The Brazilian coup’s harvest of fear and hate

The news that the ultra-right candidate in Brazil’s elections, Jair Bolsonaro, secured 46% of the vote last Sunday has produced headlines around the world. Although “the markets” responded favourably to the result, liberal newspapers worried about whether an eventual Bolsonaro victory in the second round of the presidential elections, which takes place on October 28, would spell the end of democracy in Brazil. Commentators were also quick to draw parallels with the advance of the ultra-right elsewhere in the world.

Bolsonaro, the candidate of the previously insignificant Social Liberal Party (PSL) is by no means the “political outsider” that he claims to be. He has been a federal deputy for Rio de Janeiro since 1991, prompting his critics to add his spectacularly lacklustre legislative contributions to the long list of arguments against his fitness to lead the country, not to mention the fact that he spent most of his earlier political career in the Progressive Party, whose abysmal track record on corruption, spectacularly exemplified by former São Paulo mayor Paulo Maluf, makes his claim to represent “Mr Clean” somewhat debatable. But this “tropical Trump” has triggered a movement that fits a more general pattern of voter rejection of previously dominant political parties. As in the case of Trump, it seems essential to look beyond the figure hoping to occupy the presidency to the broader movement that may bring him to power, and at the deeper social and political processes that have driven its advance.

This also means looking at what is behind the tenuous situation in which Bolsonaro’s Workers Party (PT) rival in the second round, Fernando Haddad, now finds himself. Haddad secured 29% of the vote in the first round and has a reasonable chance of picking up most of the votes of alternative centre-left candidate Ciro Gomes, who won 12.47% of the first round vote, in the second round. But the destiny of votes that went to other candidates, including Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the PT’s principal rival in previous elections, but this time in a lowly fourth place with only 4.8% of the vote, remains uncertain. Many militants as well as past PSDB voters had already defected to Bolsonaro’s movement before its leadership told its followers that they were free to choose which candidate to support in the second round, since the PSDB as a party could not endorse the return to power of the PT. Another area of uncertainty is the second round behaviour of voters who cast null or blank votes. Given the likelihood that Bolsonaro’s surge will further consolidate the anti-PT vote, there is no guarantee that second round victory will go to Haddad as the candidate who now represents the only alternative to the candidate dubbed “the thing” by those who find his authoritarian postures and views on gender, social and environmental issues completely unacceptable. What can be said is that it is truly ludicrous to paint the PT as an “extreme left” counterpart to the ultra-right. The party opted for social democracy rather than red-blooded socialism under Lula, and pursued policies based on a strong measure of class and political compromise, somewhat to the detriment of its relations with grassroots social movements. The problem is that large sectors of the electorate have lost their affection for this centre-left option.

The shift to the right is immediately apparent in the votes for congressmen and senators. The PT remains the largest single party in the Chamber of Deputies, with 56 seats and 10.9% of the vote, but this is still substantially less than the 70 seats that it won in 2014. It is Bolsonaro’s PSL that is now in second place in the lower chamber, with 52 deputies. The PSDB lost nearly half its deputies, and Michel Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the MDB, experienced a similar catastrophe, its representation falling from 66 deputies to 34. Yet although the two principal parties that supported the coup have been punished electorally, and a future PT government could expect to count on the support of deputies from other left-wing and centre-left parties, the overall composition of the lower Chamber has shifted the ideological balance yet further to the right. Given that it was the reactionary nature of the congress that made the impeachment of the elected president possible in 2016, and the same congress approved a raft of socially regressive and environmentally irresponsible measures under the Temer regime, the issue of whether the legislature would make Brazil ungovernable again should there be a Haddad victory on October 28 has to be raised. As the centre-right gravitates towards Bolsonaro, this seems less of a problem in his case, especially since he has pledged himself to ultra-neoliberal economic policies that will continue to take the country down the path established by the coup. Bolsonaro and his supporters have also received the active endorsement of some of the most influential evangelical churches, including the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD). The IURD offered him an unthreatening interview opportunity on its Record TV channel in the final stages of the election campaign, during which he refused to participate in TV debates with the other presidential candidates on the grounds that he has not yet recovered sufficiently from the injuries that he received when he was stabbed whilst being carried through the streets by supporters (thereby becoming a victim of the violence that he had himself seemed to authorise as a means of political expression by feigning the shooting of Lula in his own rallies as well as by using intemperate language against many other political figures). The advance of Bolsonaro’s movement further strengthens the “Bullets, Beef and Bible” lobby in the congress.

