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, the last decade has seen declining living standards, unending corruption scandals, unemployment, inflation, dramatic rises in the cost of living, 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 today’s first-round election. Former president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, the man set to win, is a familiar figure. After serving two terms, he went from leaving office in 2010 with a historic approval rating of 84 percent to spending nearly 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 the latest polling has him within the margin of error to win a first-round victory.
This predicted victory of course presumes that the coup that Bolsonaro has been threatening since he arrived in office either 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. US Senators — led by Bernie Sanders — have issued strong statements in support of Brazilian democracy, in a rare break from the United States’ historic support for coups in the region. This also follows Brazil’s 2016 “congressional coup” that removed then president Dilma Rousseff from office, ushering in the historic crisis that the country finds itself in today.
Unlike in 2018, when Bolsonaro won the presidency, the energy on the streets is with Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT). PT supporters can venture outside with an optimistic smile on their face rather than the look of fear or concern that was visible in the last election. Indeed, during the campaign finale in São Paulo this Saturday, Geraldo Alckmin — formerly the governor of São Paulo and Lula’s center-right rival, now the latter’s running mate — displayed more visible joy than during any other moment in his long political life. This is to say, the Brazilian establishment that brought Bolsonaro to power is increasingly counting on a Lula victory.
Bolsonaro has been more like “low-energy” Jeb Bush than the fiery outsider who won the 2018 election. This is a natural consequence of actually wielding authority — it is harder to play the outsider card after four years in office. Anti-politics has less power when mobilized by an elected president.
If the election does indeed go to a second round, the attacks on democracy, coup threats, disinformation, and political violence will only intensify. Bolsonaro will utilize his power to disrupt the democratic process and attempt to gain concessions to protect himself and his family from criminal prosecution.
It was relatively easy to predict that Bolsonaro’s presidency would prove an utter disaster not only for the country but for the world, given the environmental crimes inflicted under his watch. Bolsonaro is also a man who made no secret of his admiration for the country’s brutal military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to1985; a man who kept the memoir of the regime’s most notorious torturer on his bedside table; a man famous for advocating extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals, and for repulsive verbal attacks on women, black Brazilians, leftists, LGBT people, and many others. Despite this, his presidency may have proven worse than anyone could have realized.
Bolsonaro will go down as the president who presided over a deliberate mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, causing hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths while he pushed snake oil cures for his cronies’ profit. The president who let the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands (Brazil’s other great biome) burn, for the benefit of illegal mining mafias, cattle barons, and other vulture capitalists. The president who attempted to dismantle the core institutions of the modern Brazilian state, including the Ministry of Labor (which he closed shortly after taking office), public education, government-backed science and research, and much more. The damage inflicted on Brazil’s democratic institutions and key parts of its fragile welfare state will only become apparent after he leaves office.
For the duration of his term, Bolsonaro proved totally uninterested in actually governing Brazil, leading many to term his rule a form of “disgovernment,” meaning his main priority was to gut government institutions for the benefit of corrupt mafia politicians and politically connected businessmen. At the same time, he pursued the type of pro-gun policies that are the wet dreams of Second Amendment fanatics in the United States. To achieve this task, he brought with him a menagerie of grotesqueries into his cabinet — from flat-earthers to deranged Donald Trump fans to more military officers than served during the height of the dictatorship. Bolsonaro has again and again shown himself to be incapable of performing the essential task of coalition management necessary to at least attempt to govern Brazil.
Rather than even pretending to be a statesman, Bolsonaro consistently manufactured crises throughout his presidency; maintained a well-funded and sinister disinformation network run by his possibly most deranged son, Rio de Janeiro city councilor Carlos Bolsonaro; openly mobilized his supporters towards a coup attempt; called for PT members to be machine-gunned; threatened to send tanks to shut down the Supreme Court; closed down the corrupt anti-corruption investigation Lava Jato (Car Wash) that brought him to power while slashing Brazil’s core accountability institutions.
Bolsonaro represents a darker Brazilian archetype than the “cordial man” described by the great Brazilian intellectual Sérgio Buarque de Holenda. Bolsonaro is the “truculent man”: a combination of the slavecatcher, the capitão do mato (the goon charged with keeping slaves in their place), and the drunk uncle at the bar or churrasco who voices what is taboo to say in public about the blacks, the feminists, the indigenous, the criminals, and so on. The net effect has been to legitimize extremist sentiments up to the point of political violence — a trend that will outlast Bolsonaro’s own political career.
