Since before electoral campaigns started this year—with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) out of the race—former parachute infantryman Jair Messias Bolsonaro, of the PSL-PRTB coalition (Social Liberal Party and the Brazilian Labor Renewal Party) has led voting intention polls ahead of the presidential elections in Brazil.
Backed even by monarchists, the 63-year-old former army captain from Campinas, São Paulo, spearheaded a popular campaign with a large number of supporters on the streets and was the target of heavy criticism and counter-attacks.
Broadly seen as the PT’s main opponent, Bolsonaro presented himself as the advocate of far-right proposals and was never intimidated by the boundaries of the politically correct. His career in Congress is marked by the hostility of his words—which he describes as the exercise of freedom of speech, protected as it is by parliamentarian immunity.
His statements were often regarded as offensive and discriminatory against black people and quilombolas—the communities founded by the descendants of slaves. Just last month, Bolsonaro was tried by the Supreme Court over racism charges—and was found not guilty by three of the five justices. In the public sphere, he has opposed affirmative action policies, like the introduction of an ethnicity-based quota for college and university admission.
He also proved to be against laws aimed at protecting the LGBT community. As a Congress member, he relentlessly directed his efforts against what he termed “the gay kit”—anti-homophobia material to be sent to public schools across the country as part of an initiative by then Education Minister Fernando Haddad, of the PT.
Likewise, Bolsonaro has always opposed the protection granted by human rights to those under the custody of the state. He is a capital punishment advocate and an opponent of the Disarmament Statute. He criticizes the legalization of drugs and argues that the common citizen should be allowed to own a gun and use it in their own defense against thieves and robbers. This represents the core of his message to voters on public security.
The popularity of both his proposals and his preaching turned him into a phenomenon among the masses, but opinion polls revealed considerable resistance from female electors. He once described the difference in pay between men and women as a market issue—an opinion he subsequently changed his mind about.
The candidate was sentenced by the Superior Court of Justice for having incited rape. In 2014, he told fellow lawmaker Maria do Rosário she was not worthy of being raped. He later on appealed the decision and the case is still ongoing.
A controversial incident marks the beginning of Bolsonaro’s public life. In 1987, a story published by magazine Veja reported there was a plan dubbed Beco sem saída ("dead-end") to set off bombs in restrooms at military quarters in Resende, Rio de Janeiro. The plan was meant as a protest against low pay. Then Captain Bolsonaro had recently written an article calling for better salaries. He was later on disciplined.
On the occasion, Bolsonaro was identified as the author of the hand-made drafts included in the story. He denied the allegations, resorted to military court authorities and was acquitted. In 1988, the retired. Already known as a spokesperson for military demands, he launched his political career in Rio de Janeiro.
With an expanded agenda focusing on security and topics “against leftist ideology,” he was seven times elected a federal deputy—tenures adding up to nearly three decades in Congress—and presented over 170 bills, only two of which approved. In 2014, he was the most voted-for representative from Rio de Janeiro, with 464 thousand votes.
In his efforts to vie for the presidency, the candidate faced difficulties forging and expanding alliances and naming a running mate—a position later occupied by controversial General Hamilton Mourão, of the PRTB, which boosted support from the Armed Forces. Bolsonaro often denies a military coup was ever staged in the country, and that politically motivated torture was perpetrated as a result.
Ever since the beginning, banker Paulo Guedes was presented as Bolsonaro’s go-to man for matters economic. The rise in his popularity, coupled with Guedes’s participation in the campaign, bolstered the support for the PSL from business and financial sectors. He adheres firmly to his anti-corruption ideals by arguing for the end of ministries and state-run companies.
Jair Bolsonaro was married three times and is the father of five children, of whom three are also in politics—Carlos is a city councilor in Rio, Flávio a state deputy in Rio, and Eduardo a federal deputy representing São Paulo. The PSL is the ninth party in Bolsonaro’s career. To electoral authorities, the contender declared property worth R$ 2.3 million.
Given a mere eight seconds of air time for campaigning, the presidential hopeful and his sons—bitter critics of the press—made ample use of the social media, and were accused by their opponents of being the largest producers of fake news in this electoral period. Bolsonaro’s health state was described in detail on social media after a stabbing attack that took place during a campaign rally—something unprecedented after the redemocratization of Brazil.
Injured on September 6 in the state of Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais state, Bolsonaro spent 22 days in hospital recovering from bleeding and two procedures in his intestines. He was attacked by Adélio Bispo, unemployed, who is now facing charges of “personal attack motivated by political discontent.”