The PSL has only secured four seats in its own right in the Senate. One of them is to be occupied by Bolsonaro’s son Flávio (his son Eduardo was reelected as a federal deputy as well, setting a national record in terms of number of votes). Another went to Major Olímpio Gomes, Bolsonaro’s advisor on public security policy. But several senators from other parties are close Bolsonaro allies. The PT’s senate candidate in São Paulo, Eduardo Suplicy, failed to secure election, as did former president Dilma Rousseff in Minas Gerais, who ended up in a distant fourth place on election day despite having been in the lead in the polls. Although the MDB’s Romero Jucá, a key figure in the golpista camp, failed to secure reelection, along with MDB former senate leader Eunício Oliveira, so did their party colleague Roberto Requião, an outspoken opponent of the coup. With right-wing and centre-right parties dominant, the senate would therefore also be a thorn in the side of any PT executive.

Further evidence of the significance of the gains made by Bolsonaro and his allies on October 7 is the fact that there will be a second round of elections for state governor in Rio de Janeiro, because the expected winner, former mayor Eduardo Paes, standing for the right-wing DEM, came in second in the first round to the virtually unknown conservative judge (and former marine) Wilson Witzel. Witzel’s unanticipated 41% of the vote reflected the fact that his campaign had the support of Flávio Bolsonaro. Although there were also some successes for the PT and its communist (PCdoB) allies in the governorship elections, the electoral map of Brazil now shows that this coalition’s strength is principally concentrated in the northeast of the country. This is not to say that the PT and other parties of the left were entirely abandoned by voters elsewhere, simply that their victories were achieved in the context of a polarisation in which the ultra-right has won substantial ground.

So why has this happened, given that ex-president Lula was leading the polls in terms of voting intentions even after his imprisonment? One answer is clearly that popular affection for Lula and support for his party are not the same thing, despite the fact that polls showed that Haddad’s vote was rising steadily until the last week before the election, suggesting that the strategy of presenting him as substitute candidate for Lula did have some success. But if he loses the second round, many will no doubt blame Lula for insisting on a strategy of delaying the substitution until the very last moment before the Superior Electoral Tribunal debarred him from standing, or for refusing to contemplate the alternative of a joint slate with the Democratic Labour Party (PDT) candidate Ciro Gomes. By choosing Kátia Abreu, anti-impeachment but associated with the agribusiness lobby, as his running mate, Gomes had tried to reinforce an image of being a centre-left candidate eager to reach out to the centre. But it was not only Lula who opposed this alliance within the PT, which went on to make electoral pacts with the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) that damaged Ciro’s own efforts to make alliances.

At an earlier stage, many commentators had imagined that with Lula out of the race, Bolsonaro’s appeal would weaken. Yet the opposite has happened. The ultra-right surge has been based on amplified anti-PT sentiment premised on the deployment of hate politics in multiple registers, aimed at defining the PT as a whole as an “enemy” whose return to power would be a disaster for Brazil, reducing the country to “another Venezuela”. The idea that Lula might continue to direct a Haddad government from his prison cell is sometimes part of that argument, but most of it consists of denigrating the PT governments’ economic record, involvement in corruption, and failure to put an end to crime and violence.

That the ultra-right’s proposed “iron fist” public security policies have some appeal to lower class voters comes as no surprise to ethnographers of grassroots politics in Brazil. But some of the most important drivers of hate politics are associated with what many would regard as the PT’s most important achievements in terms of providing lower class Brazilians of colour with new opportunities to enter higher education and the professions. This kind of politics of resentment, whose association with class violence was illustrated by the reactions of a judge and some politicians to the murder of Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco, is principally an upper middle class phenomenon. But it is not difficult to find lighter skinned residents of poor communities on the urban periphery complaining about affirmative action policies from which they feel that they have been excluded, even in former PT bastions in Bahia. This takes us to one kind of deeper level of analysis, one which considers the contradictions of Brazil’s racialised class system and the security dilemmas that poor people face in everyday life.

