Hate or Hope: In a Bitter Election, Brazil Fights for Its Soul and Democracy

In the most important election in its recent history, Brazil has a choice between a far-right candidate who dismisses democracy as a problem or a centre-left leader who wants to bring back growth with equality.

Sao Paulo: Brazil is having a nightmare. It is hoping for a dream.

With just 15 days to go for its presidential election, the biggest South American country has been oscillating between hope and despair, with every weekly opinion poll. On last Tuesday, the latest poll made the battle-lines clearer: none of the 10 candidates is winning the election in the first round on October 7; and the second round – a month later – will offer Brazil a stark choice: democracy or dystopia.

Leading the polls at the moment is Jair Bolsonaro, 63, the far-right leader of the misleadingly-named Social Liberal Party (PSL) who has built his three-decades long political career by rubbishing the democracy and glorifying the brutalities of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85). He has gained a little more support since a stabbing incident on September 6 left him badly injured.

Facing him in the runoff could be Fernando Haddad, 54, who is known for turning Sao Paulo, the biggest city in the southern hemisphere, into an “inclusive, smart city” as its mayor (2012-16). Trailing Haddad by a few points is Ciro Gomes, a centre-left candidate who wants to tax the rich and protect Brazil’s petroleum reserves. While Bolsonaro, a former army captain, wants to resolve Brazil’s crime situation by “distributing arms to everyone”, Haddad wants to tackle it by “ending poverty and the culture of violence”.  Gomes too wants to enhance the country’s social safety net.

In the current political mood in the country, Fernando Haddad is seen by many as a moderate who can unify Brazil and lead a stable government. Credit: Ricardo Stuckert

Though the country’s deeply-conservative mainstream media and the liberal dailies of western capitals are projecting both the leading candidates as a “threat” to the country’s economy, the two have little in common. Like any other country, Brazil too is not a homogeneous society. Far from it. The last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1888, Brazil is deeply divided on class, race and regional lines. Despite the African-origin and mixed-race people making more than 60% of its population, every sphere of Brazilian life – barring football and samba – is dominated by whites. These social fault-lines are rattling as the country prepares to vote in the most important election in its history.

While Bolsonaro, according to polls, is doing extremely well among the high-income whites with higher education, mostly in the country’s rich south-east region; Haddad is polling hugely among the poor, blacks and less educated people in the relatively backward north-east region of the country.     

Method in the message

As the two leading candidates appeal largely to two different constituencies, with a big chunk of fence-sitters in the middle, their messaging is completely different from each other. While Bolsonaro’s campaign is filled with anger and hate; Haddad is offering hope to people. In his campaign, the former paratrooper has been fueling the common prejudices against Afro-Brazilians, women and LGBT community and even called for mass killings of leftists.

In contrast, the Workers Party (PT) candidate is campaigning with the slogan of “O Brazil Feliz de Novo” (Brazil Happy Again) – a call for “restoring democracy” and taking the country back to the days of economic growth with equality under President Lula de Silva (2003-10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16).

Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign is trying to use his stabbing at a rally to generate sympathy and whip up emotions. Credit: Facebook/Bolsonaro Campaign

During 14 years of PT rule, Brazil, backed by an unprecedented economic boom, made massive social changes as it lifted more than 45 million people out of poverty, created 15 million new jobs, introduced quotas for the blacks in public universities besides providing affordable housing, electricity and medicines to the poor. Almost all of this came to an abrupt halt in 2016 when Brazil’s two biggest right-wing parties, PMDB and PSDB, ganged up to impeach Rousseff on a technical ground.

After the impeachment, as Michel Temer of PMDB assumed presidency, PSDB tagged along in the hope of bouncing back to power after losing four consecutive elections to Workers Party. But, as the Temer government rolled back most of the social gains of recent years and the country’s economy sank deeper, both the parties in power lost all credibility and the public anger against the political class rose sharply.

Enter Jair Bolsonaro. Always a fringe player, Bolsonaro saw the crisis of Brazilian democracy as an opportunity to subvert it altogether.  Backed by the country’s powerful military and security establishment, he has been travelling around the country, spitting fire on politicians as he positioned himself as an “outsider” and a “patriot” who can “fix the country”.  But many see through his game.

“If you want to elect Bolsonaro, enjoy it, because it should be your last vote,” Celso Rocha de Barros, a federal official, wrote in a column last week. “The plan of the Bolsonistas [Bolsonaro supporters] is to take their anger against everything that is there and to point it against the democracy. Without democracy, governing becomes easy again because the government will never have to care about you or your social network,” added the official, who holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Oxford.

