Brazil’s election result has deep roots in its history. Bolsonaro’s tenure might turn out to be as dark as the sibyls say or, at best, just a shameful episode of a sad comedy.
The political scenario that has dominated Brazil — the ‘Nova República’ (New Republic) since the end of the last military regime in 1985 — ended on 28 October 2018. Jair Bolsonaro, the far-Right candidate, was elected Brazil’s president and put an end to the social-democrat pact established after the military left power. The reasons for his ascension are, however, not surprising.
Since the establishment of the Republic in 1889, Brazilian politics has been indulgently paternalistic. The conflict of ideas on managing social interests has been avoided at all costs. Mediated mass democracy was created in the 1930s with labour unions and patrons kept under the strong arm of the state. With such an arrangement allowing those in office to re-elect allies more easily than opponents, this has become the leading cause of state inefficiency and corruption scandals. It was incorporated by Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s Brazilian Social Democracy Party (1995-2002) and Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party (2003-2016) as their governance modus operandi.
Over the past three decades, political power in Brazil has been shared between the centre-right led by Cardoso and the centre-left led by Lula and Dilma Rousseff. Although both sides never admitted it publicly, their policies were driven by the same social-democrat orientation. Cardoso was responsible for the macroeconomic adjustment during the 1990s, and Lula and Dilma — surfing the commodity boom wave — implemented the social redistribution policies Cardoso started to foster. This meant that when everyone — from entrepreneurs to traditional politicians — were winning, in a moment of significant economic growth, any threat to the muddy business-political link was neutralised by the system.
The Brazilian state had never been structured to be nurtured by society. Rather, it was formed to exert tutelage over the citizenry. With fragile counterweights and selective usage of institutions, its structural vulnerability meant it would collapse at some point.
The peak of the crisis is this year’s election. Pundits and analysts have portrayed the presidential race as the most unpredictable since 1989. The scenario for the first-round vote was, in fact, volatile, but the particular features of the Brazilian political landscape present some clues to make sense of the country’s reality. In early August, 13 candidates presented themselves as contenders, reflecting a political system that has 35 different parties.
The campaigning ahead of the first-round vote was marked by a heated debate between the Workers’ Party (PT) and the judiciary over Lula’s right to run for president, with the former president declared ineligible and replaced on the ticket by Fernando Haddad. The most striking moment of the campaign came when Bolsonaro, leading in all voting intention polls, was attacked with a knife while campaigning in Minas Gerais on 6 September. These two events brought some clarity to what was happening in Brazil.
On the surface, the polls told a relatively clear story of a simple contest between the Left and the Right. One side is righteously defending morality, while the other advances progressive social policies. This simplistic drama was reflected in the first-round presidential vote.
A closer look to a different measurement of public opinion in Brazil shows how complex mainstream thought has been. Going beyond standard voting preference questions, the Instituto Paraná Pesquisas asked what issues concern Brazilians the most regarding the country’s future. The biggest fears ahead of the election, in order, were:
- Economic growth
- Health system
- Inflation and taxes
Concerns two through seven can be labelled as ‘social threats’ and are generally seen as better addressed by the Left. However, ‘violence’ falls into the category of ‘disgust-related’ threat, which in general is seen as being better handled by the Right.
Bolsonaro is the embodiment of those who view the 13 year-long PT government as an odyssey of abject corruption and kleptocracy. Some have called him ‘the Trump of the Tropics’. Although correct in characterising him as a populist politician with an authoritarian flavour, Bolsonaro does not have the same negotiation skills as Trump or connections in national mainstream politics and business. He is a captain who was forced into retiring from the army in 1988 after he threatened to bomb army barracks to obtain salary increases and then turned into an unsophisticated and mostly irrelevant federal deputy.
Fake news and threats
Brazil’s extreme Right has been using misinformation and ‘fake news’ through social media to advance its discourse. Those fake threats have nothing to do with crime or corruption, but are powerful emotional drivers.
In a country where 70 per cent of the population are functional illiterates, the effect has been perverse. While other candidates could not respond to the misinformation campaign launched through WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook, Bolsonaro’s campaign platform was overexposed, and Bolsonaro never came under pressure to defend his ideas.
The alt-right message was aimed at spreading social-status fears among those who felt their living standards decreasing: the newly prosperous, the middle-class and those in the upper classes. They appealled to the anger and disquiet of those that benefited from the boom of the 2000s, but who have subsequently seen these gains evaporate away. A recent survey found that those who changed their minds and voted for Donald Trump were not guided by concerns for economic status, but instead followed their underlying racist and misogynistic thoughts. That is precisely the psychological frame that Bolsonaro and his allies have consistently tapped during the campaign.
Bolsonaro’s whole campaign has been built upon exploiting a sense of fear — fear of being shot, of crime, of unemployment — that ends up creating space for the acceptance of authoritarian feelings latent in the society.
The alt-right vote in Brazil can be seen as a muted protest by those who cannot understand the drastic changes in the country over the past two decades. The cognitive dissonance between what they have in their minds and the real world has become too high. The discourse of authority provides security and comfort, brings the illusion of immediate economic rewards and reduces anxiety.
Looking ahead, the President-Elect will face more important constraints than trying to make his verbiage real. For 2019, Bolsonaro will have little budgetary leeway – less than USD 32 billion – to manage the country, invest in public services and negotiate with Congress for his campaign promises. The bitter measures needed to restructure the economy would be challenging in a scenario of institutional normality, but are even harder in an environment of ideological polarisation. Bolsonaro’s Government starts with a non-negligible risk of short-term collapse.
Dr Fabrício H. Chagas-Bastos is Research Associate at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in the University of Melbourne. He specialises in the intersection of International Relations and Social Psychology with an interest in Latin America and the Global South.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.