Ten years ago, Brazil led a “pink wave” that carried Latin America to the political left. Now, Brazil appears to be following a global lurch to the right. It is tempting to conclude that Brazilians have changed their ideological stripes and are embracing authoritarianism. For many, the elections pulled the veil off a resilient tradition of Latin American strong-man rule.
This is the wrong narrative.
Since the restoration of democracy in the mid-'80s, Brazil has been in the hands of governments that ranged across the political spectrum. The left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) swept to power in 2003 led by the charismatic trade unionist Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who helped bring down the Brazilian military. Lula implemented progressive social policies while pushing economic growth. His political heir in 2011, Dilma Rousseff, was poised to carry on the legacy.
In the past few years, Brazil has endured one shock after another. The package of social progress and economic growth came undone. Rousseff tumbled in disgrace and was eventually impeached. The police arrested Lula under corruption charges; he is now serving a 12-year sentence. The economy went into a tailspin. And now a shocking number of Brazilians have voted for a far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, who crusades on a “law and order” platform and does not mask his disdain for women, LGBTs, Afro-Brazilians, and foreigners.
In this first round of voting, Bolsonaro fell short of an absolute minority, with 46 percent of the votes, while the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, got 29 percent. The run-off election to come on October 28 is now the right-winger’s to win. As in the United States, there is plenty of hand-wringing over bitter ideological polarization, and the death of a reformist model.
But is this what happened? While it is true that a Bolsonaro government will lurch to the far-right, most voters were repudiating the political class across the ideological board. All established parties took a pounding. Only eight of the 38 senators up for re-election kept their seats. Voters also repudiated old right-wing politicians. The party of the outgoing conservative President Michel Temer lost seven senate seats. It got decimated in the lower house, where many minor parties won seats. None commands a majority in Congress.
A right-wing landslide? In fact, polls reveal that if Lula were allowed to run (he can’t since he is in jail), he would be the overwhelming victor.
Since 2014, Brazil has been mired in an agonizing economic crisis. The unemployment rate has hovered around 12 per cent. Crime has spiked. In some cities, among them Rio de Janeiro, drug wars have engulfed shantytowns and the army has been sent in like an occupying force. This heightened the sense of uncertainty.
The current economic crisis is the offspring of a political crisis. Its signs surfaced five years ago, when protests against the PT government of Dilma Rousseff gripped Brazilian cities.
The spark was a jump in bus fares in June, 2013. But what started as focused outrage at lousy service, endemic traffic, and rising costs spiraled into mass demonstrations that shook the government to its knees. Anarchist-inspired activists touting the virtues of direct action (“black bloc” tactics borrowed from anti-globalization movements) took to the streets and whipped the media into a frenzy.
This brought out new protesters. Left-wing activists, trade unions, and small political parties joined the fray calling for more progressive policies.
State governments responded with disproportional repression—which not only failed to curb the unrest, it fueled a backlash against the police. This only magnified the scale of the demonstrations. Some grew to more than one million protestors. In São Paulo, 77 percent of citizens supported the protest. At this point, right-wing groups staged their own rallies against corruption and criminality. Eventually, the streets became a stage for a struggle between rival groups of protestors.
As the demonstrations continued, the protestors all brandished the Brazilian flag as an emblem of hope for a better order and more ethical politics. What united the disparate groups was not ideology. The slogans and style of protest displayed a mosaic of dissatisfactions, political beliefs, and demands.
Since the protests, there has been an effort at cleansing the political system. Ironically, this has had perverse effects. Although corruption trials have put many elected officials behind bars, the trials did not restore faith in public administration. Rather, they made many citizens feel like the whole democratic system was on the take.
The right wing pounced on the opportunity posed by this mass disenchantment. Conservatives fulminated about the state inefficiency and corruption scandals that touched all major political parties. They stoked new huge demonstrations against President Rousseff—though she herself was never charged with being “on the take”—that led to her impeachment in 2016. They lionized new leaders as "incorruptible," "efficient," and "moral." Not surprisingly, the new figures came from outside the main parties. They are judges, military officers like Bolsonaro (a former captain, whose own legislative record is best known for its invisibility) and, yes, businessmen.
What started in the streets in 2013 reached the polls last weekend.
The current combination of an economic crisis and a vanishing confidence in government is toxic to democracy. These are conditions that blowhards who promise to restore order with iron fists and swamp-draining rhetoric thrive upon. Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Trump in the United States—they are variations on a theme.
Though Bolsonaro waxes nostalgic for the days of military rule, the upheaval of the past five years was not driven by a popular desire to restore autocracy. The majority wanted—and want—better and democratic government. A last week polls confirmed that 69 percent of voters see democracy as the best regime for the country.
There is no question that the global rise of chest-thumping politics has now found another champion in Brazil. But this does not necessarily mean the end of democracy and a rise of authoritarianism. At least, not yet.