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Brazil elections: an avoidable catastrophe

Whoever passes through to the second round, they must recognise that to face up to authoritarianism, all democrats must create a common front to close the path towards catastrophe. Español Português

A police officer with an axe in the Macaco favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during a mission against a criminal gang. Image: Humberto Ohana/PA Images, All Rights Reserved.

The future of democracy in Brazil is in the hands of an emotionally charged decision. Above all, it will be an emotional state of mind that will determine the results of the elections this month. Brazilians that find themselves stuck between shame, fear, and disappointment, will find their ability to make decisions negatively affected, making the possibility of voting with reason increasingly less likely.

For some time now international politics has shifted towards the emotional, leaving to one side reasonable and rational arguments. Throughout this process populism has arisen, associating itself with both left and right and leading politics towards a space in which the old battles between liberals and conservatives have broken down. Polarisation, misinformation, and anti-establishment principles are increasingly present, and positions of power are being filled by those who preach these values.

In this dynamic, the construction of the enemy, the “us” versus the “them”, the need of a strong man type figure that can bring order to the chaos and an end to corruption, decadence and violence is a global trend: Putin, Xi-Jingping, Trump, Erdogan, Modri, Duterte… the list is long, and it affects almost every great power.

The discourse of simple solutions to complex problems in Europe has allowed for nationalistic populisms to make their mark on the electorate. The anti-immigration and anti-semitic waves of Orban in Hungary, Brexit in the UK, the miracle cure of independence in Catalunya, or the anti-European ideologies of the Italian coalition between Lega Nord and the 5 Estelle movement.

The impact of the results of the elections will send a powerful and expansive wave throughout the region and beyond. However, 

Brazil is a unique case due to its disruptive potential. The impact of the results of the elections will send a powerful and expansive wave throughout the region and beyond. Today there is great uncertainty in Brazil and the signs of worries and alarm can be observed throughout Brazilian society from the elites of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to the farmers of Paraná, from the afro organisations of Salvador de Bahia to the indigenous communities of the Amazon.

Everyone seems aware of the fact that we are facing a turning point that will determine the decades to come. Many agree that the future of Brazil is at risk, and that these elections will either consolidate democracy or facilitate a turn towards authoritarianism.

The great momentum

On the back of an expansive cycle of commodity prices at the beginning of the 21st century, Brazil elected a charismatic and progressive president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in 2002. Overcoming the panic his significant victory (61%) caused among markets, Lula applied principles of popular social democracy effectively, redistributing finance, creating reforms and lifting millions of Brazilians out of extreme poverty.

The elites found a way to continue making profits and accelerating extractivism to the limit whilst corrupting the system even more.

This was done practically without altering the fiscal, financial and productive structure of the Brazilian economy, allowing him to contain the elites who had been suspicious of his trade union ties. And those elites, thanks to the highly fragmented Brazilian presidential parliamentary system in which 278 parties are represented at the chamber and diverse coalitions are a must, never lost control. The elites found a way to continue making profits and accelerating extractivism to the limit whilst corrupting even more the system.

In the international sphere, the “pink tide” saw a wave of left-wing governments sweep through Latin America from 2000, and the Brazil of Lula become one of its main adherents. Additionally, Brazil’s protagonist presence among the BRICS provided it with an undisputed leadership role, and Brazilian diplomacy cleverly occupied a space reserved in the multilateral sphere for the global south.

Brazil witnessed an orderly transition and in 1988 a solid federal constitution was created that allowed for a period of progressive democratisation known as the “New Republic” to take place.

However, the path for this positive cycle had been paved beforehand. After two decades of a military dictatorship (1964 – 1983), Brazil witnessed an orderly transition and in 1988 a solid federal constitution was created, that was far more progressive than its authors, and that allowed for a period of progressive democratisation known as the “New Republic” to take place. This lead to the consolidation of institutionalism and modernity, despite the existing deficits in terms of governance and the difficulties innate in the management of such a large country. A country that has dimensions of a continent that is relatively decentralised thanks to its federal structure and its immense natural wealth desired by so many wealthy predators. A country that is culturally rich and tremendously ethnically and geographically diverse.

