Thoughts on the First Round of the Brazilian Presidential Election: Is Presidential Candidate Jair Bolsonaro an Aberration?

I woke up on Monday morning, October 8, after the first round of the Brazilian presidential election, to find (not to my surprise) that Federal Deputy Jair Bolsonaro of the PSL (Social Liberal Party) had taken first place, with Fernando Haddad of the PT (Workers Party) and former education minister and mayor of São Paulo, coming in second.  Haddad and Bolsonaro will face off in the second and final round on October 28, 2018.  What surprised me was that the decidedly right-wing Bolsonaro, whom many measured observers consider a man of clear neo-fascist tendencies, had almost won the election outright in the first balloting.  Bolsonaro won 46% of the votes tallied, with runner-up Haddad garnering only 29%; all the rest of the field coming in even further behind.  Bolsonaro came close to winning outright in this first ballot, falling just short of the 50%+ threshold needed to win.  Why is such a candidate almost becoming Brazil’s new president?

A breathless BBC reporter, actually stationed in Rio de Janeiro (most of the major United States media, by contrast, follow virtually nothing but Trump’s daily outrages and have very few reporters in Latin America) interviewed PT leaders in loco on the morning after.  He stated to his interlocutors on live radio, in assertive “The Beeb” style, something to the effect that: You have to accept that the PT is no longer very popular.  This was quite a comment, coming from a respectable English journalist after two highly successful presidencies (on a number of critical dimensions) of now jailed PT leader and founder Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.  The well-meaning BBC, I submit, could not be further away from the historical reality facing contemporary Brazil.

The current Brazilian zeitgeist cannot be reduced to “everyone now hates the PT.”  There is something deeper going on that, in many ways, is much more troubling than purported dislike of the party that so recently led Brazil and, in many ways, the entire “developing world,” before falling into a sordid corruption scandal. A solid journalist “being there” does not mean he or she understands what’s going on.

The overarching reality that punches any serious observer in the gut, today, is that Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world.  Death squads “clearing the streets” of urban urchins in retail shopping areas; drug traffickers fighting it out for lucrative “points” to ply their trade in the enormous favelas (shanty towns) of Brazil’s immense cities; truculent, poorly trained on- and off-duty police with “shoot first, ask questions later” attitudes; not to mention political assassinations of all kinds of human rights workers, politicians, and political movement leaders, make urban Brazil truly appear like a shooting gallery.  In the countryside, the burning “agrarian question,” amid some of the most unequal land distribution on the planet, pits landlords in the immensely profitable agri-business sector, along with their hired guns (pistoleiros and capangas), against a land-hungry peasantry, rural laborers, and Brazil’s remaining 250,000 or so Indigenous people.  These are engaged in low-intensity conflict that causes rural killing, maiming, torture, and rape of members of these “lower classes” with depressing regularity.

The toll is staggering:  approximately 40,000 to 50,000 murdered by firearms in Brazil yearly throughout this entire millennium:  an estimated 720,000 Brazilians dead between 2000 and today.  Brazilian police are infamous for the large number of extrajudicial killings for which they are responsible. To offer some comparisons, in Syria – albeit a country with a population of only 18.3 million vs. Brazil’s 208 million – an estimated 500,000 people have lost their lives in the civil war.  Perhaps a more apposite comparison is the USA:  another New World, former slave society with a population, now, of 320 million that, during the American ground war in Vietnam War, lasting from about 1962 to 1975, lost approximately 58,000 killed in action.  Those dead utterly traumatized the United States.  One can only imagine what Brazilians are feeling, as their nation loses, in every year of recent memory, about what the Americans lost during the entire Vietnam War. The losses traumatized Americans.  Colleagues at the University of São Paulo’s Nucleus for the Study of Violence as well as at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, whose work I have followed for 25 years, report that Brazil is absolutely (and understandably) devastated by the carnage.  The recent vote suggests the Brazilian public wants policy answers:  whether one likes Bolsonaro’s or not.

Incongruously, public security has not, until this electoral cycle, even been much of a campaign issue.  The left-of-center PT, the right-of-center PSDB (Brazilian Social Democratic Party), and the center-right PMBD (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) – the dominant parties for most of the New Republic (1985 to the present) – have never, to this observer’s continuing surprise, campaigned on a public security platform.  Nor have they implemented any policies to curb the violence.  It has only grown worse: even under the PT.  Bolsonaro, for all his Mussolini-sounding pronouncements, his racism, his homophobia, his laughter at the suffering and murder of Brazil’s rural poor, and his contempt for Brazil’s indigenous people, has changed all that.  Brazilians are listening to his ham-fisted promises of ending the violence by turning the police and the army on the bandidos.   Why is anyone surprised that this appeals to undereducated, underemployed, terrified Brazilians, especially the majority who remain of the humble classes?  Many educated and sophisticated middle- and upper-class Brazilians are also reaching for radical solutions.  Paeens to liberal democracy notwithstanding, Brazilians cannot abide the violence any longer.

