On October 28, Brazilians face an unenviable choice. They can choose to preserve the status quo in the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), a party of leftist ideals that has failed to live up to its promises and is currently mired in a damning corruption scandal. Or, they can—and probably will—elect Jair Bolsonaro, an ultra-right populist who embraces racism and worships the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The rise of Bolsonaro signals a return to older times, with simple solutions to complex problems in a polarizing time where more and more Brazilians are lashing out. With national politics devolving from telenovela to farce, the election looms as a referendum on democracy in South America: flawed, fragile, reactionary, and, in the scope of Brazilian history, the exception.
Brazil is reeling from the worst recession in its history, following a wave of high-profile corruption scandals. Operation Lava Jato—initially a minor money laundering investigation—exposed a breadcrumb trail of corruption where high-ranking officials from various political parties accepted bribes from construction conglomerate Odebrecht and state-owned oil enterprise Petrobras. The entire political structure was revealed for what it is: a paper cathedral built on kickbacks and personal fortunes in a system where greasing elbows for multi-partisan support was already the norm. While several parties within Brazil’s multiparty system were implicated, the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) committed particularly egregious acts of corruption, tarnishing their rosy legacy. In power from 2003 to 2016, the PT had led the vanguard of leftist (or “pink tide”) Latin American governments. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the PT’s scion, oversaw the expansion of various social welfare programs and an economic boom, where gross national product ballooned by almost 10 percent every year.
Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, was less fortunate: the economy nosedived after the corruption was exposed, shattering investors’ faith in the Brazilian economy. Dilma, incompetent but not directly implicated in the Lava Jato proceedings, was impeached by Congress on shaky legal grounds in what amounted to a soft coup. Dilma’s vice-president and successor, the austerity-obsessed Michel Temer, has proven equally inept—and far more corrupt. For a while, his approval rating was under 5 percent, lower than the inflation rate; unemployment and crime rates since soared. Lula, who planned for another presidential run, now toils in solitary confinement on corruption charges. The entire system is so inefficient that in 2017, a majority of Brazilians even considered a return to military rule, despite the human rights abuses that accompanied the dictatorship since 1964. Faith in Brazil’s present political order has evaporated and pessimism has seized the electorate.
Enter Jair Bolsonaro. At a time when most Brazilian politicians are scrambling to dodge corruption charges, Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, has fashioned himself as an incorruptible political outsider. He stands on the cusp of the Brazilian presidency after a campaign-trail stabbing granted him a a popularity boost—and quasi-martyrdom. A Federal Deputy in Rio de Janeiro for thirty years, Bolsonaro was a fringe character: a militant clown, he was rarely taken seriously by the political elite for his sheer outlandishness. With little to no policymaking to show, Bolsonaro devoted himself to spreading incendiary rhetoric on television, where he attracted an increasingly loyal following. A repugnant mixture of homophobia, misogyny, racism, fascism, and apologia for the previous dictatorship form his narrow worldview. His ascendancy is a symptom of the Brazilian people’s frustration with the establishment’s failure to rein in crime, corruption and a broken economy.
These inflammatory comments, once seemingly disqualifying, are now endearing. Escalating reactionary politics have essentially reinstated a bipolar Cold War logic at the expense of centrist politics, which dominated the early years of the post-dictatorship democracy. Fittingly, Bolsonaro’s solution to domestic woes amounts to a thinly-veiled return to the dark days of dictatorship, an era of rampant torture. Bolsonaro has dangerously romanticized the dictatorship and its practices throughout his career. Brazil never had a confrontational public reckoning after the transition to democracy; most military leaders escaped without repercussion. Economic expansion during the 1970s and comparatively lower crime rates have masked gross human rights abuses in the form of hundreds of in Bolsonaro’s modern revisionism.
The Brazilian dictatorship killed and tortured fewer citizens than its neighbors, like Chile and Argentina. This comparative exercise, in part, explains the inability to grapple with the human rights abuses of the regime and punish its offenders, in turn allowing room for revisionist takes. But Bolsonaro has argued that the state did not kill enough political dissidents, even claiming that South American dictators like Chile’s Pinochet and Peru’s Fujimori (both accused of crimes against humanity) did not go far enough. Apologists of the dictatorship maintain that the extrajudicial killings and murders it perpetrated were justified to prevent another Cuban revolution on Brazilian soil. As crime spirals out of control and most middle-class Brazilians feel unsafe just walking outside, this apocalyptic law-and-order rhetoric sounds increasingly comforting.
Bolsonaro has promised the requisite ingredients for a classic banana republic dictatorship. A return to torture, authorized police brutality, and American-inspired open-carry firearm legislation form the cornerstone of his apocalyptic law-and-order posturing. In a blatant nod to Cold War-era Latin American dictatorships, Bolsonaro has even hand-picked his own Friedman-trained Chicago Boy, Paulo Guedes, to handle economic matters. (In a blow to Bolsonaro’s mythic incorruptible image, Guedes is currently facing fraud allegations). Beyond deregulation and privatization of various industries, Bolsonaro intends to withdraw from the Paris Accords and intensify extractive industries in the Amazon, where ranching and soybean monocultures are currently accelerating the extinction of the Amazon Rainforest. Bolsonaro’s vice presidential pick is another strongman: Antônio Hamilton Mourão, a former general who previously supported military intervention during Dilma’s impeachment and “peacekeeping” missions in Venezuela, which in today’s remixed Cold War lingo, has replaced Cuba as the leftist bogeyman.
