Back to normality?



Anti-politics is very diverse. It is a set of phenomena that feed on a generalized annoyance

The election of Jair Bolsonaro, in 2018, was understood as a real political earthquake. The far-right candidate, whom few had taken seriously, almost won in the first round, when he obtained 46% of the votes.

The space of the political center was then eroded, the postulant of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Geraldo Alckmin, not having reached 5% of the votes in the dispute. The party, which had governed for eight years and reached the second round in the last five presidential elections, had grown from a bench of 54 deputies elected in 2014 to 29 parliamentarians four years later.

On the left, the Workers' Party (PT) – the group that had dominated its political field since 1989, the date of the first direct presidential election in 29 years – was not destroyed, but weakened considerably. The PT name in dispute, Fernando Haddad, received, in the first round of 2018, just over 29% of the votes, a result that put him on the same level as the elections of the 1990s, when, twice, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva was defeated by the PSDB supporter Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In the Chamber, the PT continued to be the largest party with 56 deputies, a number, however, that was equivalent to 13 parliamentarians less than the number elected in 2014.

In more serious terms, the anti-PT vote was an important component in an election held after 14 years of party governments. A diffuse malaise that had spread at least since the June 2013 protests contributed to the election result; a serious economic crisis attributed, in large part, to party administrations; and the almost daily accusations of corruption carried out by the so-called Lava Jato Operation.

No less important, the favorite, according to the polls, Lula, had his candidacy challenged by the electoral justice when he was leading with 39% of the voting intentions and, shortly afterwards, he was arrested due to accusations of corruption. If Bolsonaro did not have time in the free slot – 8 seconds against Alckmin’s 5 minutes and 32 seconds in each of his two blocks – he made up for what had been the decisive factor in electoral disputes since redemocratization by creating a relatively new vehicle, the internet, an efficient communication network, in which calls fake news proliferated.

The speech of the candidate of the tiny Social Liberal Party (PSL) raged against the “old policy”. Such an orientation could be related to a kind of global anti-political wave that seemed to manifest itself in events, such as the victory of the Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the USA and the good vote of parties both on the right and on the left that are imprecisely called populist. A usual explanation of this phenomenon attributes great weight to the erosion of globalization, suggesting that the “losers” of financial liberalization, implemented since the 1990s, would finally be reacting.

In fact, anti-politics is very diversified and should perhaps be understood as a set of varied phenomena that feed on a generalized annoyance. In the case of Jair Bolsonaro, his program, despite its explicit inspiration from Donald Trump, more closely resembled an earlier incarnation of the US Republican Party, which had especially identified itself with the Ronald Reagan presidency, ironically one of the drivers of globalization.

The ham actor was elected in 1980, combining the defense of conservative values ​​with economic liberalism. Unlikely formula that the retired captain repeated in the 2018 Brazilian elections. But while in the US the coalition originally led by the Goldwater candidacy, in 1964, had to wait 16 years to be victorious, in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro benefited from what he gave the impression of being a sudden collapse of the regime that had been formed with redemocratization.

In any case, it seemed unlikely that assuming right-wing positions in the country, as Jair Bolsonaro did, would bring political success. A civil-military dictatorship that lasted 21 years stigmatized this political orientation to the point that a politician linked to the regime like Paulo Maluf came to define himself as center-left. On the other hand, more than a decade of PT government had led the left to be identified with the status quo. The resulting erosion combined with a cultural offensive, with an international dimension, against “political correctness” made the right to become over time until trendy.

In social terms, Jair Bolsonaro knew how to gather support both in the “market” and among Pentecostals. The first group was seduced by the promise of deepening economic liberalization which, since the 1990s, has advanced by leaps and bounds in the country. More recently, Michel Temer guaranteed the support of the bourgeoisie, strongly hegemonized by financial capital, for the parliamentary coup that had raised him to power through similar commitments. However, the “reform agenda” always ran into lack of popular support.

The sympathy of evangelicals, around 30% of the electorate, for Jair Bolsonaro's candidacy could partially offset this difficulty. Not by chance, already as a deputy he paid great attention to moral issues, such as the fight against the “gay kit” and abortion. In order to cultivate good relations with this segment, he started to defend even issues apparently without great popular appeal, such as the homeschooling.

The presence of Paulo Guedes in the Ministry of Economy and Damares Alves in the significantly (re)named Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights condensed, in a certain way, these two feet of the new government. In a complementary way, deputy Tereza Cristina was appointed as Minister of Agriculture, a way of consolidating the support of the agribusiness at a time of reprimarization of the Brazilian economy.

The main measure of the economic program of the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro was the Social Security Reform. However, it was approved mainly due to the commitment of the then mayor, Rodrigo Maia. However, the Expenditure Ceiling, adopted during the Temer government, was maintained, effectively blocking the possibility for the government to make investments.

The “customs agenda” advanced even less. Few, for example, continue to speak today of initiatives such as the “school without a party”. On the other hand, themes of a kind of cultural war capable of keeping Bolsonaro supporters mobilized were incessantly agitated. Even though legislative initiatives aimed at encouraging firearms were barred by the Federal Supreme Court (STF), it was possible for gun ownership to triple during the current government.