An important aspect of these everyday problems is growing economic as well as physical insecurity. The economic problems that paved the way for Dilma Rousseff’s removal from power were a consequence of economic strategies shared with other “Pink Tide” governments, especially reliance on commodity exports to fund redistributive social programs, although the PT’s limited success in its efforts to stimulate re-industrialization and technological progress might be blamed on the rent-seeking nature of Brazil’s capitalists. Far from ending the crisis, the deeply unpopular Temer government’s application of extreme neoliberal solutions has produced sharp increases in unemployment, precarianisation, declining real wages and the reemergence of mass poverty. Yet the heightened fear and anxiety that this has provoked amongst a population that has increasingly lost hope in the future has favoured the advance of the ultra-right despite the fact that Bolsonaro has opted for an even more radical version of the same program in terms of austerity, liquidation of national resources, and wholesale privatisation of the public sector. But Bolsonaro claims to know nothing about economics himself and will therefore entrust economic management to experts and technocrats who will demonstrate the superiority of market-based solutions over the state intervention and “communism” of the PT. Although Bolsonaro in fact expressed rather different views about economic sovereignty in the past, this tactic seems to be working. People may be nostalgic for the happier days and social advances that they enjoyed under governments headed by Lula, who also has the unique quality of being a popular leader born into poverty who rose to become a recognised world statesman. But the PT has not been able to provide an effective answer to the charge that the crisis resulted from the poor economic management of the PT under Dilma Rousseff. The focus to date on Lula’s status as “the people’s choice” denied his political rights by an unjust corruption conviction without proof has distracted attention from the urgent need for the PT and Left in general to articulate a coherent alternative economic strategy and sell it to a now sceptical public.

Bolsonaro and his supporters have thus far not been obliged to talk about policies at all, since they have campaigned very successfully by completely negative means, exploiting fear and hate. This has allowed them to present an economic and political crisis as a moral crisis in Brazilian society that demands “strong solutions”. Security is one central issue, but corruption is another. The judicial and media arms of the coup have continued their work in painting Lula and the PT as architects of a “criminal system of governance” during the campaign. Judge Sérgio Moro and the Curitiba prosecutors made well-timed and self-evidently politicised interventions shortly before voting began. The Supreme Court prevented Lula from giving interviews, despite the fact that there is no legal basis for denying someone imprisoned the right to give an interview. The right-wing magazine Veja was, in fact, allowed to interview Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, Bolsonaro’s attacker, with the clear intention of linking this deranged individual with the Left. The two years since the coup have provided ample evidence that leading figures in the MDB and PSDB are implicated in corrupt practices, although most of them have enjoyed impunity to date. This has contributed to undermining support for these major parties and the turn to Bolsonaro as an alternative who is supposedly clean. But the most important aspect of this is the maintenance of pressure on the PT, which has included accusations that Haddad enjoyed illegal campaign financing as a former mayor of São Paulo.

One of the most striking features of the Bolsonaro movement is its colonisation of social media, which far exceeded anything achieved by its political rivals. The importance of social media, including direct messages distributed via WhatsApp, has been a striking feature of this election, and probably contributed to the inability of Geraldo Alckmin to capitalise on the fact that he had more minutes of television time for his propaganda than other candidates. What social media were used for was, of course, principally the dissemination of fake news, often of such spectacularly obvious falsity that we are obliged to ask why the judges of the Superior Electoral Tribunal who proved so anxious about defending democratic propriety from Lula in his prison cell took no action against ultra-right politicians who were quite clearly resorting to lies and deceit in their efforts to defame and vilify their political enemies. What we are talking about here, as the Brazilian edition of El País pointed out, is a systematic and organised fake news machine (which may have some backing from ultra-right interests outside Brazil). Furthermore, the targets were not simply politicians. The PCdoB vice-presidential candidate Manuela D’Ávila is a favourite target on social media (and has also had to fend off outrageous aggression from journalists in mainstream media, although this principally served to highlight her articulateness and above average ability to defend herself by the kinds of rational argument that her political enemies so frequently eschew). But the social media offensive has been deployed against the entire gamut of individuals and movements opposed to Bolsonaro and everything that he stands for. The #EleNão movement, organised and led by women, produced the biggest street protests Brazil has seen since 2013. Yet the impact of these demonstrations on members of the “popular classes” who neither participated in them nor witnessed them at first hand may have been blunted somewhat by the black propaganda directed against this counter-movement by pro-Bolsonaro forces on social networks. This included the circulation of false images that were taken from other contexts (usually not Brazilian) or manipulated in Photoshop, all designed to portray the women involved in the #EleNão movement as “an offence to social decency and family values”.

At the beginning of the second round campaign, Bolsonaro has taken steps to address the concerns raised by some ill-judged statements by his running mate, retired general Hamilton Mourão, and disturbing pronouncements made by serving senior members of the military in a campaign in which the armed forces had a presence without precedent since the restoration of democracy. Assuring electors that he is a democrat rather than an authoritarian, he promises to defend the constitutional order. The constitutional order as it currently operates under the custodianship of today’s Supreme Court judges might be considered defective as a bulwark for democracy and guarantor of social progress and greater social justice, and, like Trump, Bolsonaro aims to put more of his own people onto the Supreme Court by increasing its size. But Fernando Haddad, also trying to claim the centre ground in politics, opened his second round campaign by dissociating himself from calls for a Constituent Assembly to discuss fundamental reforms that might resolve the apparent contradiction between the already approved constitutional amendment that capped public spending for twenty years and other clauses of Brazil’s post-dictatorship Magna Carta.

