The victory of Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election was a shock felt the world over. Jorge Almeida discusses the crises which led to this point.
Brazil has elected a far-right president. But, three months before the election, the main issue was not the election of Jair Bolsonaro. The far-right did not have a public political tradition in Brazil, and almost no politician assumed to be from this wing.
Bolsonaro appeared with 17 percent of the polls at the end of 2017. But then it was hoped that this year’s presidential election would be one pitting the Workers Party (PT) against the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), a liberal right wing party.
The preferred candidate of the capitalist and political elite, of the traditional right, was Geraldo Alckmin, governor of São Paulo and member of the PSDB; the party of the ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In the end, Alckmin won only 4 percent of the vote.
Bolsonaro is a retired army captain, aged 63, punished for indiscipline for campaigning to raise troop salaries in 1986. In fact, that was the basis for his first election, in 1988, as a councillor in Rio de Janeiro.
Since 1990, he has been a federal deputy during which time he oversaw only two projects. He was a member of several small and medium right wing parties, all involved in corruption. Curiously, almost all of them were allies, at some point, of the governments of the PT between 2002 and 2016.
He has been suspected of illicit enrichment and the private use of Federal Assembly’s financial resources. In addition, he has been involved with several family conflicts, making a mockery of his claim to be the defender of the traditional family.
The PT candidate in the election was Fernando Haddad, a professor and former mayor of São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, who was nominated by former president Lula da Silva. Lula is currently under arrest for corruption, but no clear legal evidence has been presented, while corrupt right wing leaders, including the current president Michel Temer and several PSDB leaders, remain free. Before da Silva’s candidacy was barred, he was ahead in the polls.
In the first round, Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the valid votes, while PT candidate Haddad gained 29 percent.
In the second round, Bolsonaro won with 55 percent of the valid votes against Haddad’s 45 percent. Bolsonaro won all the votes of the liberal right and some of those who had previously backed PT candidates. In the second round Haddad had the support of all the left, centre-left, social movements and small part of the liberals.
Ciro Gomes, of the PDT (Democratic Labour Party), a party considered centre-left, won 12 percent and Alckmin 4 percent. All the other nine candidates had less than 2 percent.
Of the radical left parties, the candidate with the highest vote was Guilherme Boulos, from PSOL (Socialist and Freedom Party), with less than 1 percent. But for the parliament, PSOL managed to win the barrier clause and elect ten federal deputies, double what it had gained in 2014.
Brazil is facing a serious and lasting economic, social and political crisis. In addition, the entire political elite is demoralised, starting with the PT and with everything to the left of it.
Dilma Rousseff of the PT, who was re-elected as president in 2014, was removed from office in 2016 after the country’s senate impeached her for “criminal responsibility”, despite presenting no evidence to prove the accusation. The then vice-president Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), and the National Congress, whose right wing and corrupt majority were allies of the PT, participated in the coup. The judiciary, military commanders, big business, imperialist states and the media also endorsed it.
But this was only possible because the PT government was very weak. It was presiding over a combination of social and economic crisis, and was involved with barely concealed corruption. Even so, and despite great difficulties, Rousseff had been able to win re-election by exploiting manipulative political marketing. But she broke her promises after the election and began promoting hard neoliberal policies, pushing privatisation and taking away workers’ rights. Her popular support fell rapidly from 70 percent in early 2013 to 10 percent, and her unfavourable rating rose to 70 percent soon after the 2014 elections.
In this context, major corporations which had been supporting the PT government took advantage of its loss of popularity and resolved to accelerate the drive for privatisation and anti-popular reforms; ones that the PT government itself had initiated. And the best route they found was impeachment.
The STF (Federal Supreme Court), whose majority of members were also nominated by the PT’s presidents, backed the coup, and military commanders also endorsed it. The coup was also backed by the media’s campaign to undermine the government and defend the legality of impeachment. The right wing took advantage of the situation to deal the final blow.
