News Analysis

Brazil: Out of Egypt?

‘Bullets, beef and Bible’

Bolsonaro could be the next president – and Brazil’s bishops are worried

This Sunday a divided nation goes to the polls. Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad are rival presidential candidates in Brazil’s general elections. They represent the far-Right and the Left respectively. At the time of writing they are separated by 10 percentage points.

Jair Bolsonaro was born in 1955 to a middle-class family of Catholic Italian immigrants to Brazil. He began in the army, where he rose to captain, before entering into politics in 1988 as a city councillor in Rio. He became a member of the Social Christian Party, which has primarily Evangelical funding and leaders. He stayed with the party for more than 20 years and, in 2016, was baptised as an Evangelical in the Jordan River.

Evangelicals, who make up 30 per cent of the Brazilian population, have rallied round “Messias” (his middle name) Bolsonaro, particularly because of his tough stance on violent crime. A pastor introduced his candidacy to an evangelical crowd, saying: “God is raising Bolsonaro to get us out of Egypt, from slavery. God has the right person for every temple, and this is the man for us.”

His followers include Catholics – he is still a Catholic himself, he says. But the Brazilian bishops are said to be privately concerned about the prospect of a Bolsonaro presidency.

In public, the bishops’ conference said it would oppose a candidate “who promotes violence”. The message was perceived as an implicit rebuke of Bolsonaro, who has called for police to be able to kill criminals with impunity.

The bishops have a much closer affinity to Bolsonaro’s rival, Haddad, who leads the Workers’ Party founded by Lula in 1980. (Lula, Brazil’s president for two terms, is now serving a jail sentence for corruption.) Indeed, Haddad profits from a historic bond between his party and the Church, which has always played an important role in Brazil’s unions.

During the rule of the military junta (1964 -1985), the government would fabricate economic figures – just like Cristina de Kirchner in Argentina – and the unions would have to bear the inevitable belt-tightening. Meanwhile Lula’s Workers’ Party would mobilise car industry workers with a message rooted in liberation theology-style Catholicism.

Bolsonaro has been called the “Tropical Trump” – strong on capitalism and the middle class’s “bullets, beef and Bible” values. Evangelicals have surged in poorer areas, where they campaign to reduce spiralling violent crime on Brazil’s streets – one of Bolsonaro’s key issues.

Bolsonaro was stabbed at an election rally last month and airlifted to hospital. His schizophrenic would-be killer told police that “God sent me”. Bolsonaro is now at home, recovering, and, if the poll on Sunday goes his way, could soon be president of Brazil. As long as his doctor lets him.