Brazil turns right

Thomás Zicman de Barros says Bolsonaro’s success is a disaster, but inexperience and a weak economy could unravel his popularity

The Brazilian ‘Republican Front’ was never constituted. The elites, showing their total disregard for civicism, enthusiastically campaigned for Jair Bolsonaro since the first round. Entrepreneurs gave him what seems to be millions in illegal private campaign contributions to spread tons of fake news across digital social media. What remained from the traditional centre-right parties after their electoral annihilation preferred to abstain and allow the victory of the extreme-right instead of rallying with the centre-left to protect democracy. Counting their dead and thinking four years ahead, traditional politicians repeat the same mistakes from the past, implicitly or explicitly supporting the risky alternative in the belief that there will still be democratic elections for them to rise from the ashes by the end of Bolsonaro’s term.

The idea that Bolsonaro’s victory will lead us to a pure authoritarian rule cannot be ruled out, considering his curriculum. During his campaign, Bolsonaro praised torturers, police brutality, and affirmed that he could intervene in the Supreme Court. His vice-president talked about a “self-coup”, and the candidate himself made some ‘jokes’ about shooting adversaries and said that, once elected, he would “put an end to all activisms”. Even before the second round, political violence spread across the country, with deaths and physical assaults against women, gays and left-wingers in general.

Pure autocratic rule by Bolsonaro is not the most likely scenario after his electoral triumph. Instead, it’s more likely that he will ‘simply’ head a disastrous government

Brazil’s weak checks-and-balances system is not reliable against an authoritarian drift. To a large extent, Bolsonaro’s victory is a product of an institutional autophagy. Claiming to “fight corruption”, sectors of the judiciary, in association with the mainstream media, started a sometimes extra-legal crusade to destroy the party system. In the midst of economic turmoil, and in a society marked by endemic violence, demoralization of traditional parties paved the way for an authoritarian ‘outsider’. The infamous attempt against Bolsonaro’s life in early September helped to consolidate this image: unable and unwilling to participate in public debates, he became an empty symbol representing all grievances and resentments against the establishment. Our young democratic institutions entered in self-destruction mode, and now an anti-democratic discourse is gaining momentum.

Pure autocratic rule by Bolsonaro, however, is not the most likely scenario after his electoral triumph. Instead, it’s more likely that he will ‘simply’ head a disastrous government. Of course, it will be a disaster for poor and black people, as well as for minorities. Illegal police execution squads that are already present in Brazilian slums will extend their actions, with the government closing its eyes or even openly supporting their atrocities.

But Bolsonaro’s government will also probably be a managerial disaster. Bolsonaro’s party, almost non-existent six months ago, elected around fifty congresspersons, ten percent of the parliament. They are newcomers, many former YouTube celebrities who never read a piece of law, who have absolutely no experience in the legislative process. Getting this experience takes time. Bolsonaro is ideologically more aligned with the average of the Congress than former left-wing presidents, and will probably enjoy a first semester of grace to approve measures such as loosening gun control, more severe penal laws and many neoliberal policies promised during his campaign. After a few months, however, he will need to start negotiating with politicians that really don’t care about conservative ideology. They care about their personal and local interests. Brazil is an enormous country, with an enormous variety of demands trying to be heard in Brasilia.

Bolsonaro has no experience in negotiating and compromising; neither do his fellow military friends who he wants to put in key governmental positions. Their explosive, narcissistic, corporativist and authoritarian character, combined with their lack of experience within public administration will probably create internal frictions and jeopardize Bolsonaro’s presidency. A better economic performance could save his term, but the current budgetary situation in Brazil leaves no room for stimulus policies, and the future of the global economy is not very promising for emerging markets.

Last but definitively not least, Bolsonaro must face a strong opposition from the left. It is a moment of popular resistance against both authoritarianism and neoliberalism. Currently, the left has three immediate challenges. First, it must remain united in its plurality. Second, it must deal with Lula’s and the Worker’s Party legacy, with its undeniable merits and mistakes. Third, it must have a positive agenda. It cannot simply try to avoid retrocession. It must extend its demands, putting the extreme-right and its anti-popular programme against the wall.

The Brazilian left has an advantage, in comparison with corporate democrats in the United States and other Third Way politicians in Europe: even with its defeat, the Brazilian left represents a popular project. Bolsonaro’s extreme-right message does not resonate among disenfranchised sectors like the discourses of Trump, Le Pen or Brexiters do. According to many polls, even those who voted for Bolsonaro see him as the candidate of the rich, and that the left represents the poor. We must build on this correct perception, mobilizing civil society and social movements around a common project for the many, not the few.

Thomas Zicman de Barros

Thomas Zicman de Barros is a PhD candidate at Sciences Po, Paris.