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Inequality: A Feature and Driver of Bolsonaro’s Rise in Brazil

Brazil's right-wing presidential candidate aligned himself with financial interests, attracting support from the moderates willing to overlook his fascist nature and lean into his free-market agenda

Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro during a rally in Juiz de Fora on September 6, 2018.

Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro during a rally in Juiz de Fora on September 6, 2018. (Photo: Antonio Scorza/Shutterstock)

In less than a week, Brazil will vote to elect its next president in what’s widely considered the most consequential election in Brazil’s history.

On one side is Fernando Haddad — a soft-spoken academic, former Minister of Education for the Workers Party (PT), and recent mayor of São Paulo most remembered for painting bike lanes across Brazil’s economic capital. Haddad faces Jair Bolsonaro — a former military man and long-time member of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies representing Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro’s extreme far-right overtures have earned him the distinction of being compared to Trump, Duterte, and Hitler.

Brazil’s democracy is younger than I am, and follows a brutal period of military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. Tragically, this election process hasn’t been a rigorous debate of ideas for the improvement of our country. Instead, it’s testing the very fate of our democracy.

"Bolsonaro has capitalized on Brazil’s deep economic and social inequality to push for an agenda that will undoubtedly drive even bigger rifts into the Brazilian socioeconomic fabric and further disenfranchise the country’s most vulnerable people."

Bolsonaro, whose running mate is a retired army general, has built a campaign on his disdain for democracy and glorification of authoritarianism. He’s gained infamy worldwide for past comments praising torturers and for asserting during a 1999 televised appearance that the Brazilian dictatorship should have executed “at least 30,000” people. As a presidential candidate, Bolsonaro has called for political opponents to be shot, promised to deny the legitimacy of any election results that don’t declare him the winner, and refused to partake in debates ahead of the general elections.

Bolsonaro took the lead in the first round of voting with 47 percent of valid votes. In the ten days that followed, there were over 50 catalogued incidents of physical attacks and threats carried out by Bolsonaro supporters in 18 states and the federal district, including the murder of a Bolsonaro critic by a supporter at a bar in the state of Bahia.

Given this backdrop of anti-democratic demagoguery, incitement of violence, and virulent bigotry, it might feel inappropriate to give Bolsonaro’s candidacy the benefit of a judgement of merit. However, not only does the high possibility of a Bolsonaro presidency force us to contend with the implications of his policy proposals, it requires us to understand that neoliberalism isn’t only a feature of his candidacy — it’s the means by which his candidacy has been made viable.

The 1964 dictatorship in Brazil was installed by a military coup aimed at blocking the administration of a president who was seen at the time being as too left-wing. The coup was supported by many well-to-do Brazilians at the time. “And why not?” journalist Vincent Bevins asked recently in the New York Review of Books. “If you were rich and stayed in line politically, things were never that bad—this kind of nostalgia [is] often reproduced in media and historical memory.”

Recent surveys have found that 55 percent of Brazilians wouldn’t mind a non-democratic form of government if it “solved problems.” And Brazilians have legitimate problems, among which healthcare, citizen security, corruption, unemployment, and education have ranked as highly important in recent polls.

Bolsonaro’s campaign recipe has not only been to promote — through no shortage of lies and misinformation — shortcuts to democratic and civic processes. He’s also aligned himself with corporate and financial interests, attracting support from moderates willing to overlook, understate, and ultimately masque his fascist nature by leaning into his recently-adopted free-market agenda.

While support for Bolsonaro was initially highest among rich white men and Evangelical Christians, it’s impossible to win the 49 million votes he received in the first round without support from a larger swathe of the population. Bolsonaro gained that support because this election has been driven to a significant degree by what Brazilians are against rather than by what they are for.

“The core of Bolsonarism,” a Jacobin article says, “is hatred of the organized working class, of trade unions, which today…is incarnated in PT and, above all, in the image of Lula,” Brazil’s former president, for whom Haddad is filling in as candidate. Lula, who is in jail on flimsy bribery charges, has not been allowed to run.

But why so much hatred for PT? The party was recently in power for over 13 years, or three and a half presidential terms, spanning the tenures of Lula and former President Dilma Rousseff. Lula’s investment in social programs during a time of booming economic expansion in Brazil has been credited with lifting 30 million Brazilians out of poverty, and for giving poor, Black and Brown, female, and otherwise disadvantaged Brazilians unprecedented opportunity for advancement.

Tensions grew under Dilma’s tenure over her mismanagement of the economy. Socioeconomic indicators began to reverse course as Brazil entered into one the worst recession of the last quarter century. Coupled with her support for the massive anti-corruption investigation taking place, which implicated a large proportion of the sitting members of Congress, political opponents saw her as a problem to resolve quickly. They conspired to successfully impeach her from office in a process that’s been described by many as a “soft” coup d’état.

Dilma was succeeded by a coalition-government member from a center party, then-Vice President Michel Temer, who has spent the last two years overseeing the implementation of severe austerity measures and other reforms that have especially hurt the poor and the previously-growing middle class.

This election is marked with widespread and deep resentment for the PT’s handling of the economy. But the PT is also unreasonably singled out for its role in corruption. Haddad recently recognized PT’s errors on the economy and their role in corruption in a public mea culpa, promising reform if elected.

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Luísa Abbott Galvão

Luísa Abbott Galvão is a Brazilian-American social scientist living in Washington DC.

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