Brazil’s Anti-Politics Election

The soft coup in 2016, an unending economic crisis, and deep disillusionment among voters have led to a volatile and fragmented election in Brazil.

Jair Bolsonaro at a campaign event. Wikimedia Commons

Brazil’s general election this October presents a fragmented, polarized, and corrupted political landscape. This is a consequence of five turbulent years defined by mass protests, severe recession, and a soft coup in which the establishment broke with the 1988 post-dictatorship settlement to oust the Workers’ Party (PT) from power.

The candidate leading the polls is the center-left former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The problem is that he is in prison for corruption charges stemming from the infamous Lava Jato investigation. Following a court ruling on September 5, Lula is now ineligible to run, thanks to the “Clean Slate” law he himself introduced. With the establishment center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) at historic lows, and a far-right challenger picking up the latter’s slack, the presidential contest is more open than ever.

The challenger, Jair Bolsonaro, was stabbed at a campaign rally yesterday by a man claiming he was “fulfilling an order from God.” Bolsonaro’s running mate, retired Army General Hamilton Mourão, incorrectly argued the attacker was a PT militant, playing on the anti-PT sentiment of his base. The attack escalates levels of political violence this year, following an incident in which shots were fired at Lula’s caravan in March, and the killing of left-wing Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco in the same month.

A record thirteen candidates are registered to contest the presidency. Brazil has thirty-five political parties but far fewer candidates, as parties band together in big alliances. The field is so divided that only two candidates consistently poll double figures: the ineligible Lula (PT), averaging around 35 percent and the far-right Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) averaging 20 percent. In polls without Lula, any two front-runners amount to only 30 percent. Meanwhile, all leading candidates have rejection rates over 50 percent; nearly half of voters intend to vote blank/null or are undecided. Disillusionment with democracy is the dominant force.

Over the last two decades, Brazil’s presidential elections had settled into a center-left/center-right alternation between the PT and the PSDB. This time, the scenario is influenced by mutually compounding crises. There is the economic crisis: despite self-serving pronouncements to the effect that Brazil is on the up, for the majority of Brazilians, the country remains locked in a recession.

The official unemployment figures show a rate of 12.4 percent. This masks a 25 percent under-utilization rate. 4.8 million Brazilians have given up searching for work — equivalent to the entirety of Ireland. Nearly one-quarter of those looking have been searching for two years. And then there is longer-term precarization: 64 percent of workers admit to doing odd jobs to make ends meet, up from 57 percent last year.

Brazilian politics has been shaken by a general crisis of representation. Mass demonstrations erupted in June 2013, prior to the economic downturn. They initially protested transport fare rises, but quickly broadened out to a range of democratic demands around public services and beyond. For all that this shook centrist business-as-usual politics, it only foreshadowed a greater disenchantment. Gradually the protests were channeled rightwards to focus narrowly on corruption, and in particular on the PT.

A combination of powerful interests impeached Rousseff in early 2016, without legal basis. It was the main act of a “soft coup” that is better understood as a process than an event. It began with mass right-wing anti-PT protests in 2015 (under the banner of “anti-corruption”), and continued through to a series of swinging neoliberal counter-reforms carried out by Michel Temer’s unelected successor government. Socially and politically, this created a new pole of virulent antipetismo (anti-PT sentiment), the best representative of which is Bolsonaro; the other pole remains grouped around the Workers Party.

The biggest question mark remains the PT’s ability to convince voters to support Lula’s chosen replacement, former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad and his running mate Manuela D’Ávila of the moderate-left Communist Party of Brazil. Although the party will still make a last-ditch special appeal to the Supreme Court and to the UN’s Human Rights Committee, the reality is that Lula will not be president. However, the longer Lula’s name remains in the game, according to PT logic, the better the chance Haddad will have.

Anti-Corruption as Anti-Politics

The economy and corruption are the electorate’s big concerns. Nine out of ten federal deputies currently under investigation are standing for re-election. Despite vast swathes of Congress being under investigation, only 6 percent of sitting deputies in the lower house will not stand again. This is partly due to a desire to retain congressional immunity. But it’s also based on an expectation that high rejection levels and low turnout (voting is mandatory, but the fine is equivalent to only one US dollar; many will also nullify their votes or vote blank) will lead to a great many sitting representatives being reelected.

However, candidates and the media have disproportionately focused on corruption at the expense of the economy. This allows for candidates to grandstand, while they avoid difficult questions about jobs and growth. Accusations and recriminations fly, irrespective of whether the wielder of the charge is under suspicion themselves. The dominant anticorruption discourse puts into question the state’s capacity to manage the economy fairly and effectively. This delegitimation of state action is to the benefit of the neoliberal right.

The consequence is that Congress will either retain or further entrench its oligarchical character; and Brazil will likely end up with a president rejected by an absolute majority of the electorate. This, just when so many are desperate for change. As corruption becomes the meta-theme through which all other questions are discussed — be it poverty, the budget deficit, crime, or the health service — it becomes an alias for mistrust as such. Here is one of the ironies of anticorruption politics: the disenchantment can lead to taking the popular foot off the democratic gas pedal, augmenting the distance between politics and people.

