The Boys from Brazil: Rise of the Bolsonaros 12 September 2022: Episode 2 on BBC Two
Episode 2 tells the story of Bolsonaro’s extraordinary electoral campaign from the fringes of Brazilian politics to the Presidency of Brazil. It is a story that shows the remarkable power of social media in transforming the political fortunes of a candidate no-one believed had any chance of victory.
When Bolsonaro announced his candidacy in 2016, few thought he would even come close. The political establishment treated him as a joke, while early polls gave him just 4.5% support. The situation was made difficult for him by the fact that the frontrunner was former President Lula da Silva, the most popular president in Brazilian history and a titan of Brazilian politics. But with his three sons at his side, Bolsonaro embarked on one of the most brilliant electoral campaigns in modern political history.
Bolsonaro had little money and, because his party had so few seats in Congress, very limited rights to free TV airtime, unlike his main opponent Lula. His son Carlos came up with a brilliant plan – eschew traditional TV and go all out for social media. Under the guidance of Carlos, Bolsonaro became a YouTube star, posting down to earth, amateurish videos from his everyday life which soon drew millions of fans. Using a team of digital warriors, his campaign spread the posts, created memes and was increasingly accused of spreading fake news. The growth of private WhatsApp groups set up by his supporters ensured that all aspects of the Bolsonaro campaign increasingly went viral.
Bolsonaro’s natural constituency was the small town, rural, socially conservative Brazil, of the country’s huge interior. It was the Brazil of farmers, miners, and loggers. To these voters he promised to reverse the environmental policies of previous leftist governments which had sought to reduce deforestation of the Amazon and protect indigenous lands. Bolsonaro’s environmental policies harked back to the years of the military dictatorship which saw the Amazon as a massive pool of natural resources, ripe for exploitation. Bolsonaro promised that under his Presidency, the days of treating the Amazon as a museum would be over: instead, it would be open season for development to exploit its riches.
Yet while attracting thousands of supporters to his increasingly enthusiastic rallies, he remained far behind Lula in the polls. To have any chance at victory, Bolsonaro would need the support of other key sets of voters. One of the largest, was the ever-growing number of Christian evangelicals – at around 62 million it was an awful lot of potential voters. Bolsonaro’s appeal to them was simple: he would reverse the liberal policies of his predecessor on LGBT issues and return the country to traditional family values. It was a position he emphasised with homophobic rhetoric at his rallies and on social media. The fact that his wife was an evangelical helped, as did the backing of the country’s biggest TV evangelist, Silas Malafaia.
Although he rose in the polls, Bolsonaro remained far behind Lula. That all changed overnight when Lula was arrested as part of an ongoing anti-corruption
investigation and barred from running in the election. His anointed successor – Fernando Haddad – lacked Lula’s star power. At last, Bolsonaro – who portrayed himself as anti-corruption and anti-elite – raced upwards in the polls.
With six months to go to the election, the campaign took a tragic and violent turn with the murder of the prominent gay-rights activist, Marielle Franco. Although there was no evidence that Bolsonaro was involved, the left blamed him for the climate of homophobia his campaign had encouraged. In the aftermath, Bolsonaro was also the only candidate who refused to condemn her murder. His silence cost him at the polls.
But just weeks before the election, Bolsonaro himself was the subject of an assassination attempt. In a dramatic episode captured on camera, he was stabbed multiple times in broad daylight in front of his supporters and nearly died. But for his son Carlos, this was the ultimate social media opportunity as he live-streamed his father’s recovery from hospital. As his evangelical ally Silas Malafaia declared, it was a holy stabbing and Bolsonaro was now the victim. Millions tuned in to the dramatic streams, live from hospital.
From rank outsider, Bolsonaro achieved what even his close family thought was impossible. With 55% of second round votes, he was elected President of Brazil.
As Bolsonaro prepared for power, the country waited to see what he would do next.
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About The Boys from Brazil: Rise of the Bolsonaros
The remarkable rise of one of the world’s most controversial leaders, Jair Bolsonaro, from obscurity to the presidency of Brazil.
This show is broadcast on BBC Two, also known as the British Broadcasting Corporation.