Brazil in the abyss

THE worst-case political scenario in Brazil for the international community has unfortunately become a reality. Brazilian voters have chosen to repose their faith in an unvarnished extreme right-winger by the name of Jair Bolsonaro. The writing was on the wall after the first round of elections held in the first week of October. Bolsonaro, to the surprise of many pollsters, won a resounding 46 per cent of the votes cast, almost winning the presidency in the first round itself. His nearest rival from the Workers Party (PT), Fernando Haddad, could get only 29 per cent of the vote. A former mayor of Sao Paulo, Haddad had distinguished himself as a capable and honest administrator, but his entry into the presidential race as an eleventh-hour replacement for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva did not help. Bolsonaro was declared Brazil’s next President after he won 55.7 per cent of the votes in the second round.

When former President Lula was the candidate of the Workers Party, he established a comfortable lead over Bolsonaro in all the opinion polls. But the political scene underwent a dramatic change after Lula was unjustly barred from running and Bolsonaro was stabbed at a political rally. Lula’s forced exit from the contest left the PT bereft of a flag-bearer whose 10 years in power had radically changed the country. On the other hand, Bolsonaro milked the maximum political mileage out of the stabbing incident, sending out virulent video messages to the electorate from his hospital bed during the last weeks of the campaign.

The pink socialist tide that had swept Latin America is now at its lowest ebb. Neo-fascist demagogues singing the praises of past right-wing dictatorships have been filling the void left by retreating progressive and Left forces in many countries in the region successfully. A silver lining has been the decisive victory of the Left-leaning Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in the Mexican election, which was held in the middle of the year. The Trump administration is doing its best to bring about regime change in Left-ruled Venezuela and Nicaragua. Before the second decisive round of voting in Brazil, many intellectuals and leading personalities from Latin America had made an impassioned appeal to the Brazilian people about the dangers of a Bolsonaro presidency. Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine Nobel Peace laureate, warned Brazilians that a victory for Bolsonaro would pave the way for fascism and state terrorism.

When the presidential election campaign started, very few observers of the Brazilian political scene gave Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper in the military, a realistic chance to emerge on top of the political heap. He was an unabashed supporter of the brutal right-wing military dictatorship that was in power in Brazil in the last century and is notorious for his racist and homophobic views. Seasoned political commentators viewed him as unelectable, but he has confounded them and the international community. During his 28 years in the Brazilian parliament, Bolsonaro stood out only for his disgusting statements on women, blacks and indigenous groups.

When a fellow parliamentarian accused him of encouraging violence against women, Bolsonaro was seen on tape telling the woman senator that he would not rape her as she was “ugly”. He has apologised for fathering a daughter instead of a son. He once said that he would not hesitate to shoot his son if he turned out to be “gay”. He was not known for his leadership capabilities or organisational skills. During his speech preceding the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, he went to the extent of praising her torturers. Dilma Rousseff was arrested and tortured by the Brazilian military in the 1970s. He has openly said that he favours the use of torture and extrajudicial killings.

Bolsonaro said on the campaign trail that the army’s mistake during its long rule of two decades was that it did not physically eliminate more pro-democracy activists and revolutionaries. His running mate, Antonio Hamilton Mourao, a retired army general, said that he was in favour of another military coup in the country. Most of Bolsonaro’s choicest barbs are directed against the PT for championing the cause of the working class and the environment.

Bolsonaro has so far been successful only in building a political nest egg for himself. His sons and a former wife have been elected to political posts at the provincial level. Bolsonaro has been married three times and has led a colourful personal life. His victory in the first round came despite his candidature not being supported by any of the country’s three leading political parties. In the beginning of the year, he joined the small Social Liberal Party. In the elections to the National Assembly that were held simultaneously with the first round of the presidential election, the party’s strength grew from eight seats to 42. The Workers Party, however, remains the biggest single bloc in the parliament.

Bolsonaro had the advantage of not being identified with the mainstream political parties, most of whom are deeply tainted by corruption. The “evangelical” vote bank, which, like its counterpart in the United States, is extremely conservative, shifted to him. There are more than 42 million Brazilians who have left the Catholic Church and embraced American-style Christian evangelism. Around 200 representatives in the upper and lower houses of the Brazilian parliament belong to various evangelical Christian denominations. They have formed an informal “Beef, Bible and Bullet Coalition” in the Brazilian Senate and lower house. The evangelical groups, unlike some groups in the Catholic Church like the Jesuits and proponents of liberation theology, have supported right-wing establishment parties and are social conservatives.