The “Establishment”

One testament to Brazil’s political polarization, fragmentation, and high rates of rejection is the fate so far of Geraldo Alckmin. A presidential runner-up in 2006, the governor of Brazil’s richest and most populous state, and a founder of Brazil’s main center-right party, he is the ultimate insider. Yet despite being big business’ favored candidate, he lags in the polls.

The PSDB supported the coup, expecting it to return the party to power in this election. In an anti-establishment climate, Alckmin only musters 7 percent in the polls. President Temer — ineligible to run and possibly the least popular leader in the history of recorded polling, with a 2 percent approval rating — recently gave Alckmin a kiss of death by declaring him the government’s candidate. This is particularly odd as Temer’s party, the oligarchical Brazilian Democracy Party (MDB), has its own candidate in Henrique Meirelles — Temer’s own finance minister!

Alckmin faces a tricky scenario. He needs to hold off Bolsonaro to his right. The campaign’s failure to lift off has also drawn in other center-right challengers, including Meirelles (MDB; polling 1 percent) and Álvaro Dias (Podemos; polling 6 percent), the latter distinguished only by being a strong Lava Jato supporter and by promising to refound the republic if elected.

At the same time, Alckmin must win over voters in the center. In his favor, Alckmin has wrapped up a deal with the “Big Center” parties (a grouping of non-ideological cartel parties, mostly of the Right) which guarantees him the largest share of free TV time of any of the candidates. It is still to be seen what importance TV now has in a country in which social media is widely used to disseminate political communications — Whatsapp has 120 million users in the country. Regardless, the PSDB party machine remains formidable, if riven by internal divisions.

The Scene on the Left

The PSDB’s repeated vanquishers find themselves in an even more complex situation. The Superior Electoral Tribunal ruled four-to-one against Lula’s candidature, with the dissenting judge citing the UN’s request for Lula not to be disqualified. Lula’s only remaining chance is a special appeal to the Supreme Court where, should the case fall to a favorable judge, the court may grant an injunction.

These legal delaying tactics, should they be extended long enough, may result in electoral literature and electronic ballots that feature Lula as the PT’s candidate. This may be necessary as Haddad has consistently polled in the single digits. However, Lula has been rising in the polls recently; some polls indicate that two-thirds or more of Lula’s voters would transfer to Haddad; and Haddad rose to 15 percent in a recent poll when explicitly labeled as “supported by Lula.”

Leaving Lula on the ballot as long as possible is also intended to help the party’s congressional candidates. This comes at the cost of building up Haddad’s profile. He remains little known outside of São Paulo and has yet to take part in televised presidential debates while he remains merely the VP candidate. The party retains its strong base in the poor northeast, but will lose heavily in the southeast. Haddad’s eventual VP, Manuela D’Ávila, has her base in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, which may come in handy, as some projections show PT must win there to stand a chance.

The party’s strategy risks short-term electoral gain for long-term weakness and fragmentation. Firstly, it risks putting forward a potentially weak candidate in Haddad, who has not had the time to establish himself. Haddad is a former academic and, at heart, a technocrat; he lacks connections to a popular base, and has yet to demonstrate the political experience or charisma required to build alliances.

The PT would thus be setting up a weak president. The impeached Dilma Rousseff was groomed over a two-year period as Lula’s successor for the 2010 elections, and still had a hard time during the first round of the elections, though she was eventually victorious in the second round. Haddad will have a matter of weeks.

Secondly, an eventual Haddad presidency will face a hostile and uncooperative congress. Rousseff won with a wide coalition, including the MDB. It allowed her to govern, though also proved her downfall when her erstwhile allies rebelled. The Workers Party coalition is much smaller at the federal level this time around. Straightened economic times and a constitutionally inscribed austerity amendment means room for maneuver is limited.

The party’s model of governance, dubbed Lulismo, combined macroeconomic orthodoxy and neo-developmentalist policies, with class conciliation as the principal mode of political operation. Though effective from 2003 to 2010, it won’t work this time around; a more radical approach is called for, in which established interests are confronted, not sought out as potential allies.

Thirdly, and most significantly, Lula is the glue that holds the party together and provides its north star. We are already seeing the outlines of a post-Lula party. It lacks national cohesion. The party’s modus operandi over the past decades was that state parties would sew up alliances with various parties on the political spectrum (including, latterly, those that backed the coup). But Lula could pull it all together; what happens without him?

The party would also lack programmatic coherence. The Lula message is, fundamentally, to revert to the status quo ante, to before the parliamentary coup. Revoking Temer’s worst neoliberal counter-reforms is an essential start, but nothing more. A program for full employment, for political reform, for productive investment and to reverse deindustrialization — all these and many more were questions that needed answering, coup or no coup. In orienting its strategy around Lula as a charismatic, unifying figure, the party has made itself dependent on him as a person; it may, tragically, be the party’s downfall.

