In Today’s Election, the Survival of Brazil’s Democracy Is at Stake
Today, Brazilian voters are not just choosing between Bolsonaro and Lula — the far right and the Left — but whether their nation's politics will be authoritarian or democratic.
- Interview by
- Luke Savage
Today, more than one hundred million Brazilians will vote in the second and final round of the country’s presidential election, which pits former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva against extreme-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. In the first round, held earlier this month, Bolsonaro finished more than five points behind Lula and seems poised to become the first Brazilian president ever to lose reelection. Nonetheless, polls have seemed to tighten in recent weeks and many observers expect a close contest today — raising the ominous prospect that Bolsonaro may refuse to concede defeat and attempt to cling to power.
What are the issues at play in Brazil’s historic election? How have the politics of COVID-19 factored in? And what does the future hold for the far-right project of Bolsonarismo, even if the man at its center loses the runoff? To explore these questions, Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with Vincent Bevins — who lived in Brazil from 2010 to 2016 and worked as a correspondent, wrote The Jakarta Method (which came out in 2020), and moved back to São Paulo last year to work on his second book.
To start with the basics: because neither major candidate received over 50 percent of the vote earlier this month, Brazil is going to be voting in the second round of its presidential election on October 30. Before we get to the runoff, can you walk us through what transpired in the first round a bit? The general impression seems to be that Lula somewhat underperformed what some polls suggested was possible. Can you explain the results of the first round and give us your impression of them?
After Lula got out of jail and recovered his political rights — his right to run for president, which he lost after trying unsuccessfully in 2018 to run for president against Bolsonaro the first time — many polls indicated he was going to absolutely trounce Bolsonaro, among other things because Bolsonaro had done such a poor job governing the country, especially during the pandemic. Now, only a couple of those polls suggested that Lula was going to actually clear the 50 percent hurdle necessary to wrap it up in the first round. Some people were hoping for that, though I didn’t myself think it was too likely. Now, he ultimately got 48.5 percent of the vote, which is only a little bit less than the 50 percent he would’ve needed. And if he had gotten that extra 1.5 percent, it would be a really resounding defeat for Bolsonaro. No Brazilian president has ever lost reelection ever since reelection has been allowed in Brazilian democracy.
Still, the result was a little bit less than what the more optimistic parts of the Left were hoping for.
What was more of a surprise was how Bolsonarismo as a political movement outside of Bolsonaro himself did across the country. It did quite well in Congress, especially in the Senate, snatching some key governorships and appearing to be positioned to snatch more. So the polls really underestimated Bolsonarismo’s support more than they overestimated Lula’s.
Can you put Bolsonarismo in context for us? I think there’s a similar problem or complexity at work when we talk about something like Trumpism in that you’re dealing with a political tendency that is very much based around a charismatic figure at its center, and is intimately linked in some ways to their personal affectations and style, but also has a separate life of its own.
I think that Bolsonarismo is more real than Trumpism. It’s a weird and contradictory coalition of forces in Brazilian society that came together as a result of his candidacy in 2018, and could well (though may not necessarily) continue to exist after Bolsonaro himself leaves the presidency and after his family stops being a force in Brazilian politics. What exactly is that strange and contradictory coalition of forces? Essentially, it’s an extreme right movement. Everybody that is a Bolsonarista, I would say, is opposed to democracy or is at least willing to cancel democracy for some kind of a higher purpose.
Bolsonarismo draws upon the support of the security services and people who support them. Evangelical Christians have also become a very important part of what Bolsonarismo is. At the beginning, there was a kind of a neoliberal, hardcore free-market component to Bolsonarismo as well. Paulo Guedes, who is literally a Chicago boy and used to work in Pinochet’s Chile, became finance minister. That support from the upper class, business, and national bourgeoisie is not quite as strong today as it was in 2018. But they were an important part of bringing this coalition together.
