A YEAR AGO the idea that Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain with an unimpressive career as a congressman, might become Brazil’s president seemed outlandish. Since the first round of Brazil’s national election on October 7th the main question has not been whether he will win but how he will govern. On October 28th he beat Fernando Haddad, of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), with 55% of the vote. For the first time since the end of its military dictatorship in 1985, Brazil has elected a president whose views resemble those of the generals more than those of the democratically elected presidents who succeeded them.
In his first acts as president-elect, Mr Bolsonaro tried to narrow the divisions he and his supporters helped create and calm the fears they have raised, but without abandoning the ideology that brought them success. Speaking on Facebook Live from his home in Barra de Tijuca, a prosperous beachside neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, he promised to respect “the teachings of God, alongside the Brazilian constitution”, and to abandon the “us versus them” rhetoric that has dominated political discussion. His policies would “serve the interest of everyone”, he declared. This was supposed to reassure Brazilians who fear that their new president is a bigot and a dictator in waiting.
But some of the supporters gathered outside his condominium did not share his emollient mood. While loudspeakers carried Mr Bolsonaro’s remarks another sound system blasted out a Bolsonaro themed favela funk track by a local artist that makes fun of leftist politicians, including the congresswoman Mr Bolsonaro said was too ugly to rape. Chants of “Get out, PT” interrupted parts of his speech. Jubilant supporters took turns pointing an oversized cardboard machine gun at a human-sized doll with the face of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the party’s leader and a former Brazilian president, who is in jail for corruption.
Mr Bolsonaro is president largely because he bashed the PT more emphatically than anyone else. The party governed Brazil for 13 years from 2003. Its final years in power were marked by an economic slump, revelations of corruption on an epic scale and rising crime.
Mr Bolsonaro’s victory comes at the end of a campaign that was unusually violent by Brazilian standards. Dozens of hate crimes against gay and black Brazilians were reported between the election’s two rounds. Swastikas and the message “Go back to Bolivia” appeared on the walls of a university dormitory. A well known capoeira teacher from the port city of Salvador who supported Mr Haddad was stabbed to death by a backer of Mr Bolsonaro in a bar. A 23-year-old man was shot while walking in a pro-Haddad march on the outskirts of Fortaleza.
The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism has documented more than 100 cases of threats and attacks against reporters covering the elections. A man wearing a “Bolsonaro for president” T-shirt cornered a journalist and cut her neck with a knife. A reporter and an editor from Folha de S. Paulo, a newspaper, were threatened online, by telephone and at their homes after the newspaper reported on a plan by businessmen to distribute false news about Mr Haddad through WhatsApp, a messaging service. Waiting for the election result outside Mr Bolsonaro’s house, supporters banged on the windows of a car carrying reporters from the Globo television network, yelling “Globo, Trash!”
Throughout the campaign Mr Bolsonaro encouraged such behaviour, while occasionally trying to sound more statesmanlike. In a video address to a rally on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo on October 21st, he called Folha de S. Paulo “the biggest fake news in Brazil” and promised a purge of his political foes. “We’re going to wipe those red bandits off the map,” he said. “Either they leave the country or they go to jail.” In victory, Mr Bolsonaro continued the war of words on the left. “We cannot continue flirting with socialism, communism, populism and leftist extremism,” he declared in his election-night address.
Mr Bolsonaro has said much more about what he is against than about what he is for. After he was stabbed at a campaign rally in September he stopped participating in debates. His plans for government are sketchy. The real and the stockmarket have risen on expectations that he will reform the state, which is accumulating debt at a dangerous rate. The prospective finance minister, Paulo Guedes, is a pro-market economist with a degree from the University of Chicago. He wants to slash the budget deficit, reform taxes and the unaffordable pension system, deregulate and privatise state enterprise.
Mr Bolsonaro’s main crime-fighting policies, apart from encouraging police to kill more criminals, are to reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and to promote gun ownership among law-abiding Brazilians. His ideas for reducing corruption are not much more elaborated. The president of his Social Liberal Party has said that Sérgio Moro, a judge who has led the Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption investigations, which have implicated scores of politicians, including Lula, could become justice minister or a supreme-court judge. (That would feed the left’s suspicions that the investigations are politically motivated.)
Mr Bolsonaro has already backed away from some of his most controversial ideas. At the bidding of business groups, he dropped plans to fold the environment ministry into the agriculture ministry and to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. That suggests that he may be more responsive to pressure from centrist lobbies than is President Donald Trump, with whom he shares some traits. Mr Trump was quick to congratulate Mr Bolsonaro on his election. They agreed to work “side-by-side”.
Mr Bolsonaro, who spent most of his political career hopping among tiny parties as a member of the “lower clergy” of the lower house of congress, wants to form a coalition with centrist parties. But he has also promised voters that he will abjure the customary tactics of handing out pork and patronage to political allies. That means he “isn’t going to have much of a honeymoon”, reckons Chris Garman of Eurasia Group, a consultancy. If he encounters resistance or starts losing popular support, he may reprise his polarising rhetoric. “He’s going to have to choose an enemy,” Mr Garman says.
That frightens people who fear they will be on the enemies list. “Brazil was already a dangerous place to be black and gay,” said Felipe Fibelis, a medical student in Rio. He was wearing a T-shirt commemorating Marielle Franco, a gay left-wing councilwoman who was murdered in March. Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy at the University of São Paulo, thinks Brazil’s culture of democracy is already disintegrating. “Rather than the campaign adapting to the diversity of Brazil, Brazilians are adapting to Bolsonaro,” he says. His election has brought almost as much fear as it has jubilation.