ELECTION PREVIEW OP-ED
Bolsonaro could be on his way out as Brazilians head to the polls — unless there’s a coup
Brazil seems to be on the verge of voting out its extreme-right president Jair Bolsonaro in this Sunday’s first-round election. His opponent is former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Just over a decade ago, Brazil seemed to have finally “taken off”, appearing on the verge of fulfilling its potential as “the country of the future”.
However, much like South Africa, the past decade has seen declining living standards, unending corruption scandals, dramatic rises in the cost of living, unemployment, inflation and attacks on the very fabric of its democracy. Brazil is a country that went in only a few short years from being generally respected, if not admired, to an international pariah state.
Now, the country is on the verge of voting out its extreme-right president Jair Bolsonaro in this Sunday’s first-round election. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the man set to win, is a familiar figure. He served two terms and went from leaving office in 2010 with a historic approval rate of 84% to spending close to two years in prison on trumped-up corruption charges that have since been struck down by the country’s Supreme Court.
In a historic comeback, Lula now leads all the polls by double digits and stands a more than a decent chance of winning a first-round electoral victory.
That is, if the coup that Bolsonaro has been threatening since he arrived in office does not take place or fails. Bolsonaro is currently, with the tacit and explicit help of his supporters in the military and police, questioning the validity of Brazil’s internationally heralded electoral system.
The US Senate has issued strong statements in support of Brazilian democracy in a rare break from the country’s historic support for coups in the region. This also follows the 2016 “congressional coup” that removed Dilma Rousseff from office as Brazil’s president and helped usher in the disaster the country finds itself in.
If the election does indeed go to a second round, the attacks on democracy, coup threats, disinformation and political violence will only intensify, as Bolsonaro will do all he can to cling to power, although his campaign has been rather low-energy of late, and he has even suggested he will leave the country if Lula wins (and to avoid the many criminal charges awaiting him).
It was easy to predict that Bolsonaro’s presidency would prove an utter disaster, not only for Brazil, but for the world, given the environmental crimes that occurred on his watch.
This was a man who made no secret of his admiration for the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985, a man who kept the memoir of the regime’s most notorious torturer on his bedside table, called for the extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals and was known for his gross attacks on women, black Brazilians, leftists, gays and pretty much everyone else. However, his presidency may have proven worse than anyone could have predicted.
Bolsonaro will go down as the president who presided over the deliberate mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths while pushing snake oil cures for his cronies’ profit.
The president who let the Amazon, as well as Brazil’s other great biome, Pantanal, burn, for the benefit of illegal mining mafias, cattle barons and other vulture capitalists.
The president who attempted to dismantle the core institutes of the modern Brazilian state, including the Ministry of Labour (which he closed shortly after taking office), public education, science and research and God knows what else.
The damage inflicted on Brazil’s democratic institutions and key parts of its fragile welfare state will only become apparent after he leaves office.
Bolsonaro, for the duration of his term, proved totally uninterested in actually governing Brazil, leading many to term his rule a form of “disgovernment”, in the sense that his main priority was to dismantle the modern Brazilian state for the benefit of corrupt mafia politicians and politically connected businessmen, as well as pursuing the type of pro-gun policies that are the wet dreams of Second Amendment fanatics in the US.
To achieve this task, he brought with him a menagerie of grotesqueries into his Cabinet, from Flat-Earthers to deranged Trump fans and more military officers than served during the height of the dictatorship.
Rather than at least pretend to be a statesman, Bolsonaro consistently manufactured crises throughout his presidency; he maintained a well-funded and sinister disinformation network run by possibly his most deranged son, Rio de Janeiro city councillor Carlos Bolsonaro aka 02; openly mobilised his supporters towards a coup attempt; called for Workers’ Party members to be machine-gunned; threatened to send tanks to shut down the Supreme Court; and closed down the corrupt anti-corruption investigation Lava Jato (Car Wash) that brought him to power, while gutting many other of Brazil’s core accountability institutions.
A combination of slave-catcher and drunken uncle
Bolsonaro represents a darker Brazilian archetype than the cordial man described by the great Brazilian intellectual Sérgio Buarque de Holanda.
He is the truculent man, a combination of the slave-catcher, the “capitão do mato” (the goon charged with keeping slaves in their place), and the drunken uncle at the bar or churrasco (Brazil’s version of the braai) who voices what is taboo to say in public about the blacks, the feminists, the indigenous, the criminals and other such things that should be familiar to South Africans. The net effect has been to legitimise extremist sentiments up to the point of political violence.
