer Agnes Plocharski, 47, when the candidate arrived recently in the southern city of Curitiba.

Polls give him 20 percent of the vote, enough to get into a second round of the election, although there he is projected to lose against leftist candidates.

Support is greatest among the young, with 26 percent, and among the better off, with 34 percent. Bolsonaro also finds backing among evangelical Christians for his uncompromising anti-abortion stand.

- Burning bridges -

Bolsonaro campaigns as an outsider. The reality is that he's been a member of Congress from Rio de Janeiro since 1991, though not a particularly prominent one, passing only two bills in those 27 years.

"He talks about politicians as if he wasn't part of that world. He has succeeded in portraying himself as a strongman, with a hard line against corruption," said Michael Mohallem, a law professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

The strongman talk has often veered into the kind of incidents that might sink a regular politician -- but in Bolsonaro's case simply bolster his brand.

In 2014 in the lower house of Congress he told a leftist member, Maria do Rosario, that she "didn't deserve" to be raped, because of her looks.

During the controversial 2016 impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff, who had suffered torture under the dictatorship, Bolsonaro praised one of the most notorious figures of that repression.

His anti-homosexual statements are famously severe, including telling Playboy magazine in 2011 that he would rather see his own son "die in an accident" than ever come out as gay.

Along the way, Bolsonaro has burned so many bridges that he would have a hard time making alliances with traditional power brokers.

Polls also show that in a second round runoff he would discover the limits to his insurgency, for example coming 10 percentage points behind center-left environmentalist Marina Silva.

"We don't know if he could win the votes of other candidates who'd been knocked out in the first round, but he's not a consensus kind of candidate," Mohallem said.

But even if the ex-army officer doesn't capture his objective, Brazil is likely to be taking notice of the Bolsonaro name for a while: he has three politician sons, one of them a congressman and the other two local politicians in Rio de Janeiro.