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Brazil: no doubt. Bolsonaro is the one to beat

In Brazil, expectations for the presidential elections on October 7th are increasing. And while the candidates are preparing for this evening’s face to face that will probably glue the already super-tuned citizens, the tensions do not seem to relax. Finally, Fernando Haddad accused Bolsonaro of spreading fake news about him and his family; Jair, for his part, asking voters to help him win in the first round, also said that if Fernando wins, he will certainly respect the outcome of the elections but he will not proceed in a formal phone call to congratulate him.

Tonight, meanwhile, Bolsonaro will not be on TV at the suggestion of doctors, given the few days since leaving the hospital after the stabbing to which he fortunately escaped. But Jair certainly does not miss the juicy opportunity to attract a few more votes and will avoid the absence on a live TV, through a Facebook live during the day.

In view of the vote on Sunday, however, it seems they are the two main contenders in the race to the presidential throne. In the latest polls, it should be noted that Bolsonaro would reach 32% of the votes, while, Haddad 23%. Even the markets seem to react positively to the name of Jair: the Bovespa stock index rose by 3.8%, and the currency of Brazil touched 1.93%, with a positive trend for the first time in a good six weeks .

And while many are opposed to the rise of a character known for his heavy observations on women, indigenous people, human rights and LGBT communities, on the side of the candidate of the social-liberal Party, there is the index of an increasing violence that scares the population. Brazil, in fact, recorded a record of 63,880 homicides last year and the candidate, with its quick and attractive solutions, seems to be the safest answer to this scourge.

We talked about the vote and about Jair Bolsonaro with Andre Pagliarini, visiting assistant professor of modern Latin American history at Brown University.

What does Brazil expect from this election? Why there is a ‘polarization’?

Most Brazilians are deeply unhappy about the circumstances of this election. One element that illustrates this is the fact that both leading candidates have very high rejection rates according to the polls. People don’t necessarily love or even particularly like the person they are voting for, but they are terrified of either the center-left or the extreme right coming to power. Everyone agrees the next few years will be challenging for the economy given the structural obstacles Brazil faces. There is serious disagreement over how to deal with the nation’s problems, however, which has produced some of the worst polarization in the country’s recent history. The conservative electorate coalescing around Jair Bolsonaro embraces an agenda of unrestrained economic liberalism involving widespread privatizations of state enterprises and a drastically reduced role for the state in social affairs. Bolsonaro combines this with a radical rhetorical campaign against human rights. On the other side, Fernando Haddad proposes a return to the economic formulae of the first administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Because of the corruption scandals and economic downturn under Haddad’s Workers’ Party (PT), many moderate conservatives are willing to embrace the radical right-wing Bolsonaro as the only man capable of defeating the Workers’ Party.

Is Jair Bolsonaro the real ‘frontrunner’? What are his weaknesses? And his strengths? Does ‘Lula’s issue’ have anything to do with this?

There is no longer any doubt that Bolsonaro is the person to beat in this race. For many reasons, including the disastrous current administration of Michel Temer, which the parties of the center-right created by impeaching Dilma Rousseff of the PT, moderate conservative voters have radicalized in their electoral intentions. They have mostly abandoned the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy, which had long been the main national counterpoint to Lula and his followers, in favor of Bolsonaro’s more extreme reactionary inclinations. Indeed, this is Bolsonaro’s great strength: he represents a viable alternative for all those who believe the traditional conservative parties were incapable of defeating the PT. Bolsonaro’s extremism distills the widespread dissatisfaction many Brazilians feel at the PT’s real and imagined failings. Because the opposition has lost four straight national elections to the PT, many conservatives are willing to try something different. Polls have consistently shown that if Lula had been allowed to run, he would have won easily. On one hand, his imprisonment on charges of corruption has motivated the PT’s base to rally around Haddad, lifting the relatively unknown form mayor of São Paulo to second place in the race; on the other hand, Lula’s continued influence from behind bars absolutely infuriates conservatives who believe an inmate should not have a say on national affairs. This dynamic pushes even more center-right voters into the arms of Bolsonaro. 

Who supports Bolsonaro? Why?

Polls show that the core of his support is composed of young, educated white men who are likely attracted to his assertive personality. The poorest Brazilians can still be expected to vote for Haddad, but Bolsonaro has been able to consolidate ample support among the middle and upper classes, groups that equate the return of the PT with corruption, economic crisis, and violence in the streets. Bolsonaro’s simplistic talk of unleashing police forces against any and all criminal elements is intuitively appealing to many Brazilians genuinely afraid of rampant criminality. There is also a small but significant group of voters who like Bolsonaro’s unapologetic defense of the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Openly praising the regime has been taboo for almost three decades, but Bolsonaro does so without reservation. 

And who are his opponents? There is a strong female movement against him; why? 

Progressives, generally, and the poor. Women have been a solid group of opposition to Bolsonaro, driven largely by his open misogyny. In the past, for example, he told a member of Congress that he would not rape her because she did not deserve it. He has said it is acceptable for women to be paid less than men because they have the potential to get pregnant. Women of color in particular seem resistant to Bolsonaro, likely because they understand that his exterminatory approach to law and order will target them, their sons, husbands, and brothers first. Interestingly, recent polls suggest Bolsonaro has actually gained female adherents in recent days, but this is probably due to the fact that women who were planning to vote for other more moderate conservatives are migrating toward the far right. Bolsonaro is toxic to those even vaguely committed to the notion of human rights. 

If Bolsonaro will arrive at 28 October, who will be his rival? Haddad? What about the other candidates?

