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Jair Bolsonaro, right-wing firebrand, wins Brazil’s presidential election

The controversial candidate has been compared to President Donald Trump.

Danush Parvaneh/Vox
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro won a decisive victory on Sunday in Brazil’s presidential runoff election. His win represents a significant break in Brazilian politics, as voters abandoned the leftist party that had dominated past elections.

The 63-year-old former congress member won about 55 percent of the vote, handily defeating the leftist Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, who was backed by popular former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.

Bolsonaro was favored to win after he narrowly missed winning the presidential election outright in the first round of voting earlier in October. The former army captain has promised to “quebrar o sistema” — break the system — and he capitalized on the political and economic turmoil in Latin America’s largest country, promising to restore order in a country beset by violent crime and still reeling from a massive corruption scandal that touched all parties and politicians in Brazil.

Bolsonaro has also expressed an affinity for Brazil’s past dictatorship, leaving some to wonder whether his rise will leave Brazil’s democracy vulnerable — though he promised to honor the constitution in his victory speech on Sunday, the New York Times reported.

Bolsonaro’s showing on Sunday is even more remarkable because he largely began his presidential campaign as a fringe candidate in the Social Liberal Party (PSL), a once-marginal party that has also made significant gains. He also has a long history of making controversial racist and sexist statements; his unfiltered rhetoric and his “law and order” platform have earned him the nickname the “Trump of the Tropics.”

Bolsonaro celebrated his historic victory on Sunday. “We are going to change the destiny of Brazil,” he said.

Brazil swings to the right with Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro’s victory echoes other rightward shifts in democracies around the world, but the swing could be even more pronounced in Brazil, which has largely elected leftist or left-leaning presidents for the past two decades.

But voters have grown frustrated with the status quo due to a slew of political and economic crises. The current president, Michel Temer, is deeply unpopular in the wake of a struggling economy and a massive corruption scandal that has engulfed ministers in his government.

Temer took over for former leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016. Her leftist predecessor, Lula, is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption charges. He’s still popular in Brazil, and he tried to mount a reelection campaign from prison.

Lula was ultimately barred from running; had he been allowed to stand for office, it’s highly likely he would have been the favorite in the presidential election. His supporters, and Lula himself, consider his imprisonment political — an attempt to prevent his presidency again. Haddad was Lula’s chosen successor, but the former mayor failed to galvanize voters with the same ferocity as Lula.

Despite Bolsonaro’s victory, many Brazilian voters, particularly women, saw him as an alienating figure — he even faced an assassination attempt in early September.

Those who oppose him use the slogan #EleNão (“Not Him”) because of his misogynistic comments, such as once reportedly telling a woman colleague in the legislature that she was “not worthy” of being raped by him.

Bolsonaro has a long history of charged statements, though he tried to strike a more inclusive tone after the first round of presidential elections in October. His comments about the country’s military dictatorship — which ended in the mid-1980s — and his promise to put military officials in power also has those within and outside of Brazil apprehensive about the strength of the country’s democratic institutions.

Ultimately, Brazilian voters seemed hungry for change — even if it came with risks. “I feel so happy. Brazil is waking up,” Jordan Requena, a 20-year-old student, told the Guardian after Bolsonaro’s victory. “We are coming out of a trance.”