Brazil Election: How Jair Bolsonaro Turned Crisis Into Opportunity

By Ernesto Londoño and Manuela Andreoni

RIO DE JANEIRO — Had the blade slashed a bit more of Jair Bolsonaro’s abdomen, the evangelical preacher who came to see him in the hospital might have had to prepare a eulogy about his friend’s presidential hopes being dashed by the same plague of violence that fueled his stunning rise.

Instead, when he saw Mr. Bolsonaro in intensive care last month, the preacher, Silas Malafaia, who is enormously popular in Brazil, saw fit to crack a joke.

“Look what God did!” Mr. Malafaia recalls telling the candidate, who was dazed after undergoing numerous procedures to stitch up his intestinal tract and other organs. “You were stabbed, and now all the other candidates are complaining about all the television coverage you’re getting.”

Before the knife attack last month, Mr. Bolsonaro had already begun to look like an indomitable phenomenon in Brazilian politics, campaigning in angry outbursts against corruption and violence that largely matched the national mood.

But far from blunting his rise, the near-fatal stabbing crystallized Mr. Bolsonaro’s conviction that only he could straighten out a country reeling from years of economic trouble, corruption scandals and a record-high wave of bloodshed, the pastor said.

“I think it gave him a greater sense of purpose,” Mr. Malafaia said. “He said, ‘More than ever, my will to help these people, to rescue our nation, has increased.’”

A knack for turning setbacks into opportunity has been a constant for Mr. Bolsonaro, the far-right populist who won Sunday’s runoff electionto become Brazil’s next president, upending the political parties and norms that have governed Brazil since the end of military rule more than 30 years ago.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s broadsides against women, gay people, Brazilians of color and even democracy — “Let’s go straight to the dictatorship,” he once said as a congressman — made him so polarizing that he struggled to find a running mate until early August. Traditional parties and politicians considered him too extreme.

“Elections won’t change anything in this country,” he said during one of his seven terms in Congress. “Unfortunately, it will only change the day that we break out in civil war here and do the job that the military regime didn’t do, killing 30,000. If some innocent people die, that’s fine. In every war, innocent people die. I will even be happy if I die as long as 30,000 go.”

Far from disqualifying him, his incendiary remarks over the years and throughout the campaign made Mr. Bolsonaro appealing to millions of Brazilians. Many see in him the kind of disruptive, status quo-breaking potential that propelled President Trump’s victory in 2016.

On Sunday, Mr. Bolsonaro said during his victory speech that his government would uphold the constitution and democratic principles.

President Trump called on Sunday to congratulate him on his victory, following up with a tweet on Monday morning that said, “Had a very good conversation with the newly elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who won the race by a substantial margin. We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!”

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