Picture: AFP – The contest between Brazil’s hard-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva represents the most heated showdown in the history of Brazil’s relatively young democracy, says the writer.
By Ishaan Tharoor
Toxicity and polarisation define the national discourse. One side views the other as agents of gender-bending sin and Satanism, communist stooges bent on leftist indoctrination in schools and socialist capture of the economy. The other sees its opponents goose-stepping the nation down the path of fascism and ruin, spewing bigotry, misogyny and violence along the way.
While this absolutely could be the United States, we’re talking about Brazil, which, on Sunday, will stage the second round run-off vote in its presidential elections. The contest between hard-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva represents the most heated showdown in the history of Brazil’s relatively young democracy. And the ideological intensity on show is an echo of – but also a prologue to – battles to come in the United States.
The sense of existential clash has been amplified by interventions elsewhere: Illiberal demagogues like former president Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are enthusiastic cheerleaders of Bolsonaro. In Washington, meanwhile, left-wing lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been warning of the risk of Bolsonaro subverting Brazilian democracy and even launching his own January 6-style insurrection should current polls prove accurate and Lula wins on election day.
“That Brazil is mirroring American politics should come as no surprise,” writes my Washington Post colleague Anthony Faiola in a forthcoming piece. “They are both continent-sized, New World countries saddled with unresolved issues over race and the legacy of slavery. They share cultural similarities – from rodeos to evangelical voting blocs – that remain alien to most nations in Western Europe.”
As in the United States, the dynamic is asymmetric. While Lula casts himself as a more inclusive figure eager to bring back happy days and lower the tensions roiling Brazilian society, Bolsonaro is a fire-breathing culture warrior, snarling resentment at journalists, liberals, atheists, the poor and LGBT people. Like Trump, even while in office, Bolsonaro fumed against the political establishment and prevailing order. He has for years sowed doubt over the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system, raged at high court judges impeding his will and voiced nostalgia for the days of the country’s right-wing military dictatorship.
Bolsonaro supporters see the possible return of Lula – who was jailed on corruption charges that were later thrown out by a Supreme Court ruling – as an unacceptable return of a left-leaning status quo they seek to wholly jettison. Lula, meanwhile, is counting on the votes of Brazilians who aren’t necessarily enamoured by his political legacy, but fear Bolsonaro more. In power from 2003 to 2010, Lula presided over a commodities-driven economic boom that his government redirected through landmark welfare programs that lifted millions out of poverty.
“Not only did he put three meals a day on millions of poor people’s plates, but they were then also able to start buying cars, access a loan for a house, which invigorated the economy even more,” said journalist Fernando Morais, the author of the biography “Lula,” to my colleagues.
But the shine of Lula’s rule faded amid an economic downturn and a sweeping corruption scandal that implicated much of the Brazilian political establishment and animated Bolsonaro’s rise to power.
“The idea that Brazil could somehow turn back the clock by electing Lula and recapture the optimism and promise of the early 21st century has always seemed fanciful,” wrote Brian Winter, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly. “And even if Lula does win, he will be boxed in by a Congress, and indeed a society at large, that is significantly more conservative than it was during his first presidency.”
Bolsonaro, again not unlike his fellow traveller Trump, is no flash in the pan. “Bolsonarismo has strong roots in society,” Camila Rocha, a Brazilian political scientist, told the Financial Times. “(Even if he loses,) he will be able to keep the movement going because he will have a lot of money and I think he will try to come back in four years.”
It’s far from clear that Bolsonaro will accept defeat this Sunday. He presides over a vast realm of what many analysts flatly describe as online misinformation, fuelled in part by partisan influencers on social media. Talk of vote rigging and fraud abounds. Attempts by the Supreme Court to rein in disinformation ahead of the election has put the institution and some of its judges at odds with Bolsonaro and his allies, who see themselves as victims of an establishment witch-hunt.
A glimmer of what may come was on view the previous weekend, when Roberto Jefferson, a former congressman and Bolsonaro supporter, fired a rifle and threw grenades at federal police officers who were attempting to take him into custody. The officers had come to take him into custody after Jefferson insulted a Supreme Court justice online, violating the terms of his ongoing house arrest for allegedly attacking democracy through online misinformation. In a video posted to social media, Jefferson said he opposed the “tyranny” and “oppression” of the justices.
“What we saw on Sunday could well be the prelude to a new wave of political violence, in particular among groups who won’t accept the election result if President Bolsonaro loses,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University, according to Reuters.
Bolsonaro distanced himself from Jefferson, who was charged with attempted murder, and condemned his actions, but Lula seized on the moment. “Hate, violence and disrespect of the law,” Lula tweeted. “Roberto Jefferson is not only a criminal, he is one of the main allies of our adversary: He is the face of everything that Bolsonaro stands for.”
Such is the febrile nature of the moment that analysts fear a Bolsonaro victory will only accelerate a process of democratic erosion in Brazil. Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations expert at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, noted that many of the world’s democratically elected strongmen were emboldened only after being re-elected. Consider, he suggested, Orban, or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, “all of which only began to pursue explicitly anti-democratic strategies after being re-elected – such as undermining the independence of the judiciary, putting pressure on the media or stuffing anti-corruption watchdogs with allies.”
In the case of Brazil – and arguably, too, the United States – there’s a vast population of voters willing to give such illiberal nationalism a chance. “Brazil’s democracy would face tremendous pressure if Bolsonaro were to triumph on October 30,” Stuenkel concluded.
“We aren’t choosing between two democratic candidates here,” Simone Tebet, a centre-right senator who endorsed Lula, told the Guardian. “There’s only one democrat – and without democracy we will lose our rights.”
Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post