The fear is not baseless. Bolsonaro’s running mate for vice president is a retired general and he has promised to fill most of his Cabinet with former military people besides opening an armed forces college in the capitals of Brazil’s all 27 states. In his first election bid for president, Bolsonaro is being trained by none other than Steve Bannon, the far-right American campaigner who is credited by some for putting Donald Trump in the White House.  Though some in the western media have tried to normalise him as a “Tropical Trump”, for Bolsonaro’s opponents like Ciro Gomes he is a downright fascist, a description many Brazilians agree with. 

Ciro Gomes, the centre-left candidate who has strongly condemned the “coup” against Dilma Rousseff, has compared Bolsonaro with Hitler. Credit: Flickr

Bucking a global trend 

Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad are a study in contrast. While the former army captain is notorious for insulting people and offering populist solutions to complex issues, the former professor of University of Sao Paulo is an erudite person who likes to analyse a problem before offering an answer.  On a cold wintry afternoon last week, just a day after he was officially nominated as PT candidate in place of Lula, Haddad sat with a large group of foreign correspondents, articulating his policies as he answered questions on Brazil’s political crisis to economy to the legalisation of abortion and marijuana.

“The neoliberal project failed (in the world). We are seeing a reaction to the failure of the neoliberal project,” said Haddad, answering a question on the rise of right-wing parties across the world. “The Brexit, elections in much of Europe and the election of Trump are reactions to the neoliberalism that promoted deregulation of the financial market, created speculative bubbles that burst all over, and produced much suffering among the working class in the world.”

Haddad with his vice-presidential candidate Manuela Davila (to his left) and former president Dilma Rousseff (extreme right) in front of the Federal Police building where Lula is serving his 12-year sentence. Credit: Ricardo Stuckert

But Haddad, who has repeatedly said Brazil was a victim of an institutional crisis artificially created by the parties (PMDB and PSDB) which impeached Rousseff and sabotaged the economy, doesn’t see the right-wing succeeding in this election.

“As early as 2016, I said that the trend in the world, due to neoliberalism, was a contest between the right-wing and the extreme right-wing. But this might not happen in Brazil because the PT has a progressive project in the 2018 elections. Lula and the PT have demonstrated an enormous capacity for recovery, dialogue and communication with society, and that explains this probable victory in the first round,” says Haddad, referring to polls which suggested that Lula would have won the presidential election in the first round if he was not barred from contesting for a conviction in a corruption case by a trial court.     

“In Brazil, we have a party, built in the 1980s, that ruled for three mandates (2003-16) in a climate of freedom and produced the best economic and social results in history. This explains the electoral potential of Lula and the PT,” said Haddad, who has grown more than 11% after just one week of campaigning and is running neck-to-neck with Bolsonaro in the second-round projections. Another poll on Friday put Haddad slightly ahead of Bolsonaro.

The return of Chicago boys

The centre-left government of Lula (2003-10), who had 80% approval ratings when he left office, spent huge amounts of money on social programmes that changed the face of the country’s north-east region and lifted millions out of poverty and hunger, making him an icon. “There had never been as much expansion in primary education as happened during Lula’s government. Never the doors of universities and public technical schools were so open to the working-class people, the black people, the poor, as in the Lula government,” says Haddad, explaining how he plans to take the country forward with the same policies if elected president.

Jair Bolsonaro has some other ideas – or not – on economy. The so-called social liberal candidate often clamps up in interviews and debates when asked about his economic policies.  “I do not understand economy. I have a very competent economist who will take care of it,” Bolsonaro said recently in an interview with a group of Brazilian journalists. 

That economist is Paulo Guedes who has the reputation of being one of the Chicago Boys who were responsible for the neoliberal economic model imposed in the region during the wave of bloody military dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s. The economic guru of Bolsonaro was invited to teach at the University of Chile at the height of the dictatorship in that country, where thousands were killed or disappeared under General Pinochet’s rule. For the American linguist and philosopher Noam Chosmky, who was in Brazil last week on a lecture tour, the naming of Guedes by Bolsonaro is quite disturbing since it sums up the “worst” in neoliberalism.

“Wherever they went, the Chicago Boys destroyed the economy. And Paulo Guedes is a Chicago Boy,” warned Chomsky, one of the biggest public intellectuals of our times, at a meeting at the Centre for Alternative Media in Sao Paulo this week.

It’s just not on politics and economy that Bolsonaro and his team look at Brazil’s brutalized past for inspiration, their world-view too is tainted by the Cold War paranoia. In a lecture last week, when asked about his plans for the country’s foreign policy, Gen Hamilton Mourao, the vice-presidential candidate Bolsonaro, called the emerging countries “mulambada”, an offensive term of Angolan origin which first appeared at the time of slavery, and is used in a pejorative sense. In the same lecture, the retired general made a mockery of south-south cooperation, which had been the cornerstone of Brazil’s foreign policy during the PT years.

B back in BRICS

On the other hand, the election manifesto released by Haddad has placed “engagement with the emerging countries, especially the BRICS group” on the top of its agenda, second only to “protecting the Brazilian democracy and sovereignty”. 

