10 October 2018

Brazil’s rotten election


After the first round of voting this weekend, we now know that the next Brazilian president will either be the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro — who received 46 per cent of the vote on Sunday — or the socialist Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad — who won 29 per cent of first-round votes.

Brazil’s election has been marked by intense discontent with the ruling class after years of political and economic turbulence. The polarisation has left many Brazilians with a least-worst-option dilemma.

After 14 years of irresponsible socialist economic policies that ended with chronic economic problems, the biggest corruption scandals in the country’s history which involved the government’s most senior officials — including the former presidents Lula Da Silva and Dilma Roussef; the Workers’ Party (PT) has become as widely reviled as almost any governing party in Latin America.

On Sunday, the party saw many of its affiliates lose support to its left and right. Even former president Dilma Rousseff — who is supposed to still be popular among left-wing Brazilians and was running for a seat in the Senate in Minas Gerais — suffered an embarrassing loss. The election was one long scream of “enough” to a political establishment that has ruled Brazil since 2002.

Many blame the Workers’ Party for the them-and-us nature of Brazilian politics today. With its Marxist rhetoric of class struggle, the PT was always used combative and divisive language, pitting the rich against the poor, blacks against whites and so on. Ironically, Bolsonaro is a creature of this politics, even if he is greeted by PT’s opponents as a national saviour.

His rise is remarkable.  Despite having only a small budget, shunning presidential debates and withdrawing from campaigning after being stabbed at the beginning of last month, Bolsonaro has gone from invisible candidate to political phenomenon in a manner that has confounded even the most plugged-in political analysts.

His platform includes promises to get tough on gang violence, eliminate gender education programs in schools, fighting corruption and political correctness, and govern for the “good of the people”. This has made the 63-year-old former military officer the “hope of Brazil” for one part of society; and a nightmare for everyone else.

Bolsonaro, who has been in the Congress for almost 27 years, began his political career basically as a defender of the particular interests of the military, eventually becoming a broader critic of political “progressivism” and political correctness. From the economic point of view, his record is one of populist nationalism, having supported statist measures and voted against guidelines that would have put the country on a more fiscally responsible course.

Most troublingly of all, Bolsonaro defends the Brazilian dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985. He has often expressed himself and behaved in a violent manner and made all manner of offensive statements, particularly when it comes to homosexuals and women.

“I would not be able to love a gay son. I would rather he die in an accident,” was one choice pronouncement. Then there’s a comment he made to a woman in 2003 and later repeated in 2014: “I would never rape you because you do not deserve it.” Given these views, it is hardly surprising that feminist and leftist movements across the country are protesting against his candidacy under the slogan “Ele Não” (not him).

“There is a strong desire for change,” says Andre Portela, professor of economics at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, an influential think tank. “Bolsonaro has taken advantage of that and has presented himself as an agent of change, but it is not clear whether he really will be.”

The contrast with the socialist candidate Bolsonaro will face in the second round is stark. Haddad is a former mayor of São Paulo and was Minister of Education under Lula. His name had been forgotten by almost everyone out side of São Paulo until he became the Workers’ Party candidate. He replaced Lula himself as the PT’s candidate after the former president’s was barred from public office for eight years following a major corruption scandal. Haddad exceeded expectations in finishing a distant second to Bolsonaro.

His plan is to appeal to Brazil’s moderates as someone open to dialogue and less extreme than the alternative. His problem is his party, which has a history of ruthlessness and a refusal to engage with those outside the PT. There’s also the not insignificant matter of the party’s institutionalised corruption and shameless looting of the state.

The fact that Haddad regularly visits Lula in prison might appeal to party loyalists, but it disgusts most voters, who see it as two fingers up to the rule of law. It also demonstrates a tin ear when it comes to what voters care about.

According to the sociologist Thiago de Aragón, a specialist in political risk analysis and director of the consulting firm Arko Advice, undecided voters or those who voted for one of the other candidates face a “situation of choosing those they hate the least”.

With the first round out of the way, the election has became a plebiscite between those who embrace the return of the Workers’ Party and Lula’s allies to power and those who can think of nothing worse. Between the extremes a big chunk of the population has to weigh the problems of a tired, corrupt political establishment against some of the worrying strains of Bolsonaro’s thinking.

‘‘I find the country in a very complicated situation,” said Tayllis Zatti, a 22-year-old finance student from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. “Most people don’t want to back a corrupt party that supports dictatorships like the Venezuela’s, but at the same time, I don’t know what to vote for the radicalism of the other side. These are not nice decisions, these are not decisions that I can feel proud of, but, unfortunately, I have to choose.”

Jorge C. Carrasco is a Cuban journalist based in Brazil.