In the jungle, the jaguar reigns supreme. With its supremely powerful hind legs and crushing jaw, the jaguar is a dominating apex predator. The casualties left behind after a jaguar’s hunt are the unfortunate consequences of an order that promotes a primitive doctrine: Might is right. Amid the chaos of the rainforests where it naturally ranges, the jaguar reigns above all.
So too, from Brazil’s political tumult, a new ruler has emerged. On Oct. 28, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil. Just two months ago, election junkies would have been as shocked as a tapir in a jaguar’s jaws to hear the bombastic Bolsonaro would assume Brazil’s top office; he is a marked departure from presidents past. His swift rise to the summit of political achievement indicates changed, more extreme and cynical Brazilian politics.
Bolsonaro trounced Fernando Haddad by more than 10 percent in Sunday’s runoff election, which followed a first round in which no candidate received a majority.
But the campaign was far from uneventful. In fact, it was probably the most colorful since a military dictatorship relinquished control to civilian government in 1985. Until the end of August, Bolsonaro trailed a man campaigning from a prison cell — former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In September, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the stomach by a man who claimed to be on “a mission from God” to bring Bolsonaro’s candidacy to an end.
Bolsonaro’s journey to victory was unexpected and politically exotic, just like the man himself. Bolsonaro is a far-right firebrand. A former army captain during military rule, the leader of the poorly named Social Liberal Party has denigrated the LGBTQ community, women and black people and has advocated for the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers. Bolsonaro, formerly a representative for the state of Rio de Janeiro in the Chamber of Deputies, has roared against gun-control legislation and greater access to abortion. Unfortunately, Bolsonaro has been awarded richly for his archconservatism.
In short, Bolsonaro’s brand of politics places him in the arena of other recent radical right-wing leaders: Viktor Orban in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Marine Le Pen in France. He has even earned himself a nickname: “Trump of the Tropics.” That should be bothersome for Brazilians. As his demagogic peers abroad have shown, a democracy undermined by incivility is unlikely to rectify itself to politesse. A wild animal that escapes is hard to put back in a cage.
Far-right proclivities aside, Brazilians should worry about Bolsonaro’s dictatorial tendencies. Bolsonaro has praised the era of Brazil’s military strongmen as a “glorious” time and cheered military dictators in Chile and Peru. As the campaign reached its closing chapters, Bolsonaro, in “Trumpian” fashion, suggested his political rivals would end up in jail or in exile. Brazil’s democracy has flourished in South America because of its varied parties and opposition politicians. It would be a shame if they ended up in his jaws.
Not only is Brazil’s democratic culture being transformed, its substantive institutions are also under threat. Bolsonaro has suggested packing the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court with 10 new judges who would serve his political whims. He accuses unfriendly media outlets of spreading fake news. Coming from a man who seems to view autocracy through rose-tinted glasses, these trends should be worrying. Wider civil society will be the next to fall prey to Bolsonaro’s wrath.
Brazil’s democracy may be relatively young, but its political culture has become as rough-and-tumble as any. Stabbings are unacceptable — so is corruption. But as Bolsonaro and so many other demagogues have demonstrated in recent years, chaos is king in today’s world of politics.
Commentators worry for the future of Brazil’s democratic institutions, particularly considering Bolsonaro’s corrosive autocratic tendencies. The environment around Bolsonaro — the country’s robust supreme court, journalists, and opposition lawmakers — will have to keep him in check. If those institutions are the casualties of Bolsonaro’s rule, Brazil will be worse off. For the next few years though, there’s a new king in the political jungle.
Joshua Levy is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Animal Kingdom appears online every other Friday.