The high stakes of Brazil’s elections

UPDATE: Jair Bolsonaro has secured a resounding victory in Brazil’s presidential elections, winning nearly 47 percent of the vote – almost 20 points more than the second-placed candidate, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party. However, with no candidate winning more than 50 percent of the vote, Brazil will return to the polls on 28 October for a run-off election between Bolsonaro and Haddad.

South America’s largest and most populous nation goes to the polls on Sunday in a climate of violence and sharp social divisions. With fascist candidate Jair Bolsonaro leading the race, Brazil’s presidential election campaign has revived the spectre of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. An ex-army officer, Bolsonaro jokes that the dictatorship’s biggest mistake was to merely torture, rather than kill, its adversaries. 

Bolsonaro is a career politician who has swapped political parties eight times, but presents himself as a maverick outsider who will clean up a corrupt system and crack down on crime. Openly racist and homophobic, he believes women should earn less than men and once declared that he wouldn’t rape an opposition congresswoman because she didn’t “deserve it”. His campaign promises include confiscating all land held by Indigenous communities and the descendants of slaves (settlements known as Quilombos).

Parallels with the military coup of 1964 were already evident in the ousting of democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the jailing of Brazil’s most popular politician, Luíz Ignácio “Lula” da Silva, in May (both of the Workers’ Party). As in 1964, the judiciary gave cover to a ruling class coup, cheered along by the influential Globo media network and statements from the generals about “stepping in” if needed. 

The strong arm of state repression is in ever greater evidence in Brazil. Military police kill more than 2,000 people a year in official operations in Rio de Janeiro alone, mostly young and black residents of the city’s favelas. After initiating an inquiry into the militias that run the city’s west, socialist city councillor Marielle Franco was assassinated with police-issue ammunition in March, a clear warning to left wing activists. Marielle’s death, an unsolved crime, is symbolic, but unfortunately not an isolated case in a country that counts 62,000 homicides annually.

Before he was jailed, Lula was the election frontrunner. But his replacement as Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, now trails Bolsonaro by about 10 points. The speed and timing of Lula’s prosecution and trial has therefore understandably raised questions. 

Lula, a metal worker and president of the Steel Workers’ Union of São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema, founded the Workers’ Party in 1980 after leading a series of strikes in the 1970s. He led the movement for re-democratisation in Brazil. After being elected president in late 2002, his government and that of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, challenged the stranglehold of economic and political oligarchs whose power dates from the colonial era. 

For more than half of its history, Brazil’s economy was based on slavery. Its majority non-white population continues to bear the brunt of one of the world’s most unequal distributions of wealth and land. Brazil’s Congress is dominated by wealthy white men, mostly large landholders, a number of whom have been convicted for using slave labour. The campaigns of many other politicians, including Bolsonaro, have also been funded by companies with slave labour convictions. 

It is little wonder that Lula, from a poor family in the impoverished Northeast Region, with limited formal education and missing a finger from an industrial accident, is despised as an interloper by Brazil’s ruling class. By contrast, Bolsonaro’s support is strongest among the wealthy and highly educated, particularly in the Southeast and South regions. 

At stake is the Workers’ Party legacy of public welfare, health and housing, which took 40 million Brazilians out of absolute poverty between 2003 and 2016. But the clock is already being turned back under unelected president Michel Temer, who has cut employment rights and public spending. Wealthy Brazilians, outraged at having to pay their servants minimum wage and having their children mingle with those of their servants in the expanded university system, have breathed a sigh of relief under Temer and anxiously await the Bolsonaro era.

But the Workers’ Party legacy has always been fragile. In government, it relied on deals with Brazil’s traditional political and corporate elite, involving alliances with the parties that overthrew it, kickbacks from contractors and vote-buying among so-called retail politicians (those whose decisions favour the highest bidder). 

This system was put into sharp relief when the neglected national museum burned down in early September, partly due to the lack of running water to put out the flames. Socialist city councillor Tarcísio Motta noted that more is spent cleaning Congress cars, or on the salary of a single judge, than is spent the museum.

If Bolsonaro’s presidential run has brought supporters of Brazil’s fascist past out of the woodwork, it has also rallied opposition, including feminists, black rights and LGBT activists, socialists and Indigenous movements. Some of those who campaigned against the dictatorship, and were jailed and tortured, are again at the forefront – even as spaces in which resistance is being organised, such as schools and universities, face the prospect of censorship and the sacking of teachers who express political views. 

The mobilisation of social movements shows that Brazil cannot return to a past where the poor “knew their place”, and shows that it is through such organising that a real political alternative must be constructed. The political polarisation also draws attention to contradictions and weaknesses of the Workers’ Party, which neglected the social movements on which it was founded in favour of electoral and political compromises. 

Sections of the Workers’ Party (particularly long time militants) and the tiny Socialism and Freedom Party of Marielle Franco and Tarcísio Motta, along with other left wing groups, have been pushed to greater action by the threat of a fascist presidency, of amplified state violence (including by paramilitias), the loss of rights and the erosion of an already fragile democracy. This is drawing in new layers of activists and politicising a wider section of society in a context of general political cynicism and alienation.