The unexpected strength of far-right demagogue Jair Bolsonaro in the October 7 Brazilian presidential elections sent shockwaves throughout the country, writes James N Green.
Capturing 46% of the popular vote in the first round of the presidential contest, Bolsonaro now faces a run-off race on October 28 against Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), who trailed with 29.3% of the vote.
Ciro Gomes, the centre-left candidate of the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) polled 12.5%. Three presidential candidates from the centre-right garnered less than 7% and lost considerable strength in Congress.
Many observers consider the centre-right’s poor showing as a rejection of the policies of the Michel Temer government that came to power in 2016 after the impeachment of PT president Dilma Rousseff. Many label this a soft, or parliamentary, coup.
The first post-election poll places Bolsonaro in the lead, polling 58% to 42% against Haddad. Brazil is unquestionably at a crossroads.
If a pro-democratic front led by the PT doesn’t hold back the conservative wave, Brazil will be the next victim of the reactionary-populist international groundswell.
During his 26-year career as a legislator, Bolsonaro, a former army captain who defends neo-fascist ideas, has presented himself as a hardline and vocal opponent of the Brazilian left, feminism, Afro-Brazilians, LGBTI people and the social and cultural changes that have accompanied the country’s democratisation process over the past four decades.
He has said his children would not marry Black people because they were well brought up, and that if a son were gay, he would beat him. He voted against granting labour rights to domestic workers and denounces teaching “gender ideology” in public schools.
During the 2016 vote in favour of impeaching Rousseff, he unabashedly defended the 1968-85 military dictatorship and praised the notorious torturer of the president when she was jailed in 1970 for opposing the authoritarian regime.
Although a self-styled “nationalist”, Bolsonaro has anointed Paulo Guedes, a University of Chicago-trained neoliberal economist, as his main economic advisor. His policy recommendations include privatising almost all state-run companies and opening up the Amazon to foreign development.
Ironically, while Bolsonaro’s campaign relies heavily on an anti-corruption discourse, Guedes is currently under investigation for possible securities’ fraud.
Left-wing activists were stunned by the results. Nonetheless, many factors explain the growth of the far right in Brazil.
The Great Recession of 2008 reached Brazil several years after it created economic turmoil in the United States. The country is still facing record unemployment, which, in turn, has caused an uptick in crime. Bolsonaro’s law-and-order rhetoric appeals to many voters who fear urban violence.
The 2013 June mobilisations, which began as a protest against a 20-cent bus fare hike in São Paulo, ballooned into protests throughout the country with a highly eclectic social and political composition of its participants. Many who took to the streets called on the PT-led government to expand spending on social services, education and transportation, rather than investing in stadiums for the 2014 World Cup.
By mid-month, however, right-wing youth had joined the mix and explicitly called for an end to the Rousseff’s rule.
The former left-wing guerrilla fighter managed to win re-election in 2014, but the right challenged the election results and then moved to impeach her based on dubious charges of budgetary mismanagement.
The centre-right government that took control implemented a neoliberal economic plan designed to slowly dismantle the social welfare state that had been strengthened since PT leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became president in 2003.
At the same time, a string of investigations, known as Operation Car Wash, alleged PT involvement in money laundering and kickback payments. This severely tarnished its image and fuelled anti-politician sentiment.
While moving quickly against the left, the judicial system spared suspected centre-right politicians from any serious corruption investigations.
To prevent Lula from being a candidate in this year’s elections, Sérgio Moro, the judge heading Operation Car Wash, sped up investigations against the former president. This ultimately led to him being condemned to 12 years in jail for allegedly receiving an apartment in exchange for favours given to a contractor.
Jailed in April, Lula’s popularity as a presidential hopeful grew from 30% to 39%. This alarmed the tendentious Supreme Court, which barred Lula from running for president from his jail cell. The ruling was based on the Clean Slate Law that prohibits people whose conviction has been upheld in an appeals court from running for a public office, even if the case is still under consideration in the Supreme Court.
The country’s highest judges also ignored a finding by the United Nation’s Commission on Human Rights that defended Lula’s right to stand for office. After carrying out a series of unsuccessful appeals and waiting to the last minute, Lula chose Haddad as his successor.
Haddad, a mild-spoken lawyer and professor of philosophy of Lebanese descent, had served as education minister for six years under Lula’s administration. He is credited with carrying out a huge expansion of public universities that, coupled with affirmative action programs, led to a dramatic increase of Afro-descendant and indigenous students in higher education.
As mayor of São Paulo from 2012 to 2016, Haddad tried to rethink the metropolis’ transport problems, and was recognised internationally as one of São Paulo’s best mayors. Yet he failed to win re-election, as anti-PT sentiment grew in the aftermath of Rousseff’s impeachment.
With less than three weeks before the next round, Haddad has shifted more to the centre to attract voters who have traditionally supported the Brazilian Democratic Movement and the Party of Social Democracy, which formed the core of Temer’s government.
These parties’ poor showing in the polls and a split between their moderate and conservative wings have meant that many of their politicians are supporting Bolsonaro. The sharp drop in the number of their congressional candidates elected to office is also a sign that voters have lost confidence in their legitimacy to govern.
Perhaps Haddad’s core ally at this point is Gomes, a former governor of the north-eastern state of Ceará, who has offered critical support to the PT’s candidate.
North-eastern Brazil has historically has been the poorest and most underdeveloped region of the country. It benefitted tremendously from Lula’s and Rousseff’s social programs, beginning with the Bolsa Família cash transfer to low-income families with children in school.
Haddad won a majority in all north-eastern states. However, Bolsonaro captured a majority of votes in the country’s other regions.
Before the first round in the presidential elections, social movements had already mobilised against Bolsonaro. A huge movement known as #EleNão or Not Him, organised first by feminist activists as a social media campaign against Bolsonaro, brought more than 1 million people in 140 cities into the streets a week before the election.
A group called Jews against Bolsonaro gathered 10,000 signatures from members of Latin America’s second largest Jewish community. Another initiative entitled Muslims and Jews against Bolsonaro received the endorsement of 10 associations. LGBTI activists have also been vocal in the campaign against the right-wing figure.
International alarm about the election has motivated renowned sociologist Manuel Castells to issue an open letter, which begins: “Brazil is in danger. And with Brazil the world.
“Because after the election of [Donald] Trump, the coming to power of a neofascist government in Italy and the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe, Brazil could elect a fascist to the presidency, who defends the military dictatorship, is misogynist, sexist, racist and xenophobic…”
Seventy-five academics based in the US have issued a manifesto expressing their fear that Bolsonaro’s “proposed policies would effectively undo all of the political, social, economic, labor, and cultural gains of the last four decades, efforts by social movements and progressive politicians to consolidate and expand democracy in Brazil”.
Now collecting support in US universities, the organisers of the initiative plan to release the text, with several thousand signatures, a week before the elections.
Should Bolsonaro win the popular vote at the end of October, he will have the backing of a conservative majority in the Congress to carry out his far-right agenda. Should the left manage to flip the projected outcome and elect Haddad to the presidency, it will undoubtedly be a weak government.
If social polarisation persists regardless of who governs, the armed forces will be waiting in the wings ready to seize power.
[Reprinted from NACLA. James N Green is Professor of Brazilian History and Culture at Brown University and author, among other books, of We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (Duke University Press, 2010).]