There are also the agricultural heartlands of the country, which are now seeming to be quite Bolsonarista. The fact that agriculture has done well under Bolsonaro’s government often has nothing to do with him. But the parts of the agricultural world that want to break laws and burn down even more of the Amazon rainforest than is allowed by current legislation, that want to invade indigenous territories, those people tend to be Bolsonarista just because Bolsonaro says these actions are good. So, it’s clear Bolsonarismo will be in power in some way, at least with a bloc in Congress and in control of state governments, even if Jair Bolsonaro loses and walks out of the presidential palace on January 1.
Outside observers, and by that I mainly mean those in the United States, are I think somewhat bound to see this election through a very particular set of reference points. And perhaps that makes some sense in broad strokes: Bolsonaro having some obvious similarities with Trump, among other things. But Brazil is a huge and complicated country with politics of its own — not just a Portuguese-speaking version of the United States. What would you say are the main issues at play in the election beyond those that most English-speaking media are liable to focus on?
The really simple answer to that question is that Brazil is in a much worse place than it was four years ago — and those Brazilians who can remember Lula’s government remember that things were better. Starvation and extreme poverty have jumped up under Bolsonaro, especially since the pandemic. And that is really what’s driven what I think is the major story of the campaign, which is that for the first time ever a sitting Brazilian president seems poised to lose reelection.
The comparison with the United States is an interesting one and it’s also kind of aggravating because, on the one hand, there are a lot of Trumpian things about Bolsonaro. On the other hand, Bolsonaro wants people in North America to think that. It’s an image that he (and some members of his family who are a little bit savvier when it comes to international relations and social media spin) has deliberately cultivated: that ‘I’m the Trump of the tropics and an ally of the Republican Party and Fox News in South America’; that ‘when they come after me down here, it’s the same thing as when woke professors and the Democratic Party come after you in North America.’ This has been done very explicitly, and I think there are reasons to do it. I mean, if a Republican were to reenter the White House, because of the sort of negative polarization in the most powerful country in the hemisphere, he would probably try to reach out to Bolsonarismo or perhaps take a really aggressive stance toward a possible Workers’ Party government in Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s personal history is very different from Trump’s, because Trump is a guy from television who, in my opinion, just wanted to stay on television and found in politics a way to do that. Bolsonaro, by comparison, is a creature of Brazil’s dictatorship — which of course came about as a result of the US-backed coup in 1964. He is a real believer in antidemocratic principles and a hardcore anti-communist. He’s not really a neoliberal, and he doesn’t care about economics. He’s not really religious, though he has made an alliance with Brazil’s growing evangelical Christian movement — which I suppose does resonate quite a bit with politics in the United States. But he’s somebody who, for his entire life, has believed that the Left needs to be crushed and that the democracy that has been constituted in Brazil since 1988 and the end of the dictatorship is a sham. This is a movement which has real ideological coherence in a way I don’t think Trumpism ever has. I have a hard time imagining that Trumpism could have the same longevity as Bolsonarismo.
In a televised debate earlier this month, Lula attacked Bolsonaro for his handling of COVID-19, and I’m very curious as to how much salience the pandemic has had throughout the campaign. Late last year, you wrote for New York Magazine that despite Bolsonaro’s anti-vaccine posturing, Brazil had had relatively few anti-vaxxers. Has that held during the campaign?
Yes, it has. I think that Bolsonaro (and especially his sons) instinctively try to import culture war stuff from the United States so they can see what sticks. From the very beginning, Bolsonaro really doubled down on the idea that COVID-19 wasn’t a big deal and people didn’t have to worry about it: everyone should work, the scientists saying that stay at home measures could work — that was a bunch of woke nonsense (though he wouldn’t have actually used that term). But this wasn’t effective, especially among urban elites. It did resonate within the hardcore base, though in a funny way: they would say ‘Yeah, we gotta look into those vaccines, there’s something wrong there . . .’ but then they would all get vaccinated anyway. So it didn’t really work here in the way that it did in the United States, and this was something that Bolsonaro lost important elite support over. Some of that migrated from the cities and countryside, and from the (let’s call it) respectable, civilized, pro-business right to the hyper-radicalized Bolsonarista base. And this is a strategy he has: he will often import things from the United States. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.
