Bolsonaro's motorbike escapade provokes helmet backlash

Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent

It was the latest populist ruse from a president who wishes to portray himself as a man of the people: a late-night motorbike ride designed to show Jair Bolsonaro had two wheels firmly on the ground.

But the Easter escapade – a video of which was duly published on the social media accounts of Brazil’s far-right president – may have backfired.

On Monday a Brazilian legal expert accused Bolsonaro of trampling on his country’s traffic regulations by revving his engine too loudly and wearing his helmet propped up on his forehead in an incorrect position.

“It’s an extremely serious infringement,” Maurício Januzzi, a transport lawyer, told the Folha de S Paulo newspaper of the second offence. “As the leader of a nation he has set an awful example of how to drive a motorcycle.”

Januzzi said that by law Bolsonaro should be fined, receive seven penalty points and have his license suspended. The newspaper said it had asked Brazil’s presidency to confirm whether Bolsonaro even had a motorcycle licence, and had received no response.

Bolsonaro’s fans reacted more favourably to the video – a classic example of the lo-tech propaganda that helped propel the Brazilian provocateur to the presidency last October. By Monday afternoon it had been viewed more than 1.3 million times, with die-hard Bolsonaristas weighing in with comments such as: “This is our GRASSROOTS president! So proud!”

Luciano Hung, a prominent pro-Bolsonaro businessman, tweeted an edited version of the footage in which the soundtrack was provided by the 80s British rock group The Outfield and a selection of Bolsonaro’s tirades.

Jair Bolsonaro

A Financial Times editorial recently described Bolsonaro’s tweets as characteristic of ‘a gay-bashing, tree-hating, gun-loving maniac — who is nostalgic for the days of military dictatorship’. Photograph: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty

Bolsonaro is part of a new crop of Latin America populists – from both left and far right – who seek to curry favour with the electorate by painting themselves as down-to-earth everymen, despite in most cases being longstanding professional politicians.

Mexico’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also sought to project himself as a political outsider, travelling on commercial flights, auctioning the presidential plane, holding daily 7am press conferences known as the mañaneras and opening the presidential residence to the public.

Regional politicians in Brazil have followed suit. The new governor of Minas Gerais state, Romeu Zema, recently promised to turn its Mangabeiras Palace into a “Museum of Magnificence” designed to denounce his predecessors’ perks.

The São Paulo governor João Doria – who was elected last year by positioning himself as a populist Bolsodoria – has also vowed to turn his summer and winter residences into cultural centres for the people.

But few have tried harder to portray themselves as ordinary citizens than Bolsonaro, who has been pictured roaming the presidential palace in a fake football shirt and flip-flops.

Related: Brazil replaces far-right education minister with conspiracy theorist

Social media has been central to Bolsonaro’s populist campaign, with Brazil’s president boasting 4 million Twitter followers and more than 10 million on Facebook.

Supporters lap up Bolsonaro’s controversy-packed, fact-light live broadcasts but critics and many around the world are aghast.

“Mr Bolsonaro’s tweets and utterances risk creating the impression that Brazil is now run by a gay-bashing, tree-hating, gun-loving maniac – who is nostalgic for the days of military dictatorship,” an editorial in the Financial Times (£) said on Monday.