While unusual elections are becoming commonplace, what has recently transpired in Brazil — the fifth most populous country — has left much of the world speechless. No one in my generation thought President Dilma Rousseff would be ousted, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would be arrested or that celebrity reality show presenter João Doria would be mayor of São Paulo. We never imagined we would see both the Pope and The Economist accused of being communist as fascism rises in Brazil. But we have seen it all.
The 2018 presidential campaign season has included the near fatal stabbing of a leading candidate, stories about massive corruption schemes, and an endless number of internet rumors about left-wing conspiracies, voter suppression and a wave of hate crimes.
The election results, announced on Oct. 6, surprised most analysts. Far-right fascist-leaning Jair Bolsonaro, who has an army general as vice president on his ticket, won the first round with 46 percent of the valid votes. Bolsonaro is known for his homophobic comments — including once saying he would rather have a dead son than a gay one — has been described as a Brazilian Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Among Bolsonaro’s latest international supporters is white supremacist former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, who declared his enthusiasm over the potential win once the first round results were announced.
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Although his domination of the presidential election in Brazil didn’t come as a complete surprise, he did outperform polling ahead of the vote. For the second round of voting, which will take place on Oct. 28, Bolsonaro will face Fernando Haddad, the candidate from the Workers’ Party. The former mayor of São Paulo, Haddad is a professor with a Ph.D in philosophy. His running mate is Manuela D’Avila, a former student movement leader who has been a congresswoman since 2007 for Brazil’s Communist Party.
Regardless of the result, the presidential election and the clear rise of the far right in Brazil has potential global consequences and should be reason for concern throughout the world. During his campaign, Bolsonaro has openly threatened to “wipe” the left out of the country if he is elected, as well as to put an end to activism, NGOs and whoever questions his values.
How Did This Happen?
This is the first election since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, which hurt not only the Workers’ Party, but also eroded confidence in the political establishment as a whole. Although Rousseff’s impeachment was rooted in a violation of the fiscal law, the two previous presidents resorted to the same sort of budgetary tinkering without facing any consequences. Many have argued that her ousting was a constitutional coup, legitimized by the country’s judiciary.
Bolsonaro’s path to power was paved by a coordinated right-wing offensive, backed by the Brazilian bourgeoisie, state bureaucracy and the military. Brazilian markets have rallied on the prospect of Bolsonaro stopping a return to power by the Workers’ Party. Despite being responsible for a record decrease in poverty and inequality in the country, investors blame the Workers’ Party for plunging Brazil into, arguably, its worst economic recession. Most of the business community is supporting Bolsonaro, just as it has backed right-wing candidates around the world. This may have to do with his choice of Paulo Guedes as his main finance adviser. Guedes was educated at the University of Chicago and has been promoted as a kind of “super minister” for the economy in a future Bolsonaro administration.
Beyond Brazil’s economic elites, who actually supports Bolsonaro and his extremist rhetoric? First and foremost, Bolsonaro is the main public figure for the gun lobby in Brazil, which is known as the “bullet caucus,” and has had close ties with the NRA since the early 2000s. The NRA advised Bolsonaro and the gun lobby in Brazil when the country attempted to ban gun sales for civilians. The bullet caucus’ agenda has stood at cross-purposes with the political will of the Workers’ Party, which has financed a robust expansion of the social welfare state on the back of a decade of commodity-led growth.
The ultra conservative block in the parliament brings together the pro-gun politicians, the agrarian oligarchs and evangelicals in what is known as the “BBB caucus,” which stands for “bullet, beef and bible.” This caucus currently holds some 60 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and is strongly supporting Bolsonaro in the run-off campaign. To please his base, along with a general relaxation of current gun laws, Bolsonaro has promised significant cuts in environmental fines and regulations, support to anti-LGBTQ rights legislation, and the blockage of any attempts to legalize abortion.
Fear Mongering and Fake News
Bolsonaro’s push for power has been turbocharged by a trove of fake news, bots and hoaxes about voter fraud. Most of Bolsonaro’s supporters get their news from social media, and the candidate has learned how to use it to his advantage. To make matters worse, Bolsonaro has refused to participate in public debates since he was stabbed weeks before the first round. This is the first time since democracy was re-established in the country in the 1980s that there won’t be a publicly-televised debate among the presidential candidates.
