50.50: Opinion

Bolsonaro is leaving office, but his far-right movement is here to stay

Opinion: The outgoing Brazilian president is merely a symptom of the conservative tide sweeping Latin America

Sonia Correa Juan Elman
Sonia Correa Juan Elman
10 November 2022, 6.08pm

Truck drivers, followers of Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro, block a highway during a protest over Bolsonaro's defeat in the presidential run-off election. Curitiba, Parana state, Brazil, 1 November, 2022

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REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo / Rodolfo Buhrer

The 2018 rise to power of Brazil’s outgoing president, Jair Bolsonaro, was fleeting and resounding – taking local and international observers by surprise.

A former low-ranking military officer and congressman, Bolsonaro was known for his misogynistic and homophobic statements, but he did not have much political capital. His success was facilitated by growing discontent with the ruling left-wing Workers' Party (PT), which began in 2013 with mass mobilisations fueled by demands for better public services as the government made huge investments in two sporting mega-events in Brazil, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

PT’s then-president Dilma Rousseff narrowly won a second term in office in 2014. But political unrest continued to grow, mainly as a result of the economic recession and corruption scandals that hit the party during Operation Car Wash (‘Lava Jato’). This was a series of anti-corruption investigations, that put dozens of politicians and businessmen in jail, and discredited the political system – demonising the PT. The public unrest sparked by the investigations, as well as the discrediting of the PT, led to the impeachment of Rousseff in 2016 and the conviction and imprisonment of former president and left-wing leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, in 2018.

Against this backdrop, Brazilian demonstrators turned to the right ahead of the 2018 elections. With Lula imprisoned, Bolsonaro was able to deploy his digital politics to forge direct relations with the electorate, making extensive use of fake news in the race against the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad. He attacked ‘gender ideology’ as the other face of ‘communism’ – which has become synonymous with ‘Petism’, a term referring to the PT party. In doing so, Bolsonaro created a scapegoat for corruption, sexual panic and public insecurity.

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Positioning himself as Brazil's saviour, Bolsonaro made huge inroads in multi-class and heterogeneous constituencies, as research by anthropologist Isabela Kalil has shown. But he was already the favourite candidate of the arms industry, agribusiness and financial markets, as well as high-ranking military officers. And he had his electoral stronghold in Rio de Janeiro, made up of police, low-ranking military and militias (gangs of current and former police officers that profit from extortions and the illegal selling of basic services such as electricity, gas, water or internet), connected to other parts of the country. His ‘moral’ positions on issues such as gender rights and equal marriage resonated with the views of ultra-Catholicism and evangelical fundamentalism.

In 2018, Bolsonaro was also aided by the Brazilian traditional centre right performing poorly. That Geraldo Alckmin, a centre-right politician who won barely 5% of the vote in 2018, was Lula's running mate this year shows the erosion of the traditional right continues. Last month, centrist candidates again failed to win more than 5% of the vote despite having had the support of economic elites reluctant to back Lula – who ultimately beat Bolsonaro to win the election.

Bolsonaro's legacy

As the centre right collapsed in Brazil and across Latin America, the far right expanded and gained strength, as Bolsonaro’s electoral performances and the 2021 elections in Chile show.

When Bolsonaro came to power, four decades had passed since the fall of military dictatorships in South America. Elected with a weak, loosely structured party behind him, Bolsonaro built his power on the bargains typical of the Brazilian political system, mainly thanks to an agreement with a group of parties in Congress, known as ‘Centrão’, which grant governability in exchange for cash and positions. This oiled a massive electoral machine that helped him to win almost 60 million votes in the second round of last month’s election, despite his mediocre economic management of Brazil and his disastrous response to Covid-19, which resulted in more than 700,000 deaths.

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Over the past four years, Bolsonaro took the far-right ideology to a state level – overseeing the systematic repudiation of gender perspectives in public policies, while attacking the right to abortion and Indigenous peoples’ rights. He induced and sustained hatred among his followers, and channelled resources to religious groups, funding their controversial drug rehabilitation projects and using public money to buy adverts in Evangelical media.