The second element in Brazil’s reality that our BBC reporter failed to grasp on “the day after” is the incessant drumbeat of Brazil’s own major media, dominated, as they are, by the Rede Globo television network.  Rede Globo is among the largest TV networks in the world, with an over 80% in-country media market share, and reaching into 99.9% of all Brazilian households.  Since Lula and the PT appeared on the scene, late in the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and all through the New Republic (1985 to the present), the Globo network has castigated, minimized, and endeavored to destroy the PT’s image.  Far be it for me to be an apologist for the corruption scandals facing the PT during the presidencies of Lula and Dilma, but the media, in Brazil, is more classist and one-sided than that of England (I was born an Englishman).  The difference in Brazil is that there is no media bulwark on the left comparable to the work of Rede Globo, the other TV networks, and most of the Brazilian “mainstream” press.  Since the early 1990s, Globo has absolutely denigrated Lula and his party, forming a veritable echo chamber of anti-Lula propaganda and, frankly, cant.  Obviously, the PT is guilty of major corruption during Lula and Dilma’s three administrations, betraying the social movements that sacrificed so much blood to bring it to power.  The true and broader problem, however, is that corruption is endemic to Brazilian politics.  The PT is by no means alone on this:  but listening to the press, one might think so.

There was nothing more nauseating than to see the venal, corrupt, and hypocritical Brazilian Congress vote to impeach PT President Dilma, last year, “for corruption” (she personally was not; her party was) when so many of the federal deputies were and remain “on the take.”

Federal Deputy Jair Bolsonaro cast his vote in favor of President Dilma’s impeachment, incidentally, while giving a short speech honoring the worst known torturer of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.  Ustra used to relish torturing naked mothers with electric shocks in front of their small children:  giving us a hint of Bolsonaro’s ongoing truculent presidential campaign and, in all likelihood, of his presidency – now very much on the horizon.

As for Lula himself, the truth, according to a wide swathe of international juridical opinion, is that he is presently a political prisoner in Brazil following his conviction on trumped up bribery charges.  That the BBC would report that the PT is no longer popular is, as far as its leader and founder Lula is concerned, patently false.  Brazil’s much vaunted “new judiciary” – now, supposedly no longer in the hands of the moneyed classes – is in fact flagrantly politicized.  Its prejudiced prosecution and treatment of Lula renders Federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s desultory and miserable partisanship, during his recent Supreme Court confirmation hearing, sound quaint.  Lula was and remains the most popular politician in Brazil:  beating Bolsonaro between 37 and 40% to 18 to 20% in the respected IBOPE public opinion polls, as recently as August 2018.  Such polls were conducted when there still remained the possibility that the judiciary would allow Lula out of jail to appeal his conviction while running for president.  The judiciary “decided” for Brazil that he would not be allowed to do so, while a phalanx of essentially corrupt politicians were and remain free to run Brazil’s Congress in liberty while pursuing their appeals for innumerable charges of corruption and other crimes.  Meanwhile, the Brazilian Congress itself has popularity ratings as abysmal as the one in the US.

Last year – during the lead up to the judiciary’s partisan rulings on both Lula’s right to appeal his corruption conviction in liberty and Brazil’s popular democratic will (i.e. the judiciary denied both) – Lula’s hand-picked successor, President Dilma, was impeached for not being personally corrupt but for allowing PT corruption in the immense “Carwash Scandal.”  The only problem?  Prominent members of the Brazilian Congress are as corrupt or more so than anyone in the PT.  The ludicrous scene of utterly dishonest Brazilian politicians driving out the elected president for allowing corruption in her own party degraded Brazilian democracy for probably a generation. As any political scientist will attest, the institution of impeachment has now been utilized for political ends in Brazil, setting a troubling precedent for future Brazilian presidencies.  Of course, the PT is corrupt on a colossal scale: but so are politicians from all Brazil’s political parties, big and small:  namely, the ones who impeached her.  The evidence strongly suggests that the Brazilian Judiciary and Congress therefore have one set of rules for worker leader corruption and another for bourgeois leader corruption.