Dissemination of disinformation on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp has perhaps been the biggest star (and distraction) during this campaign. A week before the run-off, a scandal over private companies illegally paying millions of dollars to spread fake news through WhatsApp, favoring Bolsonaro, was uncovered by Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. Earlier in the campaign, a fake voting machine video, quickly debunked by fact-checkers, was retweeted thousands of times after being shared by Flávio Bolsonaro, a congressman and son of the presidential candidate. InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson also amplified the hoax. If this sounds familiar, it may be because Bolsonaro has been advised by Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica.
Hoaxes that call into question the electronic polling system are a reason for concern. Cristina Tardáguila, director of the fact-checking organization Agência Lupa, explained that the Superior Electoral Court has said that only 0.33 percent of the system had any functionality problems in the first round. Nevertheless, far-right influencers insist on spreading hoaxes. She points to the fact that the attempts to attack the electronic polling system seem aimed at delegitimizing whoever is the winner of the election.
“I think they were trying to build some kind of narrative that if they didn’t go to the second round … that the voting system was fraudulent,” she said. “And I think it can happen again in the run-off. Bolsonaro has said that he won’t accept the result if he doesn’t win, because it means the election was fraudulent.”
Another concern for Brazilians is the string of hate crimes reported in the lead up to the first round. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism has registered more than 60 physical attacks on reporters. A trans singer was attacked in Rio de Janeiro by assailants shouting “these trash people have to die” and soccer fans have chanted “Bolsonaro will kill all queers.” A woman who created a Facebook group of women against Bolsonaro was beat up by two men as she exited her house. In Bahia, a capoeira master and musician was stabbed to death for saying he planned to vote for the Workers’ Party two days after the elections’ first round. And in Rio Grande do Sul, a 19-year-old woman had a swastika carved onto her stomach by Bolsonaro supporters.
The violence has escalated so fast that a group of activists has started monitoring political violence in the country. LGBT rights organization Grupo Gay da Bahia reported that 2017 was the deadliest year for the country’s LGBT community, with 387 reported killings. It is concerned that this number will grow, since more than 300 people have already been killed in anti-LGBT hate crimes as of September 2018.
Police violence has also increased since Rousseff’s impeachment. In Rio de Janeiro, police have killed nearly 128 people per month in 2018, nearly triple the rate from five years ago. According to the latest edition of the Atlas of Violence, 4,424 people were executed by police across the country in 2016.
The Workers’ Party Alternative
Most of the international media attention has focused on the polarization during Brazil’s elections and the rise of the far right, with very few stories about Fernando Haddad. After Brazil’s Supreme Court denied former President Lula’s candidacy — in direct defiance of Brazilian electoral law and a legally binding order from the U.N. Human Rights Committee — Haddad was the party’s next choice.
Haddad has pushed back against a widespread public perception — bolstered by Bolsonaro and a fake news campaign — that the Workers’ Party, which was in power from 2003 to 2016, is the most corrupt party in the country. Politicians from the Workers’ Party have one of the lower conviction rates in the Operation Car Wash anti-corruption investigations, which led to the incarceration of Lula in a very questionable trial. Noam Chomsky recently visited Lula in jail and referred to him as the most prominent political prisoner of our times.
Haddad has pushed back against a fear mongering campaign that often uses Venezuela to threaten Brazilians who intend to vote for the Workers’ Party. “The Workers’ Party’s run in government didn’t look anything like what is happening in Venezuela,” he said. “[The party] was born to challenge all authoritarian regimes on the left and right, unlike Bolsonaro, whose roots are in the military dictatorship.”
Since the first round, Haddad has come together with most of the left, social justice and environmental organizations in the country. The new coalition even includes many groups that have opposed the Workers’ Party but have decided to support Haddad in the face of the far right. They have been working around the clock with a broad range of tactics to prevent Bolsonaro from occupying the most important political seat in the country.
A New Wave of Identity Politics
Despite these dangerous developments, there are still signs of hope in Brazil. As in other countries in the Americas, Brazil has seen a resurgence of organizing and mass demonstrations in recent years by women, the LGBTQ community and Brazilians of African descent. The wave of attacks on women’s rights in Brazil over the last two years — including the elimination of the Ministry of Women’s Rights and the assassination of Marielle Franco, the African-Brazilian lesbian city council representative in Rio de Janeiro — inspired a new wave of feminist politics during the 2018 elections.
