As a congressman and presidential candidate, Bolsonaro is one of the most extreme figures in global electoral politics. He mixes Rodrigo Duterte’s bloodlust with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s disdain for secularism and democratic institutions, and he has spent his 27-year political career keeping alive the ideology that powered South America’s brutal 20th-century military regimes. He has recently promised “a cleansing never before seen in Brazilian history,” and to ban all “bandit” political opponents from the “fatherland.”
But it’s far from clear how Bolsonaro will actually govern as president. Though Brazil remains a young democracy, its institutions have teeth. In just the past two years, Congress impeached the last elected president, Dilma Rousseff, and the courts sent her wildly popular predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to prison. The pair, both members of the relatively moderate Workers’ Party, were felled as Latin America’s largest country suffered a deep recession and as the political class was blown apart by a huge corruption scandal (though Rousseff was removed for violating budget regulations). Bolsonaro, who has has repeatedly flirted with the idea of a coup, may not be as inclined to accept such checks on his power.
“Some Bolsonaro supporters see a lot of his most outlandish proposals as something he just said to shock people, or that could never actually happen,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas university in São Paulo.
That view, he warned, was naive. Brazilians should look to leaders in countries like the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, where democratic norms and practices have been steadily eroded. A core minority of the population was fully behind Bolsonaro, he noted.
“There will be confrontations with Brazil’s institutions,” Stuenkel said.
Bolsonaro has said he will stop the demarcation of territories for indigenous tribes and open up the Amazon for expanded exploration. He has vowed to categorize certain types of political activism as “terrorism” and imprison members of the Workers’ Party, and he wants civilians to be able to carry guns. All of that would require a delicate negotiation with Brazil’s unwieldy political system, and pushing reforms through a legislature that includes 30 political parties will prove difficult. At the moment, only about 40 percent of Brazilians support his gun proposals. Much of his power to work with—or intimidate—the rest of government will likely depend on his popularity, and whether the economy gets going again.
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There are also, however, aspects of Bolsonaro’s program that don’t actually require any congressional action or judicial approval.
Police here have admitted to killing more than 5,000 people last year. While officials typically insist that officers are acting in self-defense, police are routinely accused of employing extrajudicial killings, and the number of fatalities is likely even higher than government figures show. Cops are already being told they will be given cover if they fight crime with more violence in the future, so 2019 could be a much bloodier year. Attacks on journalists and minority groups have also already spiked.