Temer’s post-coup government delivered the accelerated privatisation program and anti-popular reforms, further deepening the crisis and increasing corruption. Most of the traditional right wing leaders and parliamentarians were suspected of corruption. The government’s unpopularity was huge, with 80 percent of people wanting its removal and only 3 percent supporting it. This crisis paved the way for the far-right.
Bolsonaro’s speeches and practices express a form of fascism. But it is a singular fascism. He is authoritarian, defends the military dictatorship that ran the country between 1964 and 1985, backs the use of torture as a way to resolve social problems and the violent repression of organised crime and the use of weapons by troops of armed police. He is anti-communist, anti-socialist and against everything that seems to be left wing. He appeals to the masses with his defence of the traditional family and makes racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic and fundamentalist Christian speeches, mainly evangelical Pentecostal. His cultural policy is conservative and he defends reactionary social policies that attack the hard-won rights of workers, women, blacks, indigenous people, LGBTs and poor immigrants. In addition, his environmental policy is one of devastation.
But his nationalism is not true, but rhetorical. This is what we call “deliverman” in Brazil. In fact, he defends a radical liberal economic policy, with more privatisations and denationalisation of the whole economy, greater access to the nation’s wealth for foreign capital and a foreign policy aligned to the US and Israel. This means Brazil will conflict with China (currently Brazil’s main trading partner), and bring disrespect to the peoples of Latin America and Africa. In short, Bolsonaro’s government will be marked by the political, social, economic and cultural regression of the country.
But that does not mean that the majority of the Brazilian people are far-right or support all those policies. Therefore, his government will provoke social and political conflicts.
His initial support was based on a dissatisfied middle class which, in recent years, has migrated from a passive support for the PT governments to a hatred of the PT and everything that seems to be to its left. But Bolsonaro’s main support lies with the major monopoly capitalists, especially in the financial and agribusiness sectors.
In Brazilian society as a whole, Bolsonaro is backed by Pentecostal evangelical churches, some far-right groups, including small explicit Nazi formations, and last but by no means least, police officers, the military and other officials of the legal and coercive apparatuses.
In parliament, right wing parties and corrupt right wing groups in general, which had once supported PT governments, are now backing the new president.
The Brazilian electoral system is considered a “coalition presidentialism”. The presidential election is made in two rounds, for a mandate of four years, and the president can be re-elected only once. Bolsonaro’s PSL (Social Liberal Party) has 52 deputies, about 10 percent of the Federal Assembly, but most of them are from right wing parties. The most important issues need to be approved by the National Congress, but the president has a great scope for action within the law, and if he has a social support base, he has a great power to influence that body. But he will need to make some agreements, clear and dirty, in order to rule.
His campaign was mainly carried out via social networks, especially WhatsApp. He had little free election time on TV, and received relatively less in donations than other candidates. But there is growing evidence of Bolsonaro’s access to illegal slush funds from companies that supported him. He also exploited fake news, taking his cue from Cambridge Analytica and advice from Steve Bannon. His was a highly manipulative electoral campaign during which he manipulated the masses. The campaign was also marked by physical attacks, mainly from Bolsonaro’s supporters who he encouraged.
A key factor in the growth of Bolsonaro’s popularity came when he was stabbed by someone with apparent mental problems while campaigning a month before the election. The event created a great emotional impact and gave him a reason why he could not take part in debates and interviews that were harming him.
But PT was also wrong to stake everything on a purely parliamentary campaign and a legal dispute and not on the radicalisation of the mass movement.
Now we will need to build resistance through a unity of workers’ organisations and all the democratic political forces and grassroots movements to try to bar Bolsonaro’s regressive policies. But at the same time, it is necessary to rebuild a true socialist left wing alternative and a combative social movement rooted in the foundations of the working class and all of the oppressed sectors.
Jorge Almeida is a professor at the Federal University of Bahia (Brazil) and visiting scholar at SOAS-University of London