The PT’s strategy in the presidential election has therefore been to exclude the main center-left challenger, Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT). He polls in the 7-12 percent range, depending on whether the scenario includes Lula. Ciro failed to reach an accord with the Big Center, and the PT leaned heavily on the centrist Brazilian Socialist Party to similarly reject an alliance with Ciro’s PDT, thereby isolating him.

In terms of big picture economic policy, there isn’t a great deal to differentiate the PT and PDT programs, even if the weaker PDT draws on a top-down bourgeois, developmentalist tradition, while PT retains the backing of the organized working class and social movements from which it emerged. Nevertheless, this apparent similarity leads some on the center-left to dream of combined PT/PDT ticket of Ciro and Haddad.

But Lula’s strategy is for PT to retain supremacy of that end of the spectrum. The calculation is that the Left’s base is more solid than the Right’s, so it is better to focus on hegmonizing this vote. Reaching beyond it will be difficult in 2018: antipetismo affects sections of the working and lower-middle class who might otherwise vote PT.

Meanwhile, the radical left candidacy of Guilherme Boulos (Party of Socialism and Freedom, PSOL), leader of the homeless workers movement (MTST), and his indigenous activist running mate Sonia Guajajara, hovers at 1 percent of voting intentions and the party has minimal free airtime. This is despite some very strong performances in televised debates so far in which Boulos has come across forcefully, with intelligent, informed, and energetic showings.

The intention, though, was for Boulos to give PSOL a much better poll performance; thus far it has been a disappointment. But the secondary goal was to approximate the MTST and the party, allowing it a reach beyond its base in the radical petit bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. In any case, the only way Boulos could have had a chance of success would have been for Lula to throw his support behind the PSOL candidate, rather than one from his own party.

A New Polarization

The election’s main polarization, then, is between the PT and Bolsonaro. To some it may look like a fight between two extremes. Bolsonaro poses as an authoritarian outsider who will wash the scum away — both politicians and criminals. Lula meanwhile would be a left-wing populist, standing for the poor against an illegitimate republic.

This would be a serious mischaracterization. Bolsonaro represents merely the most reactionary face of a backwards elite. A former economic nationalist, he is a recent convert to rabid free-market liberalism, favoring privatizations, lower taxes, and central bank autonomy. His kill-the-poor law and order proposals are merely an extension of existing repressive relations between the state and poorer Brazilians.

Lula, for his part, is a centrist, whatever his hysterical right-wing critics might say. This is not so much a question of policy: fundamentally, his program is the realization of the rights promised by Brazil’s 1988 constitution, his modus operandi in government one of accommodation and moderation. Only Brazil’s rightward drift has made him appear in any way radical. His dauphin’s victory represents a hope to arrest the horrific turn in Brazil, at least in the immediate term.

Social media accentuates this dynamic. One analysis of online economic discussion shows that 58 percent of activity circles around these poles, a greater polar concentration than in 2014, around Rousseff and the center-right Aécio Neves. What we have, then, is a radicalization of the Right. While the Left highlights the decline in Brazil since the coup — in terms of rights, inequality, social investment — the Right denounces the political elite and state bureaucracy as corrupt. The solution: privatization, a smaller role for the state in the economy, and a focus on public security.

Here is the denouement of the wave of right-wing “anticorruption” protests: a deep skepticism of the capacity of the state to do anything, and consequent demands for authoritarian solutions. The irony of this form of anti-politics is believing the state can successfully police or exterminate people, but not develop society.

While some media will therefore finger Bolsonaro as Brazil’s Trump, this is misleading. Bolsonaro is a far more traditional authoritarian conservative of the semi-periphery, more akin to the Philippines’ Duterte, than the postmodern Trump. It is only in Bolsonaro’s social media popularity among white, upper-middle class youth (dubbed “Bolsominions”) that he resembles Trump. Instead, the new Brazilian right is infused with a latter-day anticommunist hysteria. These forces fixate on the idea that the PT somehow illegitimately inserted itself in, or took over, the state. The reactionary demand is to take back what is “rightfully” theirs through strong neoliberal stances.

Stumbling On?

The consequence is that the “moderate” center-right has lost hegemony of its camp. In the coup, it broke with democratic norms it supposedly upholds. Through this process, and due to ensuing political chaos, the authoritarian far-right of Bolsonaro was empowered. The coup, economic crisis, anti-political climate, and weakening of the state’s steering capacity has led to a fragmentation of the electoral field.

In spite of all this, the PT retains a real chance of winning the presidency, despite its lack of programmatic vigor — but only if Lula manages to transfer his votes efficiently to Haddad. For many, it represents a return to democratic normality.

But whoever forms a government will rule over a society which is exhausted by economic recession and severely disenchanted politically. This republic may stumble on, but no force is currently capable of reinvigorating the country’s present institutions and structures, let alone changing them radically.