The Bolsonarism Crisis


By Leonardo Avritzer*

Bolsonarism does not have a governance proposal, only extra institutional mobilization against the opposition, the political system and the media, the new coalition formed to fight the coronavirus.

Jair Bolsonaro was elected to the presidency due to a coalition of forces and very particular factors, among which two should be highlighted: anti-PTism and the way he dealt with social networks. Anti-PTism is a complex phenomenon that has several definitions, but what I would like to highlight here are the different elements, distributed over time, that characterize this feeling and the political behavior of public opinion in each of them.

Anti-PTism emerges in the 2006 elections when, for the first time since 1994, the Brazilian electorate is divided in the presidential elections in terms of region and income. Between the election of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1994 and the election of Lula in 2002, candidates elected president were elected in more than 90% of the states and achieved a majority in all economic segments.

In 2006, the division that the map below expresses begins and that will be accentuated in the following years with small variations, placing a significant part of the population of the south and southeast regions against the PT. From then on, the map below was consolidated and a process of political fracture in the country began, which led to Bolsonarism and which is perhaps coming to an end.

Map of votes in the 2nd round of the 2006 presidential election

Source: Institute of Democracy

As of 2010, this division, which was already regional, became an income division. As shown in the graph below, the average income of voters in the PT presidential candidates is at the same time being reduced while the proportion of low-income people who vote for the PT has been increasing. Thus, the cut-off point for the PT electorate was decreasing in terms of family income.

While, in 2002, the PT still had 30% of the votes of the electorate that earned between 3 and 5 minimum wages and even in 2006 it maintained almost the same mark, this electorate abandoned it almost entirely in 2010 and 2014. abandonment of the PT by voters with incomes between 5 and 10 minimum wages or more than 10 minimum wages. Thus, antipetism has a regional element and an income element that are central, but neither of these elements alone would lead to Bolsonarism.

PT voters by monthly family income

Source: Avritzer, Leonardo. The Pendulum of Democracy. São Paulo: However, 2019.

It is the third element of antipetism that interests me here because it led to Bolsonarism. As of 2014, due to the way in which the Lava Jato operation established selectivity in the fight against corruption by targeting members of the Workers' Party and choosing, regardless of the evidence, not to investigate members of other parties [1], especially the PSDB, the Anti-PTism acquired a moral and anti-political dimension.

On the moral side, what the enormous media manipulation of the Brazilian population generated was a conception that there was a corrupt political field, the one occupied by the PT, and a non-corrupt one, which involved the forces of the center. As the evidence against the forces of the center grew, in particular against the PMDB and PSDB, the field of ethical virtuosity shifted to the right until it became established in the figure of Jair Bolsonaro.

But the most important thing was the growth of an anti-political dynamic along with the moralization of anti-PTism. According to this conception, if corruption is removed from politics or if it is corrected, good government is automatically guaranteed. It was this conception that launched the middle-class electorate of the south and southeast regions into the arms of Jair Bolsonaro.

Jair Bolsonaro's conception of government, or (dis)government, has two pillars: the first pillar stems from the conception of anti-politics that developed in Brazil and assumes that political non-composition with the National Congress constitutes a form of government. Jair Bolsonaro set up a ministry in which very few ministers had relations with parties. Among them, it is worth highlighting Gustavo Bebianno, Onyx Lorenzoni, Luiz Henrique Mandetta and Osmar Terra.

Only two of them survive the presidential bulldozer and his strategy of devaluing his own ministers. Onyx Lorenzoni survives with very reduced powers and Luiz Henrique Mandetta suddenly faces a peak of exposure due to the health crisis. It is necessary to understand the problem that the new protagonism acquired by Mandetta poses for Bolsonaro. This protagonism does not only represent a relativization of the figure of the president. He is much more, because he represents the rehabilitation of the idea of ​​government based on science and the organization of public policies, which Bolsonaro seeks to deconstruct. As Mandetta gets support in the ministry, tension is established not only between him and the president, but between him and Bolsonarism as a conception of (mis)government.

The second element of tension between Bolsonaro and politics is established at its base in social networks. Bolsonaro has a broad base in the networks that is (or was) made up of three main groups: a group that refers directly to the president and his children and that is mobilized in a tactic of uncritical ratification of the president's positions, that is, whenever the president finds himself in trouble or arguing with the press, he launches a campaign to defend his views or attack specific people through this medium that ended up being dubbed the “hate office”.