Moreover, enabled by the corrupt disgraced ex-judge Sergio Moro — currently running for Senate despite a judgment barring his candidacy — he rode an anti-corruption wave to power, promising to do away with “the old politics” and evils committed by Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT); but from the get-go, Bolsonaro and his large and slow-witted brood of politicians’ sons have been plagued by corruption scandals stemming from their deep ties to the paramilitary mafias that rule much of Rio de Janeiro, including the infamous murder of the black socialist city councillor Marielle Franco, to buying 55 properties in cash, and all the petty corruption schemes that are the lot of the “lower clergy” of Congress, where Bolsonaro spent most of his political career.
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Under political pressure and facing numerous criminal investigations, as well as close to 200 impeachment requests at the last check, Bolsonaro allied himself with the living embodiment of the old patronage pork barrel politics that has defined Brazil — the Centrão (Big Centre), an array of “physiological parties” that exist simply to trade their votes in Congress for public funds.
One of the major differences between Brazil and South Africa is that the South American country has a regionalised and multipolar ruling class, meaning that negotiations and compacts to rule are conducted between factions inside and outside Congress, often through “corruption”, rather than behind the closed doors of the ANC. This also provides some incentive to actually deliver something to your constituency to justify looting from public procurement.
In effect, Bolsonaro’s government has only survived this long thanks to the large-scale bribery of the most venal elements of the country’s political class, who have more or less run the country for the past few years along with the military. Bolsonaro is hardly the maverick anti-corruption outsider “mito” (legend), as his supporters call him. The other major support base for Brazil’s government has been the country’s powerful evangelical churches.
And so, South Africans should beware of anti-corruption, moralist, xenophobic politicians emerging from the degeneration and decline of the ANC.
Despite their self-mythology as the adults in the room, Bolsonaro’s misdeeds have been enabled by a repoliticised military. It was handed responsibility for environmental protection and the country’s response to the pandemic with disastrous results.
Rather than a moderate check on Bolsonaro’s worst instincts, the military has proved to be an ideological fellow traveller and is unlikely to leave the political arena anytime soon, even if Bolsonaro is defeated. The same can be said of the more deranged elements of Brazil’s congress that have been elected over the past few years, ranging from gospel singers to social media celebrities who boast about their kill count on YouTube.
Bolsonaro’s campaign has mixed Trumpian disinformation about election fraud with his trademark anti-communism and fearmongering, and the type of patronage-based “populism” he was supposedly elected to do away with.
Led by his Chicago Boy free-market evangelical Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro has promised to increase poverty relief payments and to remove import taxes on whey-based protein supplements. He wheeled out football star Neymar to compete with Lula’s celebrity supporters, who include legendary musicians such as Caetano Veloso, modern pop stars like Anitta and even the US actor Mark Ruffalo.
However, Bolsonaro is still a president under whose rule life has become more expensive, nastier and brutish. Many of the gains in poverty alleviation and public education achieved in Brazil over the past few decades have been undone.
Lula, for all the media attacks and corruption furies surrounding him, remains a popular politician and a tested leader, under whom Brazilians remember better times, meat on the table, a growing economy and the sense that things were getting better.
He is also, contrary to what some in the international press would say, no dangerous radical “populist”. The country’s first working-class president remains the most sophisticated political mind in Brazil, capable of working across the aisle, winning over ideological enemies, a former trade unionist who can talk to business, and an uneducated, self-taught man who earned the respect of international leaders.
His former rival, the centre-right ex-governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, is his running mate. His main campaign proposal, beyond protecting democracy, is to once again use the state to develop the country, attract investment and redistribute money to the country’s poor.
I will return to Lula’s record in power in future articles, but the question that remains is whether he can govern a polarised and damaged country that has moved radically to the right over the past decade, a country in which there are thousands of well-armed fanatical supporters, including many in the police and military who would like to continue their “crusade” even if Bolsonaro falls.
This can be seen in the many political killings directed against PT supporters in the run-up to the election. In one incident, in the northeastern state of Ceara, a man walked into a bar and shouted, “Who here is a Lula voter?” He stabbed to death the man who responded: “I am.”
So far, the gap in the polls indicates that Bolsonaro probably does not have the support to pull off a successful coup and there are reports that his supporters, even including Cabinet ministers, are reaching out to Lula and the PT, saying they are prepared to do business and it was never personal.
There are a number of lessons for South Africa from Brazil’s experience, including what anti-corruption means beyond moral posturing, which I will expand on in future articles.
I will leave readers with an increasingly rare piece of hope during these rather dark times. If Brazil, a country plagued by mafia politics, mass criminality, a state-driven attack on democracy and the very essence of the state itself, can save its democracy, South Africans can too. DM
Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University, and a Jacobin and Africa is a Country contributing editor.