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How Far-Right Presidential Candidate Jair Bolsonaro Could Transform Brazil

5 minute read

Far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro is poised to become Brazil’s next president on Sunday.

Bolsonaro has spent decades on the fringes of Brazilian politics as a congressman for Rio de Janeiro state, but his popularity has surged in 2018; he has led the presidential race since he announced his candidacy for the tiny Social Liberal Party in July and fell just short of the absolute majority he needed to take the presidency in the first round of voting on Oct. 7. Polls ahead of Sunday’s run-off now put him at least 15 points ahead of his only remaining challenger, leftist Fernando Haddad.

An extremely polarizing figure, his candidacy has inspired both mass protests alongside strong support at the ballot box. Analysts say Bolsonaro has been vague on the details of his policy platform, appealing instead to Brazil’s “culture wars,” making deeply conservative and often offensive statements on issues like LGBTQ rights and religious freedoms. But among the bluster, Bolsonaro has made a number of concrete policy pledges that could transform his country. Here’s what to know about the Bolsonaro promises that are dividing Brazilian voters.

Law and Order

A hard line on security is Bolsonaro’s most consistent pitch to voters. Brazil is going through a period of extreme violence, driven partly by the expansion and fragmentation of organized crime groups. A record 63,880 people were murdered in 2017 and in February the government took the unprecedented step of sending the army into deal with a wave of violent crime in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro blames the surge on politicians’ rising emphasis on human rights, which he says has prevented security forces from pursuing gangs.

He plans to give police more discretion to use deadly force in crime-fighting operations. “Nobody wants to let a cop kill,” he told TIME in August. “But I want to give him carte blanche not to die.” In that same interview, he also voiced support for Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen thousands of extra-judicial killings in the name of a war on drugs.

Another key security policy has been relaxing gun controls. Brazil currently requires citizens to have technical skills and a clean criminal record to purchase firearms. He also wants to protect civilians who kill in self-defense from being sent to prison.

LGBTQ rights

Brazil has been expanding rights for the LGBTQ community in recent years, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013 and the creation of public health programs for transgender people.

Advocates say President Bolsonaro, who has previously compared homosexuality to pedophilia, would roll back those advances, both by pushing legislative changes and by defunding programs like LGBTQ crisis centers at a time of widespread homophobic violence.

On Oct. 11 Bolsonaro signed an agreement with a Catholic voters association, promising to defend “the true sense of marriage, as a union between men and women” and to “combat gender ideology.”

Women’s Rights

Bolsonaro is notorious for misogynistic remarks, including telling a congresswoman in 2014, “I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worthy of it.” Activists are also concerned about how seriously he takes sexual violence since he sponsored a 2013 bill to remove provisions for rape victims from the public healthcare system.

He has made a series of statements defending Brazil’s gender pay gap — women earn 23% less on average than men. For example, in a 2016 television interview he said that if he were an employer he would pay women less than men because they need to take time off work to have children.

Brazil already bans abortion except in cases of rape, fatal fetal abnormality or danger to the mother’s life. But the Supreme Court is currently considering allowing elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Bolsonaro has promised Catholic voters he will stop any change to the law in its tracks.

Hundreds of thousands of women have demonstrated against his candidacy under the banner, “Ele não” (“Not Him”) but recent polls show as many as 42% of women now intend to vote for him.

Race relations and minority groups

Brazilians of African descent people make up the majority of Brazil’s population. But a 2016 study found they occupy just 6.3% of management roles in the country’s largest 500 companies and earn on average 44% less than white Brazilians.

Bolsonaro has pledged to cut back affirmative action schemes at public universities designed to help address those imbalances. “I would not board a plane piloted by a quota beneficiary, or be operated on by a quota doctor,” he said in July.

On the campaign trail, he has promised to scrap legal and cultural protections for minority communities in the hugely diverse country, including the designation of indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest. “Minorities have to bend down to the majority,” he said. “The minorities [should] either adapt or simply vanish.”

Activists also say the candidate’s hardline security pledges would disproportionately impact people of color, who make up most of the population in the neighborhoods where Bolsonaro plans to send armed police.


Bolsonaro’s stance on the environment has alarmed the international community at a time of intense soul-searching over global climate goals.

Brazil is the guardian of the Amazon rainforest, a vital source of trees that filter carbon dioxide out of the earth’s atmosphere. Bolsonaro has pledged to curb the powers of Brazil’s environment agency, Ibama, to remove farming restrictions on huge swaths of the Amazon and to pave a highway through the rainforest.

Since launching his campaign, he has threatened to follow President Donald Trump’s lead and withdraw Brazil from the Paris Climate Agreement. But on October 25 he told reporters he would keep the country in the agreement in exchange for assurances on Brazilian sovereignty over the “triple A” – an environmentally important region that runs from the Andes mountains, through the Amazon rainforest to the Atlantic.

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com