Barring a shocking turn of events, voters in Brazil will elect Jair Bolsonaro president on Sunday. Press attention will focus on his charisma, provocative style, and an apparent ideological affinity with, if not imitation of, Donald Trump.
Bolsonaro has said many provocative things—about the military, crime-fighting, the left, women, and various minority groups. Like Trump, he’s made for the media, knows his crowd, and has attracted both intensely loyal supporters and loud critics.
But whatever the scale of his victory on Sunday, Bolsonaro will face a bewildering array of checks and balances on his plans for Brazil. Voters have made clear they want change, but a fiscal crisis and tight federal budget will leave Bolsonaro with little to spend on projects that might extend his presidential honeymoon.
He’ll also struggle to forge the alliances needed to pass legislation. 106 of 308 members of Brazil’s lower house of congress and eight of 54 senators are reliably aligned with the new president. He can cut deals with pragmatic members of both houses, but that won’t help his reputation as a political maverick. Brazil’s strong court system, which has brought down multiple former presidents and hundreds of other politicians and business leaders, will push back on any attempt Bolsonaro might make to move Brazil toward a more authoritarian political system.
Finally, Brazil, like many other countries in today’s world, is deeply polarized, and there are troubling stories from recent weeks that encourage Bolsonaro critics to claim the election wasn’t fair.
A tidal wave of disinformation has spread across social media channels, in particular via the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp, which counts 120 million users in Brazil. Fact-checkers have uncovered tens of thousands of widely circulated images that contained false or misleading information about the leading candidates, including Bolsonaro. In response, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has shut down hundreds of thousands of accounts.
What’s more, a week before the presidential election first round on October 7, the daily Folha de Sao Paulo uncovered a conspiracy by pro-Bolsonaro businesses to spend millions of dollars on text message blasts supporting him. That’s a violation of Brazil’s strict campaign finance laws. Investigators are looking into whether Bolsonaro was directly involved.
In recent years, Brazil’s people have endured the worst economic and political crises of the country’s modern history. Violence has surged. Polarization is extreme. Just 18 percent of Brazilians trust their government.
After Sunday, Bolsonaro will face the monumental task of trying to restore faith in government. The task will be even tougher if millions of Brazilians doubt the legitimacy of his victory.