Brazil and the popularity of Bolsonaro

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I have been visiting Brazil for 17 years, and the election tomorrow (round 1) promises to be the most interesting in the post-dictatorship period. There are 6 or 7 serious candidates, but only three really matter:

  • Jair Bolsonaro, the hardline militarist law-maker from Rio, former military officer and congressman since 1991 – Social Liberal Party (PSL);
  • Fernando Haddad, ex-mayor of Sao Paulo, minister for education 2005-12 under Lula and Dilma Rousseff, with an academic background in philosophy, law and economics – Workers Party (PT);
  • Ciro Gomes, ex-state deputy in the northern state of  Ceará, ex-mayor of Fortaleza and a lawyer – Democratic Labor Party (PDT).

Bolsonaro is controversial to say the least. I won’t explain here, but for English language readers, this Guardian article entitled How a homophobic, misogynist, racist ‘thing’ could be Brazil’s next president by a Brazilian journalist summarises well enough. For outsiders, Bolsonaro would seem something like Trump, but less dumb, more racist, homophobic and with the same interests in democracy (i.e. only temporary). The closer parallels are with Turkey and the rise of Erdogan, and Duterte in the Philippines. Think about that.

Most outsiders, and many people here in Brazil (especially women and LGBT, understandably), where I am right now, cannot believe any normal person could possibly consider Bolsonaro for president. And yet he is leading in the polls. Are Brazilians militaristic women-haters? Do they seriously dream of going back to the dictatorship, when political opponents were routinely disappeared as in Argentina? My observations of Brazilian society are the opposite.

To understand things properly, one needs to see things in a broader historical perspective. Candidates like Bolsonaro get thrown up for a reason, just as Lula did nearly 20 years ago. They are not random, they are fairly logical responses of a society to various kinds of pain. It’s hard to understand from a comfortable living room in London or Lisbon, but Brazil, despite its European origins, is currently in a situation closer to that of Turkey than that of any European country, or even the US. Some people talk seriously of ‘avoiding Venezuela’. Let’s hope so.

What people from the outside need to realise is how bad things have to be here to contemplate voting for someone like Bolsonaro. The answer is: pretty bad. Watch The Mechanism on Netflix, to get an idea of the corruption that eats away at Brazilian society. Older films like Tropo d’Elite and City of God (Cidade de Deus), both stellar cinematic works, provide a gut-wrenching insight into the violence and loss of dignity in a society with deep inequality. Or just watch the news about Petrobras, Odebrecht and Lava Jato. People here are sick of the corruption because it stops them living normal lives – due to Lava Jato, they now see slick people in suits siphoning billions out of Brazil when their local hospital has a leaking roof, the highways are decaying and the police are on strike due to lack of pay.

The problem of police pay brings up the second issue. Violent crime in Brazil is now out of control in many places. Friends in Rio tell me it is the worst for 15 years. 13 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world are in Brazil (I was at a congress in #7 last week, Fortaleza). There are many reasons for this, but to get an idea, just watch the first part of Tropo d’Elite – where the normal police can’t do their work because their cars are not serviced and they have no proper equipment. Today it is worse, because in some states and cities their pay is going backwards. Why do state institutions not pay the police and other officials properly? Lack of money. Why? Mostly, back to problem #1 – corruption (it’s not the only problem – economic competency is also a problem).

You might also remember various demonstrations prior to the Rio Olympics by immigration staff telling visitors ‘Welcome to Hell’. Or the huge truck-drivers strike last year against Temer reforms aimed at reducing workers’ rights.

So try to imagine being an average worker (say a state school teacher or nurse) in a country whose flag says ‘Order and Progress’, and when you look out the window, you see the exact opposite. You wonder how you will feed your children, and finding the safest route home from work has become an even greater preoccupation that usual. You realise that there is no good reason for things not to be better. In the simplistic view, there is just one root cause of the sickness. How much violence and corruption will you tolerate before you give up on the idea of politics as a normal civilised business, as the discourse of Haddad and Gomes would make it seem? You could listen to Marina Silva, another presidential candidate and previous environment minister. Her discourse is that of an angry activist, railing against rape, slavery and environmental destruction. The only difficulty is that most of what she talks about is real. I don’t think she is presidential material, but she is an important voice for many living in the worst conditions.

A major reason why this election is unpredictable is that many people feel betrayed by the Workers Party (PT), originally a source of hope through Lula, an iconic people’s president, but now in jail for corruption. It must be noted that the case against Lula was pretty weak, and the size of his supposed corruption is dwarfed by the magnitude of that of many sitting members of parliament, as well as industry figures associated with Petrobras, Odebrecht and other corporations. We may never know the truth as to the real reasons for why Lula is behind bars.

My outsider’s view is that a significant proportion of people here have mentally arrived at the stage of ‘enough is enough’. Sufficient numbers are willing to stomach a military populist, for a while at least, if it means wiping out crime and corruption, which is the promise of Bolsonaro. Of course the realistic chances of actually doing that are far more limited than in the imagination of his supporters – at least, without reverting to an actual military dictatorship – so if he were to win, the risks of disappointment and violent activism against yet another betrayal in the following year or two are not insignificant.

I don’t like Bolsonaro one bit, and it is pretty confronting to see women on party campaign vehicles dancing in support of Bolsonaro given his attitudes, but I don’t want to judge people in this country. I would say: try living here first. The pendulum of inequality is currently at an extreme, and people are desperate for solutions. We will see what tomorrow brings. Literally.

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