Between the first and second round

Image: Michelle Guimaraes


The Brazilian right has finally found a mass leader, very different from the elitist intellectuals and technocrats of the PSDB

On October 2, Brazilians went to the polls to vote for president, state governors, senators, as well as federal and state deputies. Former President Lula, from the Workers' Party (PT), received 48% of the votes in the presidential race, while current President Jair Bolsonaro, from the Liberal Party (PL), obtained 43%. According to opinion polls on the eve of the elections, around 50% of voters declared that they would vote for Lula and around 35% for Jair Bolsonaro.

In addition to the narrower margin of difference than expected between Lula and Jair Bolsonaro, the fact that candidates for governor, senator and deputy who support and are supported by Jair Bolsonaro have performed very well at the polls surprised actors from politics, academia and from the media. In São Paulo, the gubernatorial candidate supported by Jair Bolsonaro, who ranked second in the polls, received 42% of the votes, while the PT candidate, who polls predicted would come in first, reached 37%.

In the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, candidates supported by Jair Bolsonaro obtained 59% and 56% of the votes for governor, respectively – which means that they were already elected, as the Brazilian electoral system only requires a second round when candidates executive positions receive less than 50% of the vote.

In the second round of presidential elections, Jair Bolsonaro has the support of his triumphant gubernatorial candidates in these three states, the most populous and richest in the country. In the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Jair Bolsonaro did emerge from the first round with more votes than Lula. Lula, in turn, gathered the support of the presidential candidates who were in third and fourth place: Simone Tebet, from the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), and Ciro Gomes, from the Democratic Labor Party (PDT).

The electoral map of Brazil shows that Jair Bolsonaro obtained more votes than Lula in the richest states in the South, Southeast and Midwest of the country. On the other hand, Lula had an advantage in the Northeast and North of Brazil. In Salvador, for example, Lula obtained 67% of the votes and Jair Bolsonaro only 24%. This geographic distribution of votes between, so to speak, the left and the right is not, in itself, something new in Brazil – it has been consistent since the beginning of the 21st century.

What is new, however, is a tectonic movement of replacement of neoliberal forces – which, since the early 1990s, after redemocratization and the enactment of the new Constitution, occupied the niche of the right – by the forces of Bolsonaro and the political constellation around him. around, which has been called “Bolsonarism”. These neoliberal forces were internally heterogeneous, but gravitated around the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), founded in the late 1980s by former opponents of the military dictatorship. The PSDB governed the country from 1995 to 2002, with the PT as the most important opponent in the 1994 and 1998 elections, while the latter won the elections between 2002 and 2014 with the PSDB as its main competitor. Since the 2018 elections, however, Bolsonaro has managed to present himself as politically hegemonic within the right-wing camp and galvanize that leadership position.

The broader regional division presented above goes hand in hand with other divisions such as those of income and religion. As with previous PSDB candidacies, Jair Bolsonaro has more support than Lula among the middle and upper classes across the country. In addition, Jair Bolsonaro receives support from the majority of Brazilian evangelicals – a religious segment divided between different churches that has grown consistently over the last four decades in Brazil. Unlike the first group, the latter is mainly composed of lower-income people. By the hands of pastors aligned with Jair Bolsonaro, evangelical churches have functioned as transmission chains of Bolsonarism among the poorest, although this income group predominantly votes for Lula.

Bolsonarista propaganda based on the affect of fear resonates particularly among these groups. This feeling is, first of all, a manufactured fear regarding the triumph of 'evil'. Unlike Europe and the United States, the issue of immigration, often mobilized by right-wing propaganda, is practically non-existent in Brazil, which means that threats to the integrity of the nation are considered, above all, to be internal. This 'evil' is represented by the umbrella concept of 'communism' propagated by Bolsonarism.

Such construction rests on and feeds a moral panic, according to which the heterosexual family is under threat of dissolution by a so-called 'gender ideology', which would seek to turn children into homosexuals, while Christianity would be being attacked by practices 'diabolic', such as atheism or Afro-Brazilian religions. The 'communists' would also seek to generate unnecessary divisions within the nation by addressing Brazil's colonial past of slavery, contemporary racism and the legacy of the military dictatorship of 1964-1985.

In addition, the 'communist' defense of social and economic inclusion and protection would threaten meritocracy, that is, the triumph of the smartest and hardest working people. The middle class, in particular, resented the empowerment of the poorest during the PT governments from 2003 to 2016: economically, in terms of access to goods and services, as well as symbolically, due to the vast expansion of higher education opportunities. The deeper meaning of the anti-PT slogan “I want my country back” is that such access to goods, services and higher education must remain a privilege of a white elite – a demand that exemplifies in a lapidary way what Aníbal Quijano called “coloniality of the power".

Mobilized by a speech equating the PT with corruption, produced by a coalition of the media, partial agents of the judiciary and the opposition in Congress, the Brazilian middle and upper classes took to the streets in 2015 and 2016 to demand the impeachment of the then president of the republic belonging to the Workers' Party, Dilma Rousseff – a process that was consummated in August 2016. Like others in Brazil, I call this event a parliamentary coup: the twisting of legal procedures to serve illegitimate ends. The accusations against Dilma Rousseff did not evidence any crime; however, the president was removed from office.

By undermining democratic institutions in this way, Brazilian elites opened Pandora's box, and the country has since had to deal with the monsters that came out of it. In line with international trends, politics on the Brazilian right-wing spectrum turned into anti-politics under the leadership of an authoritarian figure. This brought lies, conspiracy theories and emotional manipulation to the forefront. In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro embodied the anti-PT candidacy in a political atmosphere adverse to the Workers’ Party.

In 2022, however, after almost four years of marked incompetence, the disastrous confrontation of the COVID pandemic that led to more than 680.000 deaths, violent statements that include high doses of misogyny and the generalized impoverishment of the middle and lower classes, it seemed that his authoritarian affront to democracy could be more easily contained. The electoral polls apparently failed to capture the underground movements of Bolsonarism, were unable to capture the under-declared or silent voting tendencies of those who learned in recent years that “anything is better than the return of the PT to power”.

After almost four years in power and after having restructured the right-wing camp in Brazil, Bolsonarismo was, to some extent, politically normalized and became more socially entrenched. The Brazilian right has finally found a mass leader, very different from the elitist intellectuals and technocrats of the PSDB. These are some of the lessons we can learn from the first round of elections in Brazil. If Bolsonaro is elected for a second term, he will be able to follow in the footsteps of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Recep T. Erdoğan in Turkey, changing the legal rules and eroding democracy from within – a process in line with what the group of research from the University of Bremen has been calling it “soft authoritarianism” – especially since he would have a large majority in both houses of congress. The second round will take place on October 30 and, until then, the democratic forces must make every possible effort to identify and learn from the failure so far to face these new dynamics among the population.

*Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri is professor of sociology at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). Author, among other books, of Unfettered capitalism: The critique of domination in the debates at the Instituto de Pesquisa Social in the early 1940s and in the elaboration of the Dialectic of Enlightenment (Humanitas).

Originally published in English on Soft Authoritarianism.

Translation: Kelvin Santos Lima e Yngrid Baliero Santos.

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