Enabled by the corrupt and disgraced ex-judge Sergio Moro — currently running for Senate despite a judgment barring his candidacy — Bolsonaro 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 politician sons have been plagued by corruption scandals stemming from their deep ties to the paramilitary mafias that rule much of Rio de Janeiro. Such scandals include the infamous murder of the black socialist city councilor Marielle Franco, the cash purchase of fifty-five properties, and all the petty corruption schemes that are the lot of the “lower clergy” of Congress, where Bolsonaro spent most of his political career.
This was all on display in the final televised debate of the presidential election, in which Lula was the subject of attack rather than Bolsonaro. Institutionalized anti-PT sentiment is so deeply ingrained in the media that it is unable to process that Lula now represents a defense of the republic rather than a radical outsider. The farcical nature of the debate was most evident in the presence of a fraudulent and incoherent orthodox priest planted to back up Bolsonaro and smear Lula; this stunt was given a disproportionate amount of airtime despite the almost universal knowledge of the fraud that was taking place.
Under political pressure and facing numerous criminal investigations, as well as close to two hundred 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 center), an array of misleadingly named, “physiological parties” that exist simply to trade their votes in Congress for public funds.
In effect, Bolsonaro’s government has only survived this long thanks to large-scale bribery at the epicenter of the most venal elements of the country’s political class, who, alongside the military, have more or less run the country for the last few years. He is hardly the maverick anti-corruption outsider — the mito (legend) — that his supporters claim him to be.
Despite its self-mythology as a force representing the proverbial adults in the room, a repoliticized military has enabled Bolsonaro’s misdeeds. The armed forces were handed responsibility for environmental protection and the country’s pandemic response, with disastrous results. Rather than acting as a moderate check on Bolsonaro’s worst instincts, the military has proven to be a group of ideological fellow travelers, 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 last few years, ranging from gospel singers to social media celebrities who boast about their kill counts on YouTube.
Bolsonaro’s campaign has mixed Trumpian disinformation about election fraud with his own trademark anti-communism and fearmongering, as well as 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 boasted of increasing poverty relief payments and removing import taxes on whey-based protein supplements, and has wheeled out the soccer player Neymar da Silva Santos at the last minute to compete with Lula’s famous supporters, who include celebrities ranging from legendary musicians like Caetano Veloso to modern popstars like Anitta and even actor Mark Ruffalo.
Under Bolsonaro’s rule life has become more expensive, nastier, and more brutish. Much of the gains in poverty alleviation and public education achieved in Brazil over the last few decades have been undone. Lula, despite 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.
Lula — contrary to what some in the international press would say — is also no dangerous radical “populist.” The country’s first working-class president remains the most sophisticated political mind in Brazil. He is capable of working across the aisle and winning over ideological enemies; he is a former trade unionist who can talk to business; he is an uneducated, self-taught man who has earned the respect of international leaders. Lula is also campaigning with his former rival Alckmin as 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 income to the country’s poor.
The question that remains is if Lula can actually govern a polarized and damaged country that has moved radically to the right over the last decade, where there are thousands of well-armed fanatical Bolsonaro 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 numerous political killings directed against PT supporters in the run-up to the election. In one incident in the northeastern state of Ceará, a man walked into a bar and shouted, “Who here is a Lula voter?”, subsequently stabbing to death a man who responded, “I am.”
So far, polling indicates that Bolsonaro probably does not have the support to pull off a successful coup, and there are reports that his supporters — including cabinet ministers — are reaching out to Lula and the PT saying they are prepared to do business.
While this story is by no means over, and while I will only celebrate once the results are confirmed, the lesson for those outside of Brazil (beyond the fact that Lula has made his way from being a radical threat to a pillar of the establishment to the last-gasp defense of Brazil’s new republic) is that the hard work of building and sustaining a working-class base over decades can survive even frontal attacks. Furthermore, part of the political task of the current moment is not necessarily to change the world but to defend the gains of past struggles won with blood in order to defend the very possibility of a future to win.