He leaves the far right stronger in Congress (Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party is the largest group in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate), in control of key state governments, and with a more organised and better deployed – geographically and socially – political base. A significant portion of the traditional right-wing electorate has merged and homogenised with the ‘Bolsonarism’ hard core, argues researcher Camila Rocha, of the Brazilian Centre for Analysis and Planning.

At the same time, “in the 2022 elections there were signs that Bolsonarism, like Frankenstein, is detaching itself from its creator and becoming more violent”, anthropologist Isabela Kalil told openDemocracy. “This was visible in the protests and roadblocks after the 30 October presidential run-off, some of which were funded by local businessmen,” she added.

Brazil, a node of the transnational far-right

Brazil’s shift to the extreme right must be analysed in the context of specific national dynamics. But it should also be seen as the Brazilian expression of the global far-right resurgence, which has been underway in Europe and the Americas since the early 2010s, but whose genealogy takes us much further back in time. The attack on the term ‘gender’ that took place in the run-up to the 1995 UN World Conference on Women, for example, is described by academics as the inaugural moment of the current ‘anti-gender’ politics, whose effects in Brazil are unmistakable.

Since the 1970s, starting in Europe and the United States, this ideological reorganisation has been loose and gradual, but steady. Along its course, secular and religious ultra-conservatism abandoned their static positions of defending existing political orders, and began investing in ‘meta-political mobilisations’ detached from state institutions and political parties. This “conservative revolution”, to use the language of Brazilian philosopher Marcos Nobre, has been defined by various analysts as the ‘right's Gramscian turn’, a strategy to promote cultural change and secure political hegemony, following the theory of the Italian communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci.

Starting in 2018, Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo forged strong links with the US far right – as a recent openDemocracy article exposed – particularly with former president Donald Trump's strategist, Steve Bannon and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

In the past four years, Brazil has become a hub for these plots and a stopping point for extreme right global figures. Bolsonaro is leaving power, but this web of connections will remain active.

A regional alert

Lula's victory in the Brazilian presidential election was rightly welcomed by progressive forces across the region. It entailed a hard-fought effort against far-right digital politics and its brand-new electoral machine. In its final moments, Lula’s campaign had to address a diversity of electoral coercion tactics, exposed in numerous reports of employers pressuring their workers to vote for Bolsonaro.

In a way, the Brazilian elections mark the peak of a new Latin American progressive political cycle, as the left won six of the last eight presidential elections in the region and will, for the first time, govern Latin America's top five economies (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico).

But Lula will join a political movement with signs of crisis and many challenges. In contrast to in the early 2000s, these current progressive governments face greater political and economic constraints to realise their agendas. The climate of unease and weariness has deepened in recent years, in the face of a discouraging socio-political picture.

Although in Brazil, appreciation for democracy was this year the highest in decades, regional public opinion polls such as Latinobarómetro register a growing disaffection towards democratic institutions and a marked rejection of political leaders. Due to the pandemic, the region went back 20 years in terms of social progress, reversing essential achievements made in the century’s first decade, especially in poverty reduction. Meanwhile, the middle classes are suffering more from the precariousness of life and calling for better public services.

In such a scenario, Bolsonaro's electoral resilience and the consolidation of the movement he brought about are relevant. His success set an example for other right-wing politicians in the region, such as Javier Milei in Argentina and José Antonio Kast in Chile. The transnational connections behind far-right forces are now more solid, as they have been attempting to replicate and adapt Bolsonaro's tactics and narratives to their countries’ realities, with an uneven but rising electoral success. Bolsonaro's personal affiliation with, and proximity to, different social groups – from police officers to agricultural workers – coupled with the evaporation of the traditional right, has been closely examined by these regional forces, which look to whip up social unrest in order to establish themselves as protagonists of the political game.

If the US experience is anything to go by – and it should be, considering the similarities of these far-right movements – the ongoing survival of Trumpism suggests that once these forces win political power, it is hard to wipe them off the map.

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