Big businesses in Brazil and the media they control also threw their weight behind Bolsonaro after his campaign started gaining momentum. Brazilian oligarchs had teamed up with influential sections of the judiciary to kick-start the slow-moving coup that ousted the democratically elected Dilma Roussef two years ago. These same groups ganged up to back Bolsonaro’s candidacy. His campaign also got advice from the American alt-right leader, Steve Bannon. The American ideologue’s expertise in using social media to deliver a barrage of fake news was used by the Bolsonaro campaign against the PT. The PT and its supporters were described as “communists” who would turn Brazil into “another Venezuela”. In recent months, Venezuelans looking for work had started crossing into Brazil. The right wing made it an election issue, saying that the newcomers were stealing the jobs and livelihoods of poor Brazilians. Haddad accused Bolsonaro of waging “a fraud and fake news” campaign. A leading Brazilian newspaper, Folha De S.Paulo, reported that a group of Brazilian businessmen were financing a multimillion-dollar slander campaign to mislead supporters of the PT and Haddad. “We have identified a campaign of slander and defamation via WhatsApp, and given the mass of messages, we know that there is dirty money behind it because it was not registered with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal,” said Haddad. Bolsonaro’s message to the Brazilian electorate, “Make Brazil Great Again”, echoed Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”. His tough stance on the escalating violence in Brazilian cities also enthused undecided voters. Bolsonaro, who vowed to give the police and the army much more freedom to deal with criminal gangs, could turn out to be the Latin American version of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine President. Duterte has given the Philippine police a carte blanche to hunt down and kill drug traffickers. Bolsonaro’s script is similar to those crafted by other populist and neo-fascist leaders who have emerged in many parts of the world. These leaders share a common agenda that includes powerful expressions of nationalism, identification of minorities as enemies and an overt obsession with nationalism and the military. It is similar to the political playbook adopted by the ruling elites in India, Myanmar, Thailand and other countries.

In Brazil, like in many other Latin American countries, large sections are disillusioned with democracy and yearn for a return to “strong man” rule as economic distress and lawlessness rise. A 2017 opinion poll showed that only 13 per cent of the population was satisfied with democracy. The controversial “Lava Jato” (Operation Car Wash) investigations had implicated leaders across the political divide. Some like Lula were prosecuted and jailed on the basis of flimsy or non-existent evidence. Others, like the current President, Michel Temer, were caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Temer and his ilk, many of them right-wing politicians, continue to remain free while Lula was sentenced to a long prison term. In a measure of how ideologically polarised the Brazilian higher judiciary is, one bench ordered Lula to be freed only to be overruled by a select, cherry-picked Supreme Court bench.

The Bolsonaro presidency will have ominous portents for the future of BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and Latin American economic integration. Bolsonaro said during the campaign that if elected, he would review Brazil’s participation in BRICS. The new President has signalled his willingness to partner with the Trump administration’s plans to regain influence in the region. He was pictured saluting the American flag in a Brazilian restaurant in Florida and shouting “USA! USA!” He has said that Brazil should ally with countries with a strong Judeo-Christian background like the U.S., Italy and Israel.

He said that his first trip as President would be to Israel and the second to the U.S. In a reversal of Brazil’s position on the Palestine issue, he has said that he will recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the Brazilian embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Bolsonaro criticised China as part of his anti-communist rhetoric during the election campaign, but there are limits to which he can go, given the perilous state of the economy. China is Brazil’s biggest trading partner and a big buyer of its agricultural and meat products, though that did not stop him from saying that China was “not buying in Brazil, it is buying Brazil”. His candidacy was backed by Brazil’s influential agrobusiness lobby, which makes most of its profits by exporting to China.

Brazil, however, seems poised to exit the Paris climate agreement. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that the country’s environmental policies are “suffocating” it. Colombia, which recently saw another right-wing government take office, has walked out. More tracts of the Amazon jungle will in all likelihood be cleared as per the wishes of the Brazilian agribusiness sector. Brazil is the world’s sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. A statement signed by 150 intellectuals from many countries released before the final round of voting warned Brazilians that a Bolsonaro victory would have serious consequences for the environment globally.


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