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How Brazil swayed towards conservative values under Bolsonaro

Brazilian politics

How Brazil swayed towards conservative values under Bolsonaro

President at forefront of rightwing revival after years of leftwing rule

© Reuters

Damares Alves, Jair Bolsonaro’s minister for women, family and human rights, is at the forefront of a conservative wave in Brazil. This has involved advocating abstinence to prevent teenage pregnancies.

“This is not something that will stop, it is an eternal campaign,” she said.

The official policy stance is one of the signs of a profound cultural shift towards traditional rightwing values in a nation once known for its social liberalism. Bolstered by the resurgent evangelical churches, the trend has taken hold under Mr Bolsonaro’s presidency, with the potential to cement popular support for his brand of rightwing populism in Latin America’s largest economy.

Sandro Fonseca, a rightwing lawmaker from Minas Gerais, described a “transition to a new moment of conservatism in Brazil”. He said: “Bolsonarism will leave deeper roots in our history than all the conservative forces that preceded it.”

Once on the fringes of politics for his hostile remarks about black Brazilians, women and the gay community and his praise for Brazil’s former military dictatorship, Mr Bolsonaro was propelled to the presidency in 2018 with more than 57m votes out of a total of 115m cast.

Despite a litany of scandals, the Brazilian leader has remained popular: a recent poll showed his approval rating jumped to almost 48 per cent from 41 per cent in August, making him among the region’s most popular leaders.

Meanwhile, Brazilians’ views on a spectrum of social issues, from abortion to gay marriage and the death penalty, have grown more conservative: on a scale of 0 and 1, the degree of conservatism in Brazil rose to 0.689 in 2018 from 0.657 in 2010, according to an index set up by pollster Ibope. Support for the death penalty, for instance, rose from 31 per cent to 50 per cent of those surveyed.

“People have started to boast about being conservative. Bolsonaro’s arrival has made people and groups with more radical positions feel more comfortable to express themselves in public,” said Camila Oliveira, a researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning.

It is difficult to talk about Bolsonaro without talking about Trump. During the past two decades . . . these conservative groups did not feel free to express themselves politically. Trump ended that

Angela Alonso, University of São Paulo

Lucas Carvalho, a senior member of Brazil’s Integralist movement — a group that models itself on Europe’s 20th-century fascists, including wearing matching button-up shirts, is among those feeling emboldened.

“This year we will make more public appearances,” said the 39-year-old IT developer, who was among 20 or so men who marched through São Paulo in November, arms raised in Nazi salutes. “Nowadays people think wearing the green shirt is ridiculous, but in a couple of months they won’t think that way.”

For Angela Alonso, sociologist at the University of São Paulo, the election of Mr Bolsonaro was a reflection of the growing conservatism of Brazilian society over many years in reaction to corruption and cronyism of previous leftwing administrations.

A key moment was the election of Donald Trump in the US, which unleashed Brazil’s pent-up conservative forces, she said. “During the past two decades, when there was an emphasis on politically correct discourse and good environmental practices, these conservative groups did not feel free to express themselves politically. Trump ended that.”

The pendulum has swung a little too far at times, even for Mr Bolsonaro: the president in January sacked his culture secretary after the official reprised a speech from Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, calling for “heroic” and “national” art.

In December a self-proclaimed Integralist claimed responsibility for the firebombing of a television studio, which had produced a comedy show depicting Jesus as gay.

Mr Bolsonaro — a born-again Christian who was rebaptised in the river Jordan — has done little to confront growing extremism. The president, alongside his three politically engaged sons, says he wants Brazil to be a central part of what they see as a global culture war, alongside nationalist governments in the US, Hungary and Israel.

The country’s evangelical churches, which by 2032 are predicted to draw more worshippers than their Catholic rivals, have played a key role. Espousing traditional family and political beliefs, they backed Mr Bolsonaro and are actively lobbying Brasília government officials and lawmakers.

Uziel Santana, an evangelical judge and head of a group that lobbies the Supreme Court to make Christian decisions, insisted that Brazilian society was “always conservative”. He added: “What must be analysed is this gap between the feeling of society and what is conveyed in the mainstream press.”

Mr Bolsonaro’s conservative agenda appears to be paying off. According to a survey last month, if a presidential election were held today, Mr Bolsonaro would beat Brazil’s once-popular leftwing leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva by a large margin.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice

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