Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has used the bicentennial of Brazil’s Independence to ratchet up the heat in the country’s presidential election campaign, insisting the country faces a fight “between good and … an evil that lasted 14 years”.
The “14 years” is a reference to the Workers’ Party (PT) governments of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (2002‒10) and Dilma Rousseff (2010‒16). Lula, the PT’s presidential candidate, is currently ahead of Bolsonaro in the polls for the October 2 elections.
Bolsonaro made the statement at a government parade in the capital, Brasilia, on September 7, which featured military tanks and tractors belonging to large agribusiness companies. Standing alongside Bolsonaro was Luciano Hang, a business owner under investigation for issuing pro-coup threats. Meanwhile, his supporters lined the streets, some with banners calling for “military intervention”.
In Rio de Janeiro later that day, Bolsonaro said the left had “to be weeded out of public life” and anyone deemed to not be playing within the rules of the constitution would be brought to justice after his re-election.
Speaking to Green Left, Sao Paulo socialist councillor Luana Alves said this was Brazil’s “most important presidential elections of the past decades, because Bolsonaro does not just represent the far right in Brazil; he represents a new kind of dangerous movement”.
Alves is a member of the radical anti-capitalist Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) and an activist with the Socialist Left Movement (MES) tendency within it.
She explained that Bolsonaro’s movement seeks to challenge the system and the “powerful”, but “in a very dangerous way”; that is, “by creating a narrative that those with power in society today are the poor, women, Black people”. In this “alternate reality”, Bolsonaro and his supporters are presented as “the true defenders of freedom”.
Bolsonaro’s ability to build such a movement is rooted in the deep structural racism and economic inequality that exists in Brazil, Alves said. Weaponising misogyny and racism, he has been able to “bring the worst out of working people”. Add to this the high levels of structural violence that exist, then such a movement has “dangerous implications”.
Bolsonaro has also been able to rely on antipetismo — or fear of the PT — to win support: “There are some people who are very scared of the PT because towards the end of the PT government, the global economic crisis created a lot of problems in Brazil.
“At the same time, there were some corruption scandals” involving PT parliamentarians, said Alves. While corruption is prevalent across the political spectrum, “a lot of working people came to associate the corruption scandals with the effects of the global crisis”, and blamed PT corruption for unemployment and poverty.
While Lula is well-positioned in the polls, Alves believes it is not guaranteed he will win. A big factor is that the PT has failed to inspire hope it can bring positive change.
While the PT emerged as a leftist party out of trade union and social movement struggles against the military dictatorship in the 1980s, today it is a social democratic party that seeks to work within the system.
“The PT represents an old project that does not challenge the system.” In contrast, Bolsonaro projects himself as “anti-system”, as “the guy that is working against the powerful people. He has created this kind of narrative that he’s going to be the person who beats the system — and beats the left.
“A lot of people want to vote for Lula because Brazil is now in a big crisis because of Bolsonaro — an economic crisis, a healthcare crisis, a lot of crises. But Lula does not represent a new program for Brazil. People will vote for Lula because he’s the lesser evil, but it is not a vote with hope.”
What about the possibilities of a military coup? Alves believes this is highly unlikely as “a military coup is not necessary as the military is already in the government” — and this is unlikely to change.
“They don't need to put tanks in the streets to carry out a military coup because the military is already in the cabinet… [and] military oppression is already part of the system.”
Alves explained that each state in Brazil has its own military police force. “They are very ideological and most police officers in Brazil support Bolsonaro.” What’s more, they maintain similar practices to those used by the military during the times of dictatorship.
“They carry out systematic oppression against poor people, against Black people, which is very similar to the oppression enacted against the left in the 70s. Some of the old methods of torture they used in the Brazilian dictatorship are the same methods they use now in the favelas.
“What we have to fight is not so much the threat of a coup. They are already free to do whatever they want within democracy; that is the most dangerous thing at the moment. And this won’t change with a Lula government, because Lula is not going to push the military — it's not his policy.
“What we have to worry about is, first, to make sure Lula wins to defeat Bolsonaro. But the second important thing is to fight to make sure the military are pushed out of the government and lose strength.”
The left after Bolsonaro
This is not the only challenge the left will face. Alves believes “the left as a whole faces a historic moment: it has to choose where it goes next”.
PSOL’s origins lie in a minority split from the PT back in 2005, when Lula pushed through a pension reform that negatively affected public sector workers. Since then, PSOL has operated as an anti-capitalist party that maintained its political independence from the PT.
“Right now, with the Bolsonaro government, PSOL is the most vocal opposition: this is our role, to be the vocal opposition. We don’t have any relations with the government, which is very important to us because some PT congresspeople quietly have relations with the government. PSOL has positioned itself as the opposition that has nothing to do with the government.
“But now, the PT is putting a lot of pressure on PSOL to form a coalition for democracy — it’s not a left or socialist coalition, just a broad coalition against Bolsonaro. We are part of this coalition, but this shouldn't have meant that we do not have a candidate. It is possible to be part of a political coalition without being part of the electoral coalition. This was a big controversy in PSOL.”
Prior to the election campaign, PSOL had an internal debate over whether to stand a candidate, while pledging to support Lula in any eventual second round run-off, or campaigning for Lula in the first round. A narrow majority voted for the latter option.
Alves and the MES tendency were among the minority in favour of a PSOL candidate: “Having a candidate means a lot, because there are public debates on television where we get to express our ideas about socialism, about struggles, about policies. It’s a very rare opportunity because usually we don't receive much media coverage.”
Participation in these debates previously contributed to important growth in PSOL’s membership. But the lack of a candidate meant missing out on this opportunity. With PSOL not being present as a party with its own presidential candidate, the party “does not have independence, it does not have a different project to the PT”, Alves said. “We lost the vote inside PSOL, and I will campaign for Lula as the majority voted for, but I think we will pay a price for this.
“Now, we face a second and most definitive decision, which is, if Lula wins, whether to join a PT government. Some in the party don't see a problem in being part of the government, but we see a problem with taking any government positions.
“We can campaign for Lula, but if he wins we should not take any position. Doing so would mean that there are no borders between us and the PT. People are going to look at us and say we are just like the PT. This will not be a socialist government; it is going to be a social democratic government.”
“How can I talk to people that trust us, who want to know more about socialism and social movements? Why would they talk to us, if we are part of the government that is not a leftist government? I wouldn't have any morals to talk to people to say all come join PSOL.
“This is a big controversy right now.”