An asymmetric polarization



A Lula victory will only be complete if Jair Bolsonaro and his clan are held accountable for the crimes they committed.

The congressional and state elections brought one certainty: the extreme right is here to stay. Bolsonarism is not a nightmare from which we would wake up after four years, but an element that will accompany Brazilian political life for a long time.

The reform of the electoral system, with the prohibition of coalitions and the effectiveness of the barrier clause, yielded a modest but noticeable effect. Throughout the New Republic, indicators of party fragmentation in Congress tended to worsen, a process that accelerated after the 2014 elections – that is, at the moment when the regime entered into crisis. The 2022 election revealed a picture of enormous fragmentation, but back to the levels of the mid-2000s, as shown in table 1.

The reduction of parties with parliamentary representation is usually seen, by the common sense of journalism and political science, as necessary for the consolidation of democracy in Brazil. But, obtained through arbitrary rules, it can mean little in terms of improving the representation. The merger of PSL and DEM, which generated União Brasil, reduced the number of parties. The new legend, however, is as invertebrate, disaggregated and opportunistic as the ones that gave rise to it, adding nothing in terms of programmatic commitment or clarity of profile before the electorate.

More important than the decrease in the number of parties is the profile of those elected. Although they make up, together, a mere 33% of the Chamber, PL and PT act as poles to the right and left, aggregating smaller parties, and will also be the poles of opposition and situation, towards which, depending on convenience, the deputies of the called Centron.

The PT's permanence as the flagship of one of the poles is significant, showing the electoral rooting and resilience of Lula's leadership. The party elected federal deputies in 19 states, three governors in the first round and went to the second round in four other states.

In the 2015-6 crisis, when Dilma Rousseff was overthrown with almost no resistance, there was no shortage of people who predicted that the time had come for a post-PT left. However, the PT's position is even stronger today. PSB and PDT have not only declined, but are finding it difficult to assert a leftist profile. The PSOL grows slowly and, in line with Lulism, barely manages to differentiate itself from the PT itself. Its most important sector, that of Guilherme Boulos, is practically an external tendency of PTism.

Although the succession to Lula's leadership is unknown, especially in the event that Fernando Haddad does not manage to reach the government of São Paulo, everything indicates that the PT will remain not only as a political force of the first magnitude, but as one of the structuring axes of the political dispute in Brazil.

The case of PL is different. Due to its characteristics (a personalist movement with an erratic leader, incapable of establishing a structure of intermediate leaderships), Bolsonarism has difficulty organizing itself as a party. It is not possible to say if the PL will have the same fate as the PSL or if it will in fact establish itself as the legend of Jair Bolsonaro and his followers.

What seems certain is that a cloud of far-right parliamentarians will remain active in the country, occupying the space of opposition to the PT that previously belonged to the center-right pole led by the PSDB. This is the amalgam of Bolsonarism, which merges religious conservatism (which allows it to activate moral panic, the key to its success with the popular base) with market fundamentalism (which guarantees it the sympathy of the upper floor).

Jair Bolsonaro has established himself as a great spokesperson for this field. On the one hand, the churches surrendered to him, abdicating any independence. On the other hand, competing ultraliberal initiatives lost any strength, as was the case with the MBL and the Novo party – the latter not only withered electorally but, under the command of Zema and Felipe d'Ávila, became an attachment to Bolsonarism.

The bench that the PL and its satellites elected is not necessarily made up of fanatical right-wingers. There is a good handful of old-fashioned opportunists, who just understood that a radicalized speech became the stepping stone to electoral success. Even so, they have a powerful incentive not to abandon the former captain: the failure at the polls of the former Bolsonaristas, of which the most glaring example is Joice Hasselmann, who lost more than a million votes – almost 99% of what there were reached – between 2018 and 2022. The exception is the lavajatistas, such as Sérgio Moro and Deltan Dallagnol, but it should be remembered that during the course of the campaign they returned to the bosom of Bolsonarism.

That is, even if not entirely sincere, these parliamentarians must be faithful to the extremism they displayed in the campaign.

Brazilian political science has always lamented the lack of programmatic commitment on the part of our representatives, the weakness of the representative bond. Now the situation has changed, but there is little to celebrate: it is a coherence between speech and action that works against, not in favor of, democracy. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for”…

The advance of an extreme right is not a phenomenon exclusive to Brazil – but we are among the countries with weak democratic institutions, therefore with less reaction conditions. The Supreme was demoralized by its collusion with the 2016 coup, the dismantling of the Constitution and the setback of rights, which makes it difficult to defend the separation of powers, however crucial at this moment.

The military leadership never adapted to civil control and the democratic regime, maintaining the nostalgia of the dictatorship. The mass media today present themselves as victims of Bolsonarism, which persecutes them and threatens them with censorship, but they were accomplices in the dismantling of the constitutional order, from support to the Lava Jato conspiracy to the “very difficult choice” speech in 2018. The movement popular movement, especially the trade union movement, is weakened and with low capacity for resistance.

The result of the October elections thus points to the continuation of the asymmetrical polarization between a left and, too and an aggressive right – which means keeping Brazil's weakened democracy under strain. But other developments are possible.

If Jair Bolsonaro is re-elected, we can expect a campaign to ban his political opponents, along the lines of Turkey or Hungary, with the aim of annihilating the left. If the institutions fail to block it, the PT will be asphyxiated and the polarization will become more virtual than real. We will move towards an authoritarian regime, without feasible political options.

A victory for Lula would only be complete if, in the new government, Jair Bolsonaro and his clan were held accountable for the many crimes they committed in recent years. This would also be the best way to fight the extreme right. The strength with which Bolsonarism left the polls, however, makes a more incisive punitive action unlikely. Even defeated on October 30, the current president will be awarded with impunity. What is worse, we will live under a paradox. Unable to make compromises and aware that it is the political agitation of the base that protects him, he will be safer the more he works to destabilize the new government.

These will be turbulent times, with no easy way out in sight. And this is the best case.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. Author, among other books, of Democracy in the capitalist periphery: impasses in Brazil (authentic).

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