The first round of voting will be held on October 7. After that, the field of 13 candidates will be reduced to 2 for the run-off election on October 28. Bolsonaro and Haddad are almost certain to be the 2 candidates in the second round of voting, the former for his ability to incarnate many people’s primal anti-PT sentiment and the latter for his ability to mobilize those who remember the Lula years fondly and who fear the devastating potential of an extremist like Bolsonaro. Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labor Party, currently in third place, is desperately trying to convince progressives that he is the safer pick to beat Bolsonaro, an argument actually supported by the polls. Ciro is a former mayor and governor from the northeastern state of Ceará who served as a cabinet member in the first Lula administration. Earlier in the campaign, he tried to present himself as an option for those on the center-left reluctant to support the PT after the scandals and missteps of Lula and Dilma. While he has maintained a consistent base of support—around 11% in recent polls—it is unlikely that Ciro will be able to break through given the consolidated electoral strength of the PT.

What has ‘really’ changed after Bolsonaro stubbing? The polls seem clear…

The stabbing was a sad episode of political violence in a country that has seen such incidents diminish in recent years, though it has always been an issue. Earlier this year, for example, Marielle Franco, a lesbian Afro-Brazilian city councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro, was assassinated in a clearly coordinated political attack. Despite nearly killing him, the stabbing has without question aided Bolsonaro’s campaign. Images of him recovering in a hospital bed produced widespread sympathy, which translated into a slight bump in the polls. He has also been absent from the televised debates, a blessing considering that his opponents would likely tumble over themselves to tear him down and that he is not an effective debater. His opponents were reluctant to go on the offensive against him in their ads and speeches for fear of seeming insensitive. In short, it’s hard to argue the stabbing did anything but further Bolsonaro’s campaign. 

Markets are giving favorable signs to Jair; what do you think about it?

I have anecdotal evidence that this is yet another development that has led even more moderate conservatives to support Bolsonaro. After all, they reason, if the markets are okay with Bolsonaro, maybe he is not so bad. The main reason that Bolsonaro has been able to placate financial markets is that early in the campaign he made clear that Paulo Guedes, a University of Chicago-trained economist, would be his finance minister. Bolsonaro, who is not seen as particularly bright or knowledgeable about economic issues, has delegated his entire economic agenda to Guedes, a banker with deep ties to financial giants in Brazil and abroad. For conservative voters reluctant to support Bolsonaro for his extreme views against human rights, his promise to carry out a radical liberal economic agenda has been enticing.  

And what about Paulo Guedes?

Perhaps the single most important thing Bolsonaro has done in order to secure institutional credibility for his campaign was to name Paulo Guedes as his future finance minister early in the campaign. Guedes is an ultra-liberal economist trained at the University of Chicago, a Chicago Boy of the kind Latin America has had some experience with in the past. The markets, and the individuals who determine their direction, see Guedes as a reliable figure who will push supposedly more rational economic policies than the PT even if they are drastically anti-popular. They trust Bolsonaro and Guedes to not shy away from austerity measures, for example, if it means preserving the support of financial observers concerned about Brazil’s long-term fiscal health. The tension comes from the fact that, of course, there are things more important than markets. The market does not always value reducing social inequality, for example, or preserving quality public education at the university level. In their economic decisions, Brazilian leaders have often had to contend with whether to please financial elites or the majority of Brazilians. In that sense, the selection of Paulo Guedes makes rather clear the direction Bolsonaro plans to take.

I’m thinking about Trump and many similarities come to my mind; this seems a ‘world trend’. Is Brazil going to the same direction?

Bolsonaro himself has consistently sought to link his campaign to Donald Trump’s surprising success. After the 2016 election in the United States, for example, Bolsonaro congratulated Trump on Twitter and said that in October 2018 it would be Brazil’s turn to shock the political establishment with a populist victory. There is no doubt that Bolsonaro’s success results from many of the same factors that have propelled right-wing extremists around the world, including economic crisis, demographic change, and shifting cultural norms. At the same time, however, it’s important not to exaggerate the similarities. Bolsonaro, a retired army captain who has served in Congress for 27 years, is a thoroughly Brazilian phenomenon, drawing on a long tradition of proposing violent solutions to the problems that arise from endemic poverty. Throughout Brazilian history, political leaders have almost always neglected policies to ameliorate long-term inequality in favor of harsh short-term measures against marginalized groups. Bolsonaro is not innovating when he offers brutal facile solutions to the nation’s problems.

How can a democratic country as Brazil accept (maybe) a man like Bolsonaro? Will he win? And what will be the consequences?

It’s important to keep in mind that Brazilian democracy is very young. After the country gained its independence in 1822, it was ruled by a strong monarchy until 1889 when the military forcefully sent the emperor and his family into exile and installed a republic. For the first century of the country’s life, there was no real popular experience with democracy. There have been seven different constitutions in Brazilian history and four coups d’état in the twentieth century, all of which involved military men like Bolsonaro. Thus, Bolsonaro, who represents the contempt for popular democracy that has long characterized elite politics in Brazil, is not as abnormal as one might assume. During the Lula years, there was the widespread perception, supported by numerous economic indicators, that economic inequality and social exclusion in Brazil were trending downward. This clearly upset a precarious middle class and elite that saw their relative status threatened by an ascendant working class. Bolsonaro represents the violent response to a perceived loss of status. The second round of voting will be close. I am reluctant to make any predictions, but I fear a Bolsonaro victory. Much like after Trump’s victory, there will be much debate over whether his extreme campaign promises will actually become law. Much like in the United States under Trump, however, it will not really matter whether Bolsonaro actually acts on every single thing he has said he will do. Life for the most marginalized people will indelibly be worse.


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