The women’s movement has strengthened in the wake of the 2018 election, following persistent threats from Bolsonaro and his allies. A few weeks before the first round, four million women joined the Facebook group #EleNao, or #NotHim, to oppose Bolsonaro and organized one of the largest anti-fascist protests in the history of the country. On Sept. 30, a week prior to the first round of voting, an estimated one million people took to the streets against Bolsonaro in 300 cities and 21 countries around the world.
The campaign has proved effective. As a result, there was a significant increase in the number of women who were elected, both at the national and state levels. The number of women in the lower house grew from 51 in 2014 to 77 in 2018. In the state assemblies, the number went from 119 to 169. And in Rio de Janeiro state, four black female candidates, all from the Socialism and Freedom Party, or PSOL, which Marielle Franco was a member of, were elected on Oct. 3. PSOL was created by former members of the Workers’ Party who left after a corruption scandal in 2007. The party runs on a platform similar to that of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America and saw an increase from six to 10 seats in the national lower house.
Other reasons for optimism include the election of Joenia Wapixana, the first female indigenous candidate ever elected to the Brazil’s congress, and Erica Malunguinho, the first transgender woman ever elected in the country. Wapixana was elected on promises to push for more lands to be given to indigenous tribes and to protect the environment. The 36-year-old Malunguinho is a history and art teacher from PSOL, who ran on a platform promoting tourism in indigenous areas to combat poverty and racism. She also promised to help transgender people find employment.
Perhaps the biggest novelty of the elections were the collective candidacies, which is when a group of people register under one candidate, but campaign as group, promising to carry the mandate collectively if elected. In the 2018 elections, there were 11 collective candidacies registered in the country, six of which were put forward by PSOL. In the state of Pernambuco, the collective candidacy Juntas, which translates to “Together,” presented a group of five feminist women running on a platform for social justice. They were elected to a seat in the state house. In São Paulo, the Bancada Ativista, or “Activist Caucus,” elected a group of nine people — six women, two African-Brazilians, a trans person and an indigenous person. LGBTQ rights, social justice and environmental issues were at the center of their campaign.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It is undeniable that the protests that erupted in Brazil in 2013 — called the “Brazilian spring” by some — opened the doors for the massive re-organizing of Brazilian politics that has happened since. Despite being initiated by left-wing, mostly anarchist groups, the momentum of the protests was quickly seized by the far right, who ultimately ousted President Rousseff.
It’s incredible how the wave of moderate leftism in South America in the early 2000s has been reversed in such a short span of time. This has been accomplished using a variety of tactics, most notably the 2016 judicial coup in Brazil that removed Rousseff from power for what amounted to an accounting trick. (This should sound scary to American progressives as the number of right-wing activist judges is increasing at all levels.)
The polarization occurring around the globe is visible in Brazil’s elections this year. While women, and the movements for social justice and LGBTQ rights have increased their representation in the country’s legislative houses, so has the far right. Some soul-searching is in order for Brazilian progressives, but the task at hand is to stop Bolsonaro from winning the presidential race. After years of fragmentation, the current challenges must bring together Brazil’s increasingly assertive social movements, which have demonstrated their strength in the legislative races.
Based on how competitive previous presidential elections have been, and the force of left-wing grassroots organizing in national campaigns, it is not impossible that the new coalition around Haddad will win the second round. The problem is that even if that happens, the challenges for Brazil won’t end anytime soon. The far right will leave this election much stronger than it was before 2018.
The very real possibility that Bolsonaro and his allies — which includes Brazil’s military — won’t accept the election results poses a grave additional risk. Rumors that the military will openly take power if the results don’t go their way have circulated since early 2018. And the military has recently gotten involved in politics, publicly supporting Rousseff’s ouster and Lula’s imprisonment.
As composer and bossa nova icon Tom Jobim once said, “Brazil is not for beginners.” The phrase, popular among Brazilians, rings true decades later, as the world watches chaos unfold in the country that only a few years ago was praised for an unprecedented reduction in poverty and inequality.
Whether the center-left coalition will be able to defeat the far right in the polls, and whether the results will be accepted, is yet to be seen. Regardless of the outcome, the fake news war waged against the left has changed the way campaigns are run. It has also created a circus where a significant part of Brazilians can no longer distinguish reality from fiction. This trend is not exclusive to Brazil, but poses a major challenge around the world. It is likely to require a new coordinated transnational strategy if it is to be effectively addressed in the future.