Jair Bolsonaro: His positive comments views have given some world leaders pause, and they havegiven earned him the epithet ‘strongman’. Picture: AFP
Jair Bolsonaro: His positive comments views have given some world leaders pause, and they havegiven earned him the epithet ‘strongman’. Picture: AFP

Who is Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president-elect? It’s a manifestation of the unhinged nature of modern politics that not only does Bolsonaro seem to defy easy definition, he also defies easy analogy. He’s been described by opponents and the international media as a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a fascist, an advocate of torture and an aspiring dictator. And because this is the era of political derangement, all that made him more popular, not less.

The most common analogy is that he is Brazil’s answer to Donald Trump, but the comparison is somewhat off. Bolsonaro, 63, spent 17 years in the Brazilian army, and is proud of it. Trump, who graduated in the Vietnam era, avoided the draft five times.

Army experience is politically charged in Brazil, which was run by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. "I know what hierarchy and discipline mean. Without those, we will never have order and progress," Bolsonaro said last year. His views about the dictatorship have earned him the epithet "strongman" from some. For years, he was a fringe figure who made occasional headlines with characteristic outbursts. He once told a leftist congresswoman she did not "deserve" to be raped because she was too ugly, and was successfully charged for having done so.

Brazil’s fractured politics (no party got more than 11% of the vote and nine got more than 5%), a massive corruption scandal involving the usually powerful left-wing Workers’ Party, and a disastrous economy over the past three years set the scene for a dramatic mix-up in Sunday’s voting.

What Brazilians voted against is consequently obvious, but what they voted for is unclear. Though Bolsonaro’s thinking on economics is notionally free market, he once said former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso should face a firing squad for privatising state companies. These views have changed somewhat, particularly because state-owned petrol company Petrobras was central to Operation Car Wash, the scandal that implicated one-third of the country’s politicians.

Where Bolsonaro does overlap with other imperious world leaders like Trump is in his "my country first" patriotism. That, among other things, will make for bewildering meetings of the Brics group because four of its five leaders now are autocrats.

You have to pity Cyril Ramaphosa, the last old-school socialist in the group.

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