The other element of insertion of Bolsonarism in the networks is a vast network of sites and profiles of the slightly more moderate right that included, in the past, movements like MBL, and Vem para a Rua, sites like the antagonist that amplified the defense of the president's positions beyond the Bolsonarist networks stricto sensu.

Finally, Bolsonaro was supported by a group of people who stood out on social networks: from influential businessmen, among whom stand out the owner of stores such as Havan, Riachuelo, to a diverse circle of artists and public personalities such as Alexandre Frota, Carlos Vereza and Janaina Paschoal, with whom Bolsonarism counted until a few weeks ago. It is in these two circles of support on social media that Bolsonaro has been losing support in recent weeks.

 Bolsonarism's reaction to its political isolation was the radicalization of the anti-social isolation discourse in an attempt to re-establish an anti-governability orientation. Last week, Bolsonaro carried out an informal ministerial overhaul. The councilor for Rio de Janeiro, his son Carlos Bolsonaro, participated in the meeting between him and his ministers. At the same time, he prepared a statement to the nation in which he questioned data on the impact of the coronavirus and, at the same time, boasted information about the cure based on hydroxychloroquine.

Again, it's worth remembering that none of this is new. In his 28 years as a federal deputy, Bolsonaro presented only one bill, which would legalize the so-called cancer pill (phosphoethanolamine) in Brazil, which, as is known, proved to be ineffective against cancer after regular scientific tests. That is, the retired captain has always acted in health from a common sense notion in tension with a technical vision and it is this vision that Bolsonaro seeks to re-establish.

However, as his ratification network on the internet collapsed and the mainstream press finally agreed to clarify the political disputes at the time, Bolsonaro for the first time since 2018 was unable to resume his anti-governability and anti-political conception. It was from then on that Bolsonarist hegemony, carefully constructed in the wake of anti-PTism, began to crumble.

The rapid collapse of the Bolsonaro government is due to its inability to mobilize its network of fake news against the discourse of social isolation in the epidemic, which ended up rehabilitating politics and straining the president's relationship with central groups that until then supported anti-politics, the mainstream media and the middle class mobilized on the balconies and windows of large Brazilian cities.

Opposition to the president entered political institutions and reached places never before imagined: the military and members of his ministry. The question is: is Bolsonaro able to survive without his network of fake news and the attack via common sense to scientific conceptions? Two alternatives arise, but in both cases, the end of Bolsonarism seems to be announced: the first alternative is impeachment or resignation. Bolsonaro lost or consolidated the loss of three decisive forms of support for governing: he consolidated the loss of support in Congress and the STF in a more radical way than before by passing on the image of irresponsible and incapable of governing.

He lost support in his ministry even among ministers with a strong centrality like Sergio Moro and Paulo Guedes who are no longer neutralized by the president. But, above all, he lost the support in social networks and in the middle classes that liquidated what is the strongest characteristic of Bolsonarismo: the tensioning of the political system carried out on a daily basis.

The other possibility besides his removal is the emergence of a “corded Bolsonaro” who attacks neither the political system nor the media, the one Brazil saw for the first time on Tuesday night. The problem with this “Bolsonaro sane” is that he loses his mobilizing core, that is, he dismisses the people of the “hate office”, encouraged by his children and first-time supporters. Bolsonarismo’s dilemma is that it cannot tension the opposition, political system and media due to the new coalition formed to fight the coronavirus and it cannot survive without tensioning them because it does not have a proposal for governance, only for extra-institutional mobilization against these sectors.

Whether the resignation will come or whether a compliant Bolsonaro will come is not yet clear. But both the “Bolsonaro Cordato” and the resignation represent the end of the proposal of an extra-institutional government of mobilization on social networks and in the streets and without concern for public policies that was carefully constructed by the mainstream media, by the Lava Jato operation and by the fundamentalists of the social media.

*Leonardo Avritzer Professor of Political Science at UFMG


[1] The main evidence in this direction was provided by Vazajato. According to a publication by The Intercept website obtained from a leak in the Telegram messaging application, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso was quoted in Lava Jato nine times and not all quotes involved prescribed crimes. Sérgio Moro, on April 13, 2017, argued for the prescription of possible crimes. Several press organizations reported FHC's e-mail to Marcelo Odebrecht, which even included a bank account number. With regard to José Serra, the evidence was even greater of accounts abroad receiving illegal funds.

See this link for all articles