How Women Could Win It for Bolsonaro

Brazil’s far-right presidential front-runner made hateful comments a hallmark of his political life. That hasn’t held him back.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 20. (Fernando Souza/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators take part in a protest against Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 20. (Fernando Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO—One month ago in Brazil, a wave of protests swept through Brazil’s major cities. Tens of thousands of women, outraged and alarmed by the incendiary candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s sprint toward the presidency, marched through streets to cries of “Ele Não” (“Not Him”). But two days later, polling data from the investment firm Ibope showed that Bolsonaro’s lead had only increased, amid a backlash toward the Ele Não movement from conservative voters. During the first round of voting on Oct. 7, Bolsonaro consolidated that lead, putting him comfortably, if not decisively, in front of his opponent.

Now, as Brazil races toward a run-off vote on Sunday, Oct. 28, Bolsonaro will face the former São Paolo mayor and teacher Fernando Haddad, the candidate for the Workers’ Party (PT); he is projected to easily claim victory. For some women, the choice is stark: to vote against Bolsonaro, known for praising Brazil’s military dictatorship and for comments that a female colleague in the National Congress was too ugly to “deserve” rape, or to vote for him despite these misogynistic comments as a defender of traditional family values and ethical politics in the wake of long-running political corruption and a struggling economy. The two movements— #EleNão and #EleSim (“Yes, Him”)—have divided women as much as they have divided the country.

That women may be a deciding factor in Bolsonaro’s victory, rather than cement his defeat, might seem to run counter to his public image. As recently as last month, as many as 50 percent of women said they would not vote for Bolsonaro under any circumstance.

“He’s violent. He’s said repeatedly that he believes women should earn less than men, and we need to recognize that a president with a discourse like his would be a huge step backwards for women,” said Giovanna Ramalho, a 22-year-old student at UERJ, Rio de Janeiro’s state university, who participated in last month’s protests. “He doesn’t deserve to have such an important role in our country.” Clara Maria de Oliveira Araújo, a political science professor at UERJ who specializes in female political participation, said this could, in theory, make female votes a decisive factor in Sunday’s outcome, but that supposes women are united. They are not.

Despite Bolsonaro’s litany of sexist, racist, homophobic, and autocratic comments, Brazilian women are as likely to support him as their male counterparts. That’s because many of them are tired of seeing near-nightly news stories of political corruption scandals and gargantuan bribes juxtaposed with public services struggling to cope on squeezed budgets and rising violent crime; they want a radically different president than they’ve seen before.

“There’s a part of the electorate that considers his talk just as talk, rather than proposals,” Araújo said. “And there’s another group who think that there may be a danger that he will fulfil his promises but that he is still better than the alternative.”

Isabella Matarazzo, an architect in her 50s, doesn’t believe that feminist values are incompatible with supporting Bolsonaro. For Matarazzo, progress and equality mean not being given concessions because of perceived socio-economic disadvantages, such as social class, gender, or race—despite acute economic inequality in Brazil hitting women and minorities hardest. “I’m both feminine and feminist. I don’t feel like a victim. I feel like a protagonist,” she said. “You don’t sit around expecting the government to save you. We women have to make our own gains.”

Like many female Bolsonaro supporters, Matarazzo has one single criterion that takes precedence over all others when it comes to electing the country’s next leader: corruption. Twin political and economic crises beginning in 2014 have taken their toll on Brazil, triggered by the global commodity crisis and a simultaneous onslaught of high-profile political corruption scandals brought to light by the far-reaching Operation Car Wash. As of March 2018, four years after the investigation began, 237 people had been convicted of crimes including corruption and intent to form a criminal gang, with high-up executives and politicians agreeing to plea deals worth more than $3.5 billion in payments to the state. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who carried the PT to power in 2002, is among those now serving out a jail sentence on corruption charges. He was barred from running for president just weeks before the first round of elections.

“A government with a clean record is the most important thing in this election,” Matarazzo said. “If you are corrupt, you’re taking money from public institutions, taking people out of hospitals and children out of schools. The government has to set an example for the people, who look at them and say, ‘If they rob, then why can’t I?’”

Rejection of the PT—approximately 52 percent of the electorate has turned away from the party—remains among the most important reasons for Bolsonaro’s ascension even among women. Despite emerging from the worst recession in its history in June 2017, Brazil’s economy is struggling to regain its previous strength: Some 12.7 million Brazilians are still unemployed amid sluggish GDP growth, which has hovered at a little over 1 percent for much of the last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. And having witnessed services such as public health care and education struggle amid revelations of billions of dollars in political kickbacks, Brazilians are angry.

