Bolsonaro: Brazil’s polarizing far-right president

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – Four years after bursting in to shake up a Brazil disgusted with mainstream politics, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is finding it increasingly difficult to present himself as an outsider, but still remains just as vitriolic and polarizing.

The 67-year-old incumbent is due to officially launch his re-election bid on Tuesday in the place that cemented him in the minds of diehard fans as ‘The Myth’: the small southeastern town of Juiz de Fora.

It was there that an attacker stabbed Bolsonaro in the abdomen during a rally for his 2018 campaign, nearly killing the former army captain turned congressman.

Known for his brash and divisive style that earned him the nickname “Tropical Trump”, Bolsonaro had risen to prominence on the campaign trail that year by playing voters disgusted by Brazil’s economic implosion and the huge “Car Wash” corruption scandal.

When he survived the stabbing – carried out by an attacker who was later declared mentally unfit to stand trial – it only fueled supporters’ belief in their ‘Messiah’ or ‘Messiah’ – Bolsonaro’s middle name.

But the aura of invincibility around the president has faded as he enters the home stretch of his term with the economy faltering, his popularity waning and ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva ( 2003-2010), his enemy on the left, leading him in the polls for the October elections.

Smooth talker

Capitalizing on widespread outrage, Bolsonaro won the presidency in a landslide in 2018, with broad support from the business sector, corruption-weary voters and the powerful “beef, bullets and Bibles” caucus – the lobby agricultural, security advocates and evangelical Christians.

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Fans love his gloveless style, his anti-establishment message and his personal touch on social media, where his movement thrives.

But he infuriates critics with his divisive vitriol and disdain for political correctness, often drawing accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia.

And his support has severely eroded within the political center and the business sector as his administration has weathered various crises.

Bolsonaro has insistently downplayed Covid-19, defied expert advice to combat it and mocked face masks, social distancing and vaccines, warning that the latter could “turn you into an alligator” – even as Brazil’s death toll has become one of the highest in the world, second only to the United States at more than 680,000.

Bolsonaro is facing an international outcry over the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which has surged under his watch, fueled by cattle ranches encroaching on the jungle.

He also faces dozens of impeachment requests and a series of corruption scandals involving those around him.

He is betting on major new social benefits which began this month to bolster his support with low-income voters – but faces accusations of economic populism and fueling already soaring inflation.

“Prison, Death or Victory”

Born in 1955 into a Catholic family of Italian descent, Bolsonaro served as a paratrooper in the army before beginning his political career in 1988 as a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro.

Two years later, he was elected to the lower house of Congress, where he served until becoming president.

He sparked one explosive controversy after another with his remarks.

In 2011, he told Playboy magazine that he’d rather his sons be killed in an accident than come out as gay.

In 2014, he made headlines when he said a leftist MP “wasn’t worth raping” because she was “too ugly”.

He is openly nostalgic for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, whose “error”, he said in 2016, “was to torture, not kill” left-wing dissidents.

Bolsonaro has cultivated a close relationship with the military’s top brass, choosing General Walter Souza Braga Netto, his former defense minister and chief of staff, as his running mate.

Many Brazilians fear Bolsonaro will try to fight the election result if he loses, following in the footsteps of his political role model, former US President Donald Trump.

Bolsonaro regularly denounces Brazil’s electronic voting machines, alleging – without evidence – that they are plagued by fraud.

He hinted that he would not walk away from the presidency without a fight, saying his re-election bid could only have three outcomes: “jail, death or victory”.

Bolsonaro has four sons – three of them politicians – and, in what he called a moment of “weakness”, a daughter.

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