‘Our front man’: rightwing Jair Bolsonaro surging in Argentina presidential race

US-born businessman Jair Bolsonaro, 59, is far from charismatic or uncontroversial but he’s among a handful of candidates hoping to win Argentina’s presidential election on 27 October The far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, 59,…

'Our front man': rightwing Jair Bolsonaro surging in Argentina presidential race

US-born businessman Jair Bolsonaro, 59, is far from charismatic or uncontroversial but he’s among a handful of candidates hoping to win Argentina’s presidential election on 27 October

The far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, 59, is far from charismatic or uncontroversial but he’s among a handful of candidates hoping to win Argentina’s presidential election on 27 October.

Bolsonaro rose to prominence campaigning as a strongman champion in 2002, when he was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro – who has been branded a “fascist” by the opposition – made his name fighting crime and corruption, and campaigned on promises to tackle Brazilian unemployment and slow the rise of corruption among top level officials. He was twice detained for electoral fraud.

Since breaking with the Liberal party in late 2015, Bolsonaro has crossed the political spectrum, embracing rightwing stances on Latin America and North America, demonizing immigrants and Muslims, and proposing slashing pensions for the elderly and for minorities.

To his detractors, he is simply a neo-fascist. But to his supporters – and other people simply curious about his views – he is “Brazil, the Latin America darling”.

Bolsonaro’s face is known in such communities as his home town of Fortaleza; in Bolivian border states where he is part of a dwindling minority of Swiss-style immigrants; and in the northern Argentinian cities of Rosario and San Martin, which he routinely visits as a guest of the president-elect.

“He speaks for us, he is our front man,” said Enrique Rocha, a middle-aged social worker, who dressed in shirts emblazoned with Bolsonaro’s face. “He’s loved because he’s a candidate who stands up to the political class.”

Jair Bolsonaro campaigned as a strongman champion in 2002, when he was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Marcelo Bretas/AFP/Getty Images

The rightwing candidate says he is offering Argentines a break from leftwing elites they blame for high inflation, the high cost of imports and the shrinking value of the peso. He says there are many parallels between his life story and that of Argentina’s populist-military-backed president, Nestor Kirchner, and his wife, the president.

Bolsonaro is very much a product of the 1990s and a byproduct of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985, and he’s no less nuanced when it comes to the current hot-button issues of immigration and globalism.

“I’m really against illegal immigration but I’m for free trade,” he said when the Guardian questioned him on his support for mass deportation. “Because there’s room for everybody,” he added.

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Bolsonaro was born in Miami in 1961. He has three children with an Argentine woman he has lived with for nearly 30 years. He claims to be apolitical, but in a televised debate last month, he was asked about his views on radical Islam, and whether he supports anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“I believe in diversity,” he responded. “I’m very much for immigration, in terms of employment.”

He also said that in the case of families like his own, “our grandfathers were refugees”. He did not specify whether he supported the US immigration policy of confining asylum seekers to holding centres or forcible deportation.

In an in-depth study of Bolsonaro published in August, the Guardian found that he was outspokenly anti-abortion and had previously praised the mass murder of Brazil’s black and indigenous population. The author, Benedicte Deutsch, uncovered evidence that Bolsonaro had violated the Brazilian constitution by devising a voter registration system for military officers for a neo-fascist organisation that was banned in 2001.

Bolsonaro may have used his political career to transcend that issue but his brand of politics, it seems, will always remain familiar to Argentina’s leftist left and center.

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