In sum:  Brazil now faces (1) a crisis of the fourth estate (the media and the press) that is denying, in Orwellian fashion, any semblance of fair play and objectivity.  So dominant are they – particularly the omnipresent Rede Globo that ruled hand in glove with the military regime from the 60s to the 80s and, now, with the newly energized political right in the New Republic –  that when the venerable BBC comes to town, famous for defending these essential tenets of a free press, it apes the zeitgeist in the daily Brazilian news.  The BBC unwittingly entered Brazil’s echo chamber.  Along with the desecration of an independent media, (2) the Brazilian Congress is manifestly venal, corrupt, and viciously partisan, embarking down the road of political impeachment, imperiling all future presidencies, at least in the near future. (3) The Brazilian judiciary has now manifestly taken sides:  it will not tolerate an open election and the prospect of the PT coming back into power, despite its clearly popular leader, Lula da Silva, being the most obvious choice, still, for the majority of Brazilians: warts and all.  The trope that Lula “is no longer popular” just isn’t so.  And finally, (4) the Brazilian presidency itself is now limping along, ever dependent on forming coalitions with the “alphabet soup” of not-particularly-ideological political parties, now characterizing the make-up of the Brazilian Congress, in order to make any political program go forward.  The question is:  will Bolsonaro even bother to form coalitions as more democratic predecessors in the PSDB and PT did before him?

With an entirely compromised government and a one-sided fourth estate, it is not at all surprising – to me at least – that the Brazilian public has chosen, in the first round, Jair Bolsonaro who promises to deal with the violence.  I venture to predict, given the present circumstances, that he will defeat Haddad in the second round also.  Make no mistake:  Bolsonaro’s utterances really do suggest neo-fascist proclivities.   His success is the product of the fact that all of Brazil’s parties have failed to address the issue of public security.  After the grinding recession that the country has gone through in the past two years (the economy has contracted 8.7% from its size in December 2014),  the country’s population is facing, once again, sub-Saharan level poverty. Those falling back into extreme poverty, now, after the remarkable progress of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula administrations, amount to an estimated 11% of Brazil’s population, or 23 million people.  This number is approximately the population of either Australia, Cameroon, Niger, or Taiwan.  This perilous economic context simply exacerbates the public security situation.

What the dominant parties of the Millennium – the PT and the PSDB – have failed to address is the idea that political sociologists teach us remains deeply popular in all Brazilian society:  namely, that “the only good bandit is a dead one.”  The implication?  The public remains willing “to look the other way” as the police “do the necessary dirty work.” Meanwhile, neither the PT nor the PSDB has taken a serious initiative on the issues of prison reform;  decriminalizing drug use; creating truly community-led public security programs; reforming the abysmal primary and secondary schools where the greatest educational deficits fester; creating moderate land reform that promotes food-producing, land-hungry rural workers; defending the beleaguered last tribal people’s lands, resources, and very lives; or gun control.  Such initiatives would have been policies that could have reduced the pressure cooker atmosphere of contemporary Brazil.   What we are left with, then, is the right-wing trope that is a constant in this former slave society and that Bolsonaro has made his own:

“The social question?  That’s a problem for the police.”

Besides Bolsonaro’s police-oriented “approach” to the question of public security, it has not escaped many sectors of the Brazilian elite that the object of assault of Bolsonaro’s thugs are unionists, organized landless workers, and other popular forces:  namely, the forces that undergirded the 14 recent years of the PT in power.  These Brazilian elites – like the bourgeoisie of the Weimar Republic in early Nazi Germany who thought that they could control their “little Hitler” as his Brown Shirts murdered the members of the German Socialist Party –  would not (it appears) worry about a “little Jair” eliminating popular democratic forces in Brazil, especially those that have supported the PT.  At least their recent voting for Bolsonaro would strongly suggest this.  Will they, like their counterparts did with Hitler in pre-World War II Germany, lose control of Jair Bolsonaro?

Given the ham-stringing of all of Brazil’s democratic institutions – congress, presidency, judiciary, and the fourth estate — Bolsonaro is quite likely to usher in a “tidy little police state” for the quite desperate Brazilian people: barring a miracle come-back of Haddad and a center-left coalition that the PT is now scrambling to create before the October 28th run-off election.  Problem is, Brazil is neither little nor tidy.  It has plenty of official and extra-official police, not to mention legions of private security forces and a well-articulated defense establishment.  They will, in a Bolsonaro administration, as they have done historically, defend at any cost the bourgeoisie and upper classes.  The consequences for Brazil, a country that has braved so much to create for itself a true experiment in popular democracy, can only be considered grave.

The significance for the democratic experiment around the world, moreover, is equally severe.  Brazil appears to be veering from its early millennium position of inspirational world leadership to a new era of a major country electing and installing a police state.


Share this Post