“Corruption did huge damage to the country,” said Sandra Cristovam, a 60-year-old small-business owner. “The PT had everything in their hands. They had their chance.”

Maurício Santoro, an international relations professor at UERJ, said Brazilians tend to credit the PT with everything that happened during the party’s 13 years in the country’s leadership. Supporters tout progressive policies, such as the groundbreaking poverty alleviation initiative Bolsa Família, a social welfare program created in 2003 that helped lift 36 million people out of poverty by 2014. But Santoro said voters who oppose the PT blame the party alone for corruption and economic downturn, turning the election into a “referendum on the PT.”

“A lot of people make a connection between the economic crisis and corruption,” Santoro said. “With Bolsonaro, this support for him is much more related to this generalized rejection of all political parties.”

But among some women, it is more than just anger at a perceived status quo of political corruption. Instead, it’s a feeling that Bolsonaro shares the same values they hold dear.

“Bolsonaro is someone whose aims are family and God. He’s someone we can trust in,” said Marília Gil, a retired educator. “He has always been a patriot. He’s the only one who could transform our country right now—there is no other.”

Brazil remains a deeply religious country and an increasingly conservative one at that. Although it is still the most populous Catholic country on the planet, evangelicals have been growing at a rapid pace in recent decades. In the 2010 census, some 42 million Brazilians—around 22 percent of the population—described themselves as evangelical.

Christina Vital, a sociologist at the Fluminense Federal University who studies evangelicals in national politics, said many religious Brazilians saw the PT’s social justice policies as a threat to their religious values. “The left became associated with identity agendas, such as female autonomy and LGBT rights,” she said. “Evangelicals and Catholics understood this as a risk to the standards which had been in place until that point.”

The size of Brazil’s evangelical population has turned it into a formidable power during elections, with enough sway that candidates across the board seek endorsement from popular preachers, such as the televangelist Silas Malafaia. In 2012, Malafaia’s endorsements of 40 candidates in seven states in municipal elections was considered a factor in their success; by 2014’s presidential elections, even then-President Dilma Rousseff used religiosity to improve her image among evangelical voters. And on Sept. 30 this year, just days before the first round of voting, Bolsonaro received an endorsement from the evangelical pastor Edir Macedo, who founded the neo-Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and an expansive evangelical media network, RecordTV. (He was reportedly worth $1.1 billion in 2015.)

“Politicians confessing religious beliefs end up strengthening their political capital among different parties and denominations,” Vital said. “It’s a game.”

Nonetheless, Araújo, the political science professor, said it is effective. “Bolsonaro has really pushed a conservative moral agenda, which appeals a lot to the evangelical part of society,” she explained, adding that there are still more women than men in neo-Pentecostal churches in Brazil. By placing Christian values alongside moral outrage at political corruption and the status quo, Araújo said Bolsonaro is able to style himself as a savior. “In the context of this political crisis, it means people associate him with family and with stability,” she said.

To be sure, Bolsonaro’s offerings don’t win over every values voter. Camila Mantovani, a 24-year-old evangelical activist, said Bolsonaro’s religious appeals are obvious ploys. “He sees Christians just as an electoral means. He had to write the word ‘God’ on his hand during a debate to remember to mention God!” she said. Mantovani added that she is disgusted by his consistent advocacy of violence as a solution to Brazil’s problems and that his desire to give police a “license to kill” is incompatible with evangelical values. “I feel sickened by it and by the fact that many people believe him. That man is not a Christian,” she said.

But for some women, despite what many see as inconsistencies in his adoption of religion, he remains a sincerely spoken devotee who represents changes they want to see take place in Brazil. They believe that the biggest risk to the country’s future is to allow any party associated with political corruption to enter into power and that the election of Haddad would mean a continuation of the most recent, difficult chapter in Brazil’s story. After the PT’s 13 years in power, voters are jumping at the chance to choose anyone who looks able to knock the party out of the country’s highest office.

“Dictatorship is what we have today in Brazil, a political and ideological dictatorship,” said Gabriella Cardoso, a 27-year-old small-business owner. “We want a political overhaul—not just an ideological overhaul but a cultural and ethical overhaul. For us, Jair Bolsonaro is that.”

Ciara Long is a journalist based in Brazil. Twitter: @CiaraLongBrazil