Bolsonaro’s “shoot-first, questions later” mentality resonates with Brazilians who rightly view the current government as corrupt and useless at curbing crime. Like candidate Donald Trump, voters are either drawn to him and his inflammatory remarks or see him as a sometimes unpalatable but honest alternative to the political establishment. While the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte is probably a closer analogue to a Bolsonaro presidency, the culture war that dominated Trump’s rise to the Oval Office has parallels in Brazil. Internalized Brazilian myths of racial democracy and cordiality are crumbling, exposing deeply ingrained societal problems that Bolsonaro has rerouted so effectively as rage against the establishment.
Part of Bolsonaro’s appeal is his unrivaled investment in social media. As the Brazilian culture war becomes digitized, reactionary politics have translated to a culture of left- and right-wing conspiracy hysteria. With the help of his politician sons, Bolsonaro built an online cult of personality while the PT was too slow to respond. In a country as social media-obsessed as Brazil, this has proven decisive. Fake news, as in the American example, has been distributed through memes and bogus statistics on WhatsApp and Facebook in what is the latest scandal in the presidential race. A week before the election, the respected Folha de S.Paulo reported that Bolsonaro received millions in illegal campaign donations from businesses; these funds were funnelled into fake news and anti-PT memes on WhatsApp. There, Bolsominions— as his most rabid and mobilized followers are nicknamed— have neatly packaged Antipetismo sentiment (an exaggerated “Hillary for Prison” analogue) into motivation for his cause.
For disgruntled Brazilians, Petismo, or loyalty to the PT, has become a scapegoat for economic and social anxieties. Attacks on political correctness are at the forefront of anti-Petismo sentiment. Conservative resentment against affirmative action exists within the Brazilian post-racial mythos, especially after PT initiatives like affirmative action in federal universities. And then, as the epitome of widely internalized fake news, are the overblown fears that Brazil will morph into a dystopian Venezuelan-lookalike, where homosexuality is taught in schools via “gay kits” and rampant crime goes unpunished in the name of political correctness. Brazilians’ justified indignance at a political machine that has embezzled billions of dollars and made a mockery of their nation for 14 years now threatens to spiral out of control. Disgruntled Brazilians are betting that Bolsonaro, with his outsider mythmaking, can somehow overhaul this system and enact order.
Standing between Bolsonaro and the presidency is the PT’s candidate, Fernando Haddad. An expert on Marxist orthodoxy and a one-term mayor of São Paulo, Haddad is Lula’s last-minute successor. Haddad, however, is a different breed of politician than Lula: bookish and bureaucratic, he lacks Lula’s folksy and impassioned oratory. He hopes to promote himself as a safe pair of hands compared to Bolsonaro, but he cannot free himself from the baggage of the disgraced political party whose corruption he must condemn and whose support he nevertheless needs to win. Antipetismo sentiment clouds over Haddad’s concrete policy proposals, compromising his greatest assets on the campaign. Bolsonaro, citing his stabbing recovery, refuses to debate Haddad. The pink tide has receded, leaving Haddad with fewer potential allies in Latin America; Wall Street and its publications, salivating at neoliberal reforms, are backing Bolsonaro to win.
Bolsonaro has electrified voters in ways that Haddad, despite his gains, cannot. The former now leads with 59 percent of the vote, according to Datafolha, the pollster that underestimated his support in the first round of elections. Antipetismo sentiment resonates with a diverse voter bloc: the military (his original base), white upper- and middle-class men, and evangelicals, who are a fast-growing demographic in Brazil. Despite widespread coverage of the #EleNao protests (the Brazilian equivalent of the Women’s March), Bolsonaro is also polling well with low-income Brazilians of color and women. Many Brazilians have subscribed to his demagoguery, peddled as panacea and enshrined on lofty promises. Yet deep-rooted problems rarely have quick fixes. Suggesting otherwise, through loudmouthed promises and collective scapegoating, is textbook populism that rarely relies on substance or policy. If Trump’s rise to power in the United States has shown us anything, quixotic border walls cannot solve ingrained racial resentment and a man who defecates in gilded toilets is not, in fact, the economic champion Appalachian laborers voted in.
Unfortunately, Brazilian democracy is barely thirty years old and significantly more fragile than its American counterpart. Political analyst Peter Hakim claims that, without major party support in Congress, Bolsonaro would emerge a weak and ineffective leader. But to keep his promises, Presidente Bolsonaro—a man of blunderbuss bombast—may very well have to amend the Constitution to something far less democratic to get his way in a fractured, embattled Congress. In this scenario, the Brazilian judiciary must prove that it is completely impartial and ready to defend democracy, flawed as it is.
Brazil is on the verge of joining a laundry list of failed nascent democracies that have flirted with voted-in autocrats: Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, and Venezuela. In Brazil, too, democracy is an historical exception. Bolsonaro is merely the latest recapitulation of a conservative white ruling order in a country. For too long, the post-racial national narrative has long disguised socioeconomic problems that are now bubbling at the surface. A reckoning is arriving; and Brazilians must choose: an imitator autocrat or another PT figurehead. As far-right as Bolsonaro presents himself, he is ultimately a product of the ruling classes’ half-righteous contempt for the PT, offering a return to the dark side of Brazil’s history rather than its salvation.
Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.