The economic potential of this South American nation and its wealth of natural resources led Stefan Zweig to describe it as the “land of the future” shortly before committing suicide in Petrópolis in 1942, a land that was moving in a promising direction for most based on tolerance, progress and diversity. But in the most unequal continent in the world, the true source of power always remains on the lookout, and it doesn’t believe in democracy.

Lula managed to survive a great recession in 2008. The Brazilian GDP fell from 5% to 0,1% in 2009 but the recovery was immediate and it rose to 7,5% in 2010, only to fall once more to 4% in 2011 towards the end of his presidency. Dilma Rousseff won the elections the following year after being personally designated as the candidate for the PT by her predecessor and after serving as his chief of staff for 6 glorious years.

The perfect storm

But the victory of Rousseff coincided with an economic downturn and with the aggravation of corruption scandals uncovered by the Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), which would undermine the entire political spectrum including ex-president Lula. A massive protest was convoked in 2013 where popular and middle classes jointly took to the streets, including those from both left and right of the political spectrum. The momentum was shattered, and the atmosphere of euphoria and optimism Lula created disappeared.

But the victory of Rousseff coincided with an economic downturn and with the aggravation of corruption scandals uncovered by the Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), which would undermine the entire political spectrum including ex-president Lula. A massive protest was convoked in 2013 where popular and middle classes jointly took to the streets, including those from both left and right of the political spectrum. The momentum was shattered, and the atmosphere of euphoria and optimism Lula created disappeared.

Brazil was facing a perfect storm: the anger of the elites was added to the feelings of disappointment among the middle and popular classes.

Dilma, that had demonstrated her mediocre governance skills with a much more left wing discourse than had been intended, won the following election when the GDP had reached 0,5% growth. The disgust of the oligarchy was immense.

From there, Brazil was facing a perfect storm: the anger of the elites was added to the feelings of disappointment among the middle and popular classes. The economic recession hit with force (-3,5% growth in 2015 and -3,6% in 2016, something unseen since 1990). The failure of the World Cup organised in 2014 where the Brazilian selection was humiliated and stripped of its place in the final after a match in which it scored 1-7 against Germany contributed to these feelings. Finally, as the Lava Jato investigations dug deeper, the Odebrecht scandal emerged affecting the entire region, however this was just the tip of the iceberg in a long story of corrupt relations between political financing and infrastructure projects that, according to many analysts, dates back to the building of Brasilia in the 60s.

The storm culminated in the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff in the same year. This was a big blow to democracy.

The storm, that escalated among difficulties in finishing public works for the Olympic games in 2016, culminated in the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff in the same year. The excuse was having permitted irregularities in the presentation of the public budget, but the coup was the first sign that the oligarchy had lost its patience with the PT, indicating the end of this democratic cycle that began with the Constitution in 88.  This was a big blow to democracy.

During the shameful vote that was the nail in the coffin for Rousseff, the deputies made a short speech justifying their intentions. Among them a particular deputy stood out, that was little known despite his 28 years in the parliament. This recent radical evangelist, and flighty politician of up to 9 parties dedicated his vote to a military general who was responsible for torturing Dilma during the military dictatorship. With this speech, Jair Bolsonaro, who was a parachutist and ex-military captain, demonstrated his lack of scruples and his ability to do and say just about anything.

The systematic political persecuting on the most popular candidate, Lula da Silva, was fed into in order to cover up his own shameful dealings.

After the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the provisional government of Michel Temer was installed, and express reforms that reinstated neoliberal policies were swiftly passed. The systematic political persecuting on the most popular candidate, Lula da Silva, was fed into in order to cover up his own shameful dealings. The ruthless judges of Curitiba, a rich state in the mostly white southern region of Brazil, saw their politically tainted work culminate in March with the incarceration of Lula, who was condemned to 12 and a half years in prison on second instance. Even though the charge has been appealed, Lula was unable to present himself as a candidate according to the Electoral Tribunal in August. A second big blow.

