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Stunning Victory for Brazil’s Populist Contender

In one of the most anticipated South American presidential elections of 2018, the right-wing nationalist populist and former army captain Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) won a plurality in the first election round in Brazil, beating the establishment candidates of the center-right and center-left to the ground. In fact, with 46% of the vote, he was stunningly close to securing the majority needed to win in the first round.

He will be facing Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party (PT) as his opponent in the second round, who only managed to get 29% of the votes.

Do not be fooled into thinking that it will be an easy victory though. History has shown that the second round is often a close race. In a poll by Datafolha on voting intentions, conducted two days before the first election, no more than 46% said they planned to vote for Bolsonaro in the second round, and Haddad trailed only a few points behind. Also, a record number of people abstained from voting this year, indicating low enthusiasm for all candidates.

Jair Bolsonaro

The Brazilian Trump

Bolsonaro has been likened to President Donald Trump and the legacy media has painted him as a “misogynist” and “hateful” and “the most repulsive politician on earth.” If you knew nothing more about him than this, you could safely deduce that he is a populist candidate who disagrees with the establishment.

People flock to him for the same reason that they rally around Trump: a disgust with the swamp, and a belief and hope that he may be the only one with enough integrity and strength of character to drain it.

“Swamp” may not be a sufficiently strong term though. By Brazilian standards, Washington D.C. is like a grazing meadow. A more suitable label for Brazil’s corrupt establishment might rather be “open air sewer.” Despite everything, the U.S. ranks 16 on the Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, with a 75% score. Brazil ranks 96 with a measly 37%.

Bolsonaro’s army background and a strict focus on law and order make him highly credible in the eyes of many disillusioned voters.

His second-round opponent, Haddad, is a far more acceptable center-left establishment candidate to most independent observers, but he comes from a party that has been riddled with corruption charges. Some people fear that Bolsonaro will go too far in his zeal and revive the military dictatorship, which ended in the 1980s, and they will vote for Haddad for this reason alone.

Markets Respond

When it was clear that Bolsonaro won the with a wide margin in the first round, the Brazilian real (R$) rallied 3.3%. The Brazilian stock market has also risen around 5% in the last month in anticipation of his victory, according to financial pundits. The positive response implies that the market views him in the same way as they view Trump: a boon to a dysfunctional economy.

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