Bolsonaro has also made efforts to paint himself as a leader who will work to heal the wounds of Brazil’s polarised society, governing in the interests of the country, and denies the misogyny, racism and homophobia of which he has been so widely impugned on the basis of a host of notorious past statements. Yet whatever he says, it is a fact that his movement’s political strategy has exacerbated a polarisation that can even divide families. Since the polls closed on Sunday, self-declared Bolsonaro supporters have committed a number of acts of violence. These include the stabbing to death of a pro-PT capoeira master, Moa do Katende, in Salvador, attacks on students for wearing Landless Movement t-shirts, discursive and physical aggressions against journalists, and even verbal abuse of the sister of assassinated Marielle Franco by a group of men wearing the yellow t-shirts of the Bolsonaro camp. LGBT people, frequent past victims of violent homophobic attacks, are increasingly apprehensive in the light of the banalisation of violence that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has encouraged. People who vote for Bolsonaro do not necessarily share his views about gender and sexual preference, but when interviewed they often argue that his statements have been taken out of context or exaggerated, and that the violence of his language is just part of the normal process of political debate. His supporters also often praise him for saying things that political correctness impedes others from saying and for being more honest and transparent than other politicians. Bolsonaro himself has responded to questions about whether he feels any responsibility for the violence his rhetoric might have provoked by saying that he does not, since he has “never done harm to anyone” personally, and cannot control all the individuals who choose to identify with his cause, presenting himself as a victim of violence that must have been sponsored by the PT, and the PT as responsible for polarising the country. This is conspicuously not a call for ultra-right violence and aggression to cease, a call which would be somewhat late in the day anyway given the passions that Bolsonaro has worked so hard to excite.

The current polarisation of Brazilian society is clearly not something that can be explained simply in terms of the rise of a new ultra-right political movement. The situation is rooted in legacies of history, and especially legacies that represent failures. One is the failure to address the crimes committed under the dictatorship in an adequate way, and reform military and police institutions that are enduringly configured by the authoritarian past. Another is failure to transcend the enduring legacies of slavery, in terms of both the shaping of social relations (and social resentment) and the economic behaviour and political preferences of the country’s social elites. Polarisation is rooted in a social structure that fourteen years of PT rule did not do enough to transform, simply because democratic PT government were obliged to make many compromises simply in order to govern and accomplish what they did succeed in accomplishing in order to diminish Brazil’s grotesque inequalities. If Fernando Haddad is to occupy the presidency, he will need to make his own compromises with capital and rival political forces, which may include distancing himself from Lula, but he must offer an economic strategy that will convince workers as well as capitalists that there is a relatively safe as well as more humane alternative to ultra-neoliberal prescriptions. Yet even if Haddad does win the second round, the likely effectiveness of a new PT government under existing institutional and political constraints must, as I stressed earlier, remain in question given the polarisation that the coup and hate politics fuelled rhetoric have unleashed.

To conclude. Whatever its result, the presidential election is unlikely to remove the polarisation, fear and hate that has been generated in the short to medium term. It seems extremely unlikely that, whatever its leader now says, an ultra-right movement that advocates what Bolsonaro advocates will pacify the country, but a new PT government may not be able to do that either. Even taking Bolsonaro at his word that he and his followers are not misogynist, homophobic or racist, which remains something of a leap on the basis of what many of his followers do as well as what they say, there are many other areas in which we can conclude with some certainty that a Bolsonaro victory would be catastrophically bad. It would be bad for efforts to tackle climate change, avoiding an environment poisoned by agro-toxins and damaged by unrestrained capitalist land-grabbing, it would be bad for indigenous people and quilombolas, and it would be bad for the urban poor, whose lives will be made more miserable by intensification of an approach to public security that serves only to produce yet more crime and violence, and by economic policies that have always served to heighten precarity and inequality. Culture, museums, the Arts, scientific research and academic freedoms are unlikely to thrive under an ultra-right government either. A very large number of Brazilians share this diagnosis, which provides a strong basis for one last push to stop Bolsonaro becoming president. But it is necessary to recognise that the advance of the ultra-right has gone an uncomfortable distance already, that the centre-right political forces that collaborated to oust Dilma Rousseff must share some responsibility for today’s bitter harvest of fear and hate, and that the capitalist interests behind the 2016 coup (in Brazil and the USA) are now perfectly happy with the alternative presented by “the thing”, particularly with the military standing only a short distance behind him and the judges constantly on call to legitimate judicial and constitutional states of exception.