The few achievements of Jair Bolsonaro's presidency should not, however, deceive, since the president's open purpose, made explicit even before his election, was destruction. Entire areas, such as science and technology, culture, human rights, education, environment, foreign policy, etc. were razed, or else, as Ricardo Salles explained at the fateful ministerial meeting on April 22, 2020, the cattle were allowed to pass by.

With regard to social policies, in contrast to the 59,2% increase in the minimum wage during the PT administrations, there was no real increase in the last three years. In broader terms, as shown by Amélia Cohn, in an article in New Moon, a real policy of “social slaughter” was promoted, in which, for example, the “fine-tooth comb” operation was carried out in social security and assistance and in the Bolsa Família Program, renamed Auxílio Brasil, making the queue of those waiting for the benefit currently reaches more than 750 thousand families. Even more seriously, Brazil has returned to the Hunger Map.

Jair Bolsonaro promised not to govern with the “old policy”. However, two and a half years after his election, it depends on Congress like no other president since redemocratization. Spending on parliamentary amendments practically tripled under the retired captain, from R$11,3 billion in 2018, the last year of the Temer administration, to a forecast of R$35,6 billion in 2022.

The defining moment of Jair Bolsonaro's presidency was the outbreak, in March 2020, of the coronavirus in Brazil. Cornered, due to poor management of the pandemic – which has already killed more than 670 people in the country – the president began to rely on the so-called Centrão. This was the way he found to guarantee his political survival and, more immediately, avoid impeachment. The retired captain's marriage to the "old politics" was definitively consecrated with his affiliation to the Liberal Party (PL), of Waldemar Costa Neto, a former prisoner in the Mensalão scandal.

But even at the worst moment of evaluation, Jair Bolsonaro did not have less than 20% of voters, according to Datafolha, who considered his administration as excellent or good. He managed, therefore, to create a faithful base that seems to be almost indifferent to the possible ills of the government and the country. Even the rapprochement with Centrão, which evidently contradicts the campaign speech, seems to have been absorbed by the group of the irreducible, apparently convinced that the retired captain had to make compromises in a hostile world that he still intends to transform.

It is true that also during the pandemic, the Bolsonaro government achieved unprecedented levels of popular approval, with, according to Datafolha, 37% of respondents considering, in August 2020, his administration as excellent or good. The main reason for this assessment was the Emergency Aid of BRL 600,00 instituted due to Covid-19. There is a certain irony that one of the main effects of such a measure was to leverage the president's popularity, since the government originally defended a contribution of R$ 200,00, the value having reached R$ 600,00 just due to at the insistence of Congress.

However, the policy of destruction soon took its toll. Withdrawal of the aid and even with its resurrection under the name of Auxílio Brasil – with the declared objective of burying Bolsa Família, of undeniable PT brand – Bolsonaro’s popularity did not recover significantly, having gone from 22% in November 2021 to 26 % in June 2022. Not least, an important character who had been removed from the political scene without further explanation also, without further explanation, returned to it by the work and grace of the STF: Lula, who was released from prison in November 2019 , and had his political rights restored, in March 2021.

The new political framework became largely unfavorable to Bolsonaro. Thus, since the beginning of 2022, the government has been committed to promoting a series of “goodness packages”, which will allow the president to regain the support he had on account of the Emergency Aid. The last and most daring of these initiatives is the so-called Kamikaze PEC, established in collusion with Congress and with the decree of a state of emergency, interested in maintaining the unprecedented power that it came to have in the last presidency. To this end, the Auxílio Brasil returns to the value of the Emergency Aid, R$ 600,00, seeks to eliminate its queue, creates a gas allowance, a truck driver allowance and other benefits for various categories, calculating that their costs would reach to more than R$ 41 billion for the public coffers.

However, so far, the electoral dispute has remained stable between Lula and Bolsonaro. The single most significant shock in favor of the president was felt in March, with the abandonment of the candidacy of Sérgio Moro, when a good part of the “Lavajatista” electorate returned to support the retired captain. In this sense, perhaps it can be considered that just as a significant Bolsonarist electorate crystallized over the last three and a half years, an even more numerous anti-Bolsonarist electorate also formed.

There is little doubt that Bolsonaro will seek to strike a blow. Also because, following the example of his inspiration, Donald Trump, he does not hide his intentions. The only uncertainty is whether he will have enough strength to carry out his purposes.

More important is to assess what the meaning of an eventual Lula victory will be. There are many who suggest that the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro would represent a return to normality, at least the one established since redemocratization. The choice of Geraldo Alckmin as Lula's running mate clearly has that meaning, a decision that despite not bringing many votes has a strong symbolic value, as it unites former opponents. In a revealing way, the presidential candidate even spoke, with nostalgia, of the alleged civilized disputes between the PT and the PSDB of the not so distant past.

We must not, however, deceive ourselves. Jair Bolsonaro may have appeared like an earthquake leaving what was once the New Republic in rubble. However, it is strongly anchored in the history of a country that emerged as a colony and that never had much regard for the majority of its population, whose ancestors were forcibly brought from Africa.

*Bernardo Ricupero He is a professor in the Department of Political Science at USP. Author, among other books, of Romanticism and the idea of ​​nation in Brazil (WMF Martins Fontes).

Originally published on New Moon Newsletter.


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