Something else he’s tried to import from the United States is this idea that the voting system cannot be trusted. For almost the whole of last year, he was trying to set up a narrative that, if he were to lose, it would be fake because the voting system here can’t be trusted. Again, this makes no sense compared to the US context. In the United States, you have a diverse array of voting mechanisms in different states. In Brazil, no serious international observers think there’s anything strange about the way the votes are counted — it’s uniform across the country. The story Bolsonaro has been telling also calls into question his own victory and the victories of all his allies, so we’re now seeing — at the last minute — a pivot to a different narrative about how the election might be stolen from him, which has to do with censorship and court intervention.
So yes, he imports these things even when they don’t work and, while that may cost him domestically, I think in the long term the Bolsonaro family has the idea of creating an alliance with the Republican Party. And they maybe do need something like that in order to survive, because if Bolsonaro had been soundly defeated in the first round, the family could have all faced jail time. I mean, they’ve certainly committed enough crimes to deserve it. The question was whether or not the political system would prosecute these kinds of cases given the explosiveness of such a scenario. And, now that they have a decent base in government, it might be less likely.
Anyway, its political effectiveness aside, COVID-19 questioning has been a big part of his campaign rhetorically. And that’s the direct result of the intentional Americanization of Brazilian politics, and Americanization of Brazil.
On the French far right, and I suppose across much of the far right globally, there’s been a lot of Americanization for obvious reasons. Has the specific framework of woke versus anti-woke actually penetrated the Brazilian context? You’ll hear French politicians like Marine Le Pen, for example, talking about “le wokeism,” and in that context, it gets discussed as a kind of pernicious import from the United States that needs to be repelled. What is the equivalent to that in Brazil? Has the rather nebulous binary of woke and anti-woke made its way into the lexicon of Bolsonarismo?
Not linguistically. But, as a vibe? Absolutely. The thing about Bolsonaro is that he has quite a coherent narrative going back to the 1990s, which is that the Left has been culturally and politically hegemonic, it tells you what you’re supposed to think, and there’s been (as he would call it) communist indoctrination. So that’s been the way that he’s looked at all of these things since the 1990s. And there have been a number of powerful, far-right ideological figures in Brazil — especially Olavo de Carvalho, this strange philosopher that lived in the United States and posted on Facebook all day long — who have used this framework of cultural Marxism or communist indoctrination
So this would all fall within that: rights for LGBTQ people, recognition of diversity, using the state in any way to try and help poorer Brazilians — that’s all just communist indoctrination. Bolsonaro brought Tucker Carlson here and they had a conversation where they tried to find common discursive commonalities between their two discourses, and it wasn’t very hard to find them. Some of it was ridiculous because PT (Lula’s Workers’ Party) is very much working class and Carlson seemed to think it was the Brazilian equivalent of Brooklyn liberals that were voting Lula into power. But, in general, they did find a lot of common ground in terms of discourse.
And that’s not a coincidence, because Brazil is deeply influenced by US culture — not only in terms of the internet but also television and political discourse. The only other politics that Brazilian media pay attention to are those of the United States. A lot of woke-era vocabulary has certainly entered Brazilian Portuguese. You can, for example, get “cancelado” (canceled), which is something that the right rails against here. But “woke” itself hasn’t quite made it, even if the discourse around it absolutely overlaps.
There are two recent incidents I want to ask you about. Several days ago, police attempted to arrest a retired politician and an ally of Bolsonaro’s (Roberto Jefferson) and he responded by firing on them and throwing grenades? Bolsonaro has also apologized after footage emerged of him telling a story about an encounter with some teenage girls. What exactly is going on here?
