Brazil's democracy under serious threat as far-right leader wins unfair vote

Issue 
Anti-Bolsonaro protest in Sau Paulo ahead of Brazil's October 7 elections.

In a stunning upset that may radically alter the political landscape of Latin America, far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro won 46% of the vote in the October 7 presidential election in Brazil.

Bolsonaro fell short of the needed outright majority to avoid a second round, but he scored a far more decisive victory than expected, Democracy Now! reported.

The former Army officer has a long history of making racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments. Openly praising Brazil’s infamous military dictatorship, Bolsonaro has spoken in support of torture and granting police “carte blanche” for a bloody crackdown in the name of “law and order”.

In April, he was charged with hate speech over his tirades. But Bolsonaro’s popularity has soared in recent weeks after he was stabbed while out on the campaign trail. Speaking on October 7 after casting his vote, he said this had “awoken the people to the idea that Brazil can’t continue on the path to socialism. We don’t want to be tomorrow what Venezuela is today.”

In the elections, Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party also won unexpected victories across Brazil. In the lower house, Bolsonaro’s party won 52 seats, up from just eight, making it the second largest party in the chamber. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo received more votes than any congressional candidate in Brazil’s history.

Meanwhile, Brazilian voters ousted a stunning two-thirds of incumbents.

Bolsonaro also directly benefited from the jailing of popular former Workers’ Party (PT) president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who had been leading all presidential polls earlier this year. Lula has been in jail since April on what many consider trumped-up corruption charges.

The PT’s replacement presidential candidate, former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, came second in the presidential vote with 29%. He now faces an uphill fight against Bolsonaro in the October 28 runoff.

Speaking on October 8, after meeting with Lula in his jail cell, Haddad said: “We’re very excited for the second round, because the second round offers an opportunity that we didn’t have in the first round: to debate the projects that each one of the remaining candidates advocate for the country.

“We will have an important opportunity to compare these two projects.”

Meanwhile, the PT suffered major defeats in legislative races. Former PT president Dilma Rousseff, ousted in an institutional coup in 2016, lost her bid for a Brazilian Senate seat. She won just 15 % of the vote.

With the future of democracy in Brazil hanging in the balance, US-based independent media outlet Democracy Now! spoke with Maria Luísa Mendonça, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil on October 9.

In the interview, of which an abridged version is posted below the video, she says that if the “fascist” Bolsonaro becomes president, it will create “a very dangerous situation.”

Can you talk about what took place on October 7, and the significance of Bolsonaro’s first round victory?

It’s a very dangerous situation in Brazil that is very important to monitor, because that could have an impact in the whole region.

If Lula was able to run, he would probably win very easily. But there was a vacuum created because he was put in jail with charges of receiving a bribe, but actually there is no evidence that he received the bribe.

So, since the parliamentary coup against Dilma two years ago, we are in limbo. We cannot consider that we have a democracy in Brazil right now. And so Bolsonaro is the result of a series of attacks on democracy that started two years ago with the parliamentary coup against Dilma.

We said that there was a coup because there was no evidence that she committed any crimes, but was impeached anyway. And as a member of Congress, Bolsonaro voted for the impeachment in the name of the person who tortured her during the military dictatorship when she was in prison.

He supported the impeachment of Dilma in honour of her torturer?

Yes, because during the vote in Congress, most congressmembers voted in the name of God or in the name of their family, and Bolsonaro voted in the name of the person who tortured Dilma [Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a colonel in Brazil’s army who head a special unit during the dictatorship dedicated to repressing dissent].

Could you talk more about Bolsonaro’s history and what exactly he represents?

He represents the sector of the military that is openly fascist. He talks about raping women openly. He said that he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son. He praises the military dictatorship. He said the police should be free to kill.

There is also a lot of media manipulation. Since the impeachment of Dilma two years ago, there have been constant attacks on the PT. It was almost like all mainstream media in Brazil is like Fox News. There is no alternative.

And also during the campaign, Bolsonaro started a campaign of fake news, especially on WhatsApp, which is not controlled. For example, Facebook has closed several accounts that were spreading fake news against Haddad and the PT’s candidate for vice president, Manuela.

Also [US alt-right leader and Donald Trump’s former chief strategist] Steve Bannon is one of the advisers for Bolsonaro. So there is a lot of misinformation and manipulation.

I think that it’s also important to understand that the media in Brazil is portraying Haddad, the progressive candidate, as far-left. But when he was the mayor of São Paulo, actually, what he did was he built several daycares and more than 30 hospitals, and he tried to make the traffic in the city better, for example, having infrastructure for bikes.

When he was in the ministry of education during the Lula administration, he created more than 18 new federal universities, more than 300 new university campuses, and there was much more incentive and fellowships for education at all levels.  So, you know, he comes from an educational background.

And so, what we have now is a very extreme, fascist candidate running against a moderate candidate. And our hope now is that three other candidates [knocked out after the first round] have said that they would support Haddad now in the runoff elections.

Do you think that could make up the difference in the runoff?

I think so, because those progressive candidates together will probably get about 20% of the votes if they are able to convince people that this is a dangerous path. The challenge is, how do we deal with media manipulation, not just mainstream media, but the manipulation on social media?

What is the significance of the media in shaping popular opinion in Brazil?

It’s very important. During the administration of Dilma, just an example, the unemployment rate was 4%, and now it’s 15%. So, there is an economic crisis, but instead of looking at the future, the mainstream media plays this role of giving incentive to fear, and that creates the space for a fascist candidate like Bolsonaro.

The left-wing parties already announced they’re going to unite for the second round. So the question is how the neoliberal parties, the mainstream conservative parties that are implementing structural adjustment policies, what decision they will make. That is because it is a risky decision to support a far-right fascist candidate. So I think that’s the main question.