 An extremely harsh campaign

Negative feelings in Brazil are on the rise and nobody has shown themselves to be capable of putting an end to the abuses and everyday violence that plague Brazil, with 155 murders every day that add up to 30,000 so far in 2018 (2017 ended up with a record of 63,880 assassinations). 

The murder of Marielle came to represent yet another coup against the progressive, open, and diverse Brazilian dream in which opportunities were accessible.

The execution of ex-councillor of Rio, Marielle Franco, who as a black single mother born in the favelas and a defender of LGBTQ+ rights, and was a symbol of hope in Brazil, came to embody the issue of the militarisation of the police and the subsequent violence suffered by marginalised communities as a result of this. The murder of Marielle came to represent yet another coup against the progressive, open, and diverse Brazilian dream in which opportunities were accessible. Six months later, the National Museum in Rio went up in flames, along with centuries of national heritage.

Awareness that this time democracy is at risk is unsettling for many political actors and intellectual media outlets. Meanwhile, they observe with stupor the flirtation between the elites and the middle classes that toy with the idea of Bolsonaro being president and the current of sympathy for him among the popular classes. Some, because they believe that with him as a president, their million dollar business will grow and privileges will thrive, and others because they believe that a strong man type figure is needed to end the recession, corruption, and violence. That he will bring “order and progress” back to Brazil that existed only in a mythical past, perhaps only during the dictatorship that is now a distant memory.

Among an intense sound of weapons, the electoral campaign is being agitated, and has become aggressive. The stabbing of Bolsonaro has confined him to campaigning from a hospital bed most of the time, but it has turned him into a victim, raising his popularity levels to 28%. With Lula in jail, the PT designated Fernando Haddad as their candidate – a cultured, articulate and moderate politician that intends to reconfigure the polls, already reaching around 23%. He will most probably be the candidate running against Bolsonaro.

The scapegoating of the PT for the country’s problems, could activate a protest vote that may help Bolsonaro to achieve a majority. And that is very dangerous for democracy.

However in the second round, an “anti-Workers Party” sentiment that has been developing among the disappointed popular classes alongside the scapegoating of the PT for the country’s problems, could activate a protest vote that may help Bolsonaro to achieve a majority. And that is very dangerous for democracy.

Avoiding catastrophe

In this wave of emotions that the world of politics is experiencing in which many world powers in Europe alongside the US have fallen for populism of all kinds, accompanied often by ultra-right wing rhetoric, the hope that Brazil won’t follow suit is weak.

If emotions triumph over reason as it seems to be the case, and Bolsonaro wins, we will be forced to live through very dark times.

The threat of Bolsonaro is much worse than that of López Obrador of Mexico or Duque of Colombia for everyone. In Brazil, it is a matter of urgency constructing agreement and dialogue to build a more functional nation and to continue with the modernisation that the New Republic let fall by the wayside.

But if emotions triumph over reason as it seems to be the case, and Bolsonaro wins, we will be forced to live through very dark times in a country that, in spite of this unthinkable idea, is still full of hope and future. Mobilisations like the one lead by women under the  campaign are likely to encourage people to swim against the tide.

Whoever passes through to the second round, they must recognise that to face up to authoritarianism, all democrats must create a common front to close the path towards that catastrophe.

About the author

Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Founder, Director and Lead Editor of democraciaAbierta. Francesc is an international affairs expert, journalist and political analyst. His most recent book, "Order and disorder in the 21st century. Gobal governance in a world of anxieties", was published in 2016. He Tweets @fbadiad 

Francesc Badia i Dalmases es Fundador, Director y Editor de democraciaAbierta. Periodista y analista político, es experto en asuntos internacionales.  Su libro más reciente, "Orden y desorden en el siglo XXI. Gobernanza global en un mundo de ansiedades", fue publicado en 2016. Twitter @fbadiad


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