Both of these episodes have been bad for Bolsonaro but I think one has been worse. They’ve also become live campaign elements and have really dominated a lot of the conversations in recent weeks. One is very real, and the other is, perhaps, less so beyond the fact that Bolsonaro can’t speak about young women without sexualizing and insulting them. In that case, Bolsonaro told this story about how he was walking around the outskirts of Brasília (the capital) and (in his telling) he saw some young women who were ‘all dressed up’ and said ‘Why are you dressed up?’ The best way to translate the phrase he used next is that he said ‘there was some chemistry.’ As he told it, he then asked them if he could go back to their place and asked ‘What are you doing?.’ And then — remember, this is the version of the story that he wants the Bolsonarista listener to hear — they said ‘We’re prostitutes because we’re Venezuelan and the Left destroyed our country, and this is all that’s left for us.’
None of this makes sense in the way that he told it, because, if he were to have stumbled upon that horrible situation, he shouldn’t have gone on a podcast, he should have called in the police to stop these young women from being sex trafficked. This strange attempt to pin sex work in Brazil on the Left in Venezuela doesn’t make a lot of sense either, because he’s the president and there are, as I think I mentioned earlier, millions of young people who can’t get enough food here. So, if you want to find Brazilians that are in very difficult situations (because of him) it’s not hard to do. Anyway, journalists went back and looked into this and the Venezuelan women said ‘No, he did come here, but we’re not sex workers.’ He just made that up or thought it, and I think this incident really is just another example of him not being able to talk about women without sexualizing or insulting them — and hinting at the idea he was having sexual thoughts toward underage immigrants.
Now, the story with Roberto Jefferson — who is a longtime friend and ally of the Bolsonaro family — definitely happened because it was filmed and he wanted everyone to know about it. This guy is kind of nuts and even many on the Right will admit to that. He’s been under house arrest, apparently for being part of a digital criminal organization which is using social media to push for antidemocratic measures. Now, this part is kind of strange and I don’t exactly understand the sentence, but they basically said he couldn’t be under house arrest anymore because he’d been violating the terms of his house arrest by using social media. And they sent someone to go pick him up and, instead of cooperating, he tried to mount some kind of heroic martyr’s stand and go down in a blaze of glory because they wouldn’t let him post on the internet. He ended up coming out, shooting some federal police, and throwing a grenade at them. And this has become a huge scandal that even Bolsonaro has been forced to distance himself from. Usually, Bolsonaro will back anything happening on the Right that’s provocative. In this case, he actually went and said, ‘We’re not that close, and this is not the kind of thing I support.’
But another problem for Bolsonaro is that the incident reminded everyone that his son Eduardo, when he was eighteen, was on the books for receiving a salary for work he performed as a congressional assistant in Brasília while he was a full-time student in Rio de Janeiro — and the man who hired him for this job, which must have been fake (and if it was not fake, it would’ve been illegal to hire him for it) was Roberto Jefferson. This is the kind of low-level corruption that everyone believes the Bolsonaro family has been involved in forever. They never got involved in the high-level corruption that became the subject of the Lava Jato investigations because they weren’t important enough in Congress. So, this is not only a problem because somebody that has been photographed many times with Bolsonaro tried to kill a bunch of police — which is a big deal given the pro-security-forces orientation of Bolsonarismo — but also because it reminded people of the corruption Bolsonaro’s son was apparently involved with many years ago.
It’s bad for Bolsonaro because he was already behind in the polls, though they had been getting closer. So if this stops them from tightening further, it may be enough to lose him the election. It’s only Tuesday, and of course something even more insane could happen before Sunday, but this was too mediatized an event to stop people from talking about it and, well, everybody is talking about it.
Polling ahead of the first round of voting suggested, on average, a Lula lead of about eleven points – though he finished by only five. Ahead of the runoff at the end of this month, polls have still given Lula an edge but have also seemed to tighten further. Perhaps predictably, Bolsonaro has started attacking pollsters (Brazil’s House of Representatives is even set to pass legislation criminalizing inaccurate polls — though its future in the Senate looks more uncertain). I’d like to ask you about that, but I’m also curious how you account for the electoral resilience of Bolsonarismo? Brazil’s GDP has fallen since he was elected in 2018. There’s also been an increase in hunger, to say nothing of nearly seven hundred thousand COVID-19 deaths. All of these likely contributed to what was at one time a Lula lead of almost thirty points. Things look quite different now. How would you account for what’s become an unexpectedly close election?
It’s a good question. One part of it that’s troubling and hopefully ephemeral is that Bolsonaro found his real base after 2018. There was just a strange grouping of people that got together behind his candidacy largely out of rejection for what had come before. But, as I said, agricultural parts of the country can believe somewhat rationally that Bolsonaro is better for their interests. Evangelical Christians can probably believe, albeit with less evidence, that he’s somebody who can push for the sort of moral policies that Lula would not (and that’s an area where fake news comes into play, but you can create a stable base with that kind of representation of Lula).
The other dynamic, which I think is really important for explaining the shifts in polling that have transpired over the last few months, is the massive and shameless use of the state to pour money into every part of the country where it might influence voters. Bolsonaro entered office with a neoliberal finance minister who promised to be transparent and anti-corruption. And what’s happening now is a use of the state to flood money into the pockets of political allies, anybody that can help influence voting, and anybody that might be convinced to change their vote to an extent that’s really never been seen before.
It’s quite shocking, and I think even some of the most seasoned analysts of Latin American politics have been surprised that he’s moved forward a lot of welfare payments to the months just before the election. Lula still leads among the poorest Brazilians, but not as much as he did a few months ago. And the best explanation for this is that Bolsonaro gave them money. Everyone knows the finance minister is going to cut all of that off immediately in January, and he already has plans to do so. This is purely to get people to vote one way rather than the other, and it’s very bad for state finances.
Then there’s been this (as it’s been called) multibillion dollar secret budget which allows local lawmakers allied to Bolsonaro to basically spend money locally however they want. There’s already considerable evidence of corruption coming out of this secret budget — towns are making up the numbers, e.g. a town with eleven thousand people that performed seventeen thousand dental procedures in the last two weeks, and other stuff in this vein.
So, in addition to the sort of organic base of Bolsonarismo growing throughout four years in power, you have the shameless use of state finances to try to influence votes at the last minute.
As a final question, would it be fair to say that the proportion of economic versus cultural politics at play in Brazilian politics at the moment favors the latter? From abroad, the impression of Bolsonaro is that he’s very much a culture warrior, and that seems to be one of the ways he’s been able to mitigate the drag of the country’s poor economic performance over the past four years on his own electoral prospects. How would you characterize the final stage of the election in terms of whether economic or cultural issues are prevailing?
I would say it’s more the cultural. If it were economic, you would not see such a big discrepancy between male and female voters. White men are the only demographic category in Brazil that go for Bolsonaro over Lula (black women, by contrast, vote for Lula something like four to one). Bolsonarismo is powered by the petty bourgeois or middle class (but not that educated) white man that has weaponized his identity — which resonates with Trump’s support — that is, the kind of white man that believes he is at risk of having his privilege taken away and thinks he can attack those below him with the help of someone above him. In other words, the classic base for the extreme right: the angry, frustrated, emasculated, petty bourgeois man, in coalition with agribusiness and small scale producers. That’s more or less the organic and economic base.
But the real core of the Bolsonarismoist movement is not so strictly rational. The committed Bolsonaristas really believe in it. His spending offensive has gotten some of Lula’s base to come over to his side in the last few weeks, but Lula is still ahead amongst people who care, first and foremost, about where their food is coming from next month. But that part of the story — the classic, extreme right base, the anti-democratic man — I think that is at the core of what Bolsonarismo is.