Speaking to The Wire, Haddad said Brazil should work closely with other emerging countries to “propel our economies towards a welfare economy”. “Today, the developed world is seeking to create obstacles to the development of the semi-peripheral countries that seek the same standard of living that they themselves have achieved, which in my opinion is unacceptable,” the PT candidate told The Wire. “Trade between Brazil and China, between Brazil and India has multiplied over the years and this has been beneficial to the BRIC economies. Brazil will take over the BRICS presidency next year and assume the presidency of the BRICS bank in 2020. So how can a person who is running for President turn a blind eye to this opportunity?”

Since becoming president in 2016, Michel Temer has done just that as he ramped up Brazil’s engagement with US and EU at the cost of other BRICS countries. “You should know that recently we had a visit of the US Secretary of Defence [James Mattis] who directed the Temer government not to seek harmonious relations with the BRICS. Something that was unthinkable five years ago is happening today,” reveals Haddad to The Wire

Not just James Mattis but US vice president Mike Pence and several other top officials have made trips to Brazil in the past one year, probably to keep the country in their sphere of influence.

In 2013, when it was revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on President Dilma Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured during the US-backed military rule in Brazil, put off a trip to the White House besides cancelling a multi-million dollar fighter jet deal with an American company. That led to souring of relations between US and PT.

According to American economist Mark Weisbrot, the US had a direct role in the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and imprisoning of Lula. “As Lula himself said when he was asked about the US role in any of this he said it took us 50 years to find out what the US did in the coup in Brazil in 1964, so you can expect that there will be more in the future that will find out,” Weisbrot recently told Brasil 247 in an interview.

Lula has been in prison in a cell of Federal Police building for five months now. During this time, his popularity has climbed up and, according to all polls, he would have won the presidency if allowed to contest as majority of Brazilians see his conviction as wrong. He has been out of public sight but not out of their mind as thousands of people have camped outside Lula’s cell in the city Curitiba. He has been visited by his supporters from the across the world. This week, as Haddad’s campaign picked up steam, Lula had a couple of special visitors. First came former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema who called Lula’s conviction “a monstrosity” and a “legal aberration” and said that PT leader’s image remains intact in Europe. Then came Chomsky who has repeatedly spoken against the coup in Brazil. “It was a wonderful experience. Not every day you get to meet one of the most extraordinary figures of the 21st century: the person who by right should be the next president of Brazil,” Chomsky said in a statement after visiting Lula at the police building.

Noam Chomsky outside the federal police building in Curitiba where Lula is held in a cell. Credit: Mauro Calove

Lula is not on the ballot in this crucial election but in a way this election is all about him and his legacy. “If they wish to silence our voices and defeat our project for the country, they are fooling themselves. We are still alive, in the hearts and memories of the people. And our name now is Haddad,” Lula wrote in a letter that officially announced Fernando Haddad as the presidential candidate of the Workers Party (PT). As Haddad travels around the country wearing a T-shirt with Lula’s face on it and mimicking his voice in public rallies, his name-recognition has jumped from 39% to 75%. Dilma Rousseff, who stood with Haddad outside Lula’s prison building when he was named the PT candidate, is heading for a victory for a Senate seat from her home state of Minas Gerais.

The tide against the Workers Party, which peaked during Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, seems to be turning back.

The resistance

A lot can happen in two weeks, when Brazil votes in the first round of presidential election. With the second round more than six weeks away, the country is ready to witness lots of ups and downs. But Haddad, who was not given any chance by the media and markets is being taken very seriously now, even as Ciro Gomes remains a strong candidate in the race. However, given Brazil’s history of coups and impeachments (only country in the world to impeach two presidents in a span of 24 years), will Haddad be able govern the country if elected. “I do not believe that the opposition forces are going to sabotage the new government like they did in 2014,” says Haddad, adding how the PSDB rejected the election result last time and triggered a political crisis, thus sabotaging the economy. “Their coup failed as the Temer government proved to be the worst. Many in their party regret it.”

PSDB, the so-called social democratic party, seems to have learned some hard lessons. The rise of Bolsonaro poses an existential threat to PSDB as their voters have migrated in huge numbers to the far-right leader. While Bolsonaro is leading the polls, PSDB candidate Geraldo Alckmin is struggling at the bottom of the ladder.  In a historical confession last week, the party head, Senator Tasso Jereissati, accepted the “monumental mistakes” that the PSDB made since the 2014 election. According to sources, a few top leaders of the party may quietly support Haddad or Gomes in the next round to stop the Bolsonaro, whose election will be a death-knell for the right-wing party.  The markets too are getting jittery about the rise of a leader who doesn’t have a plan to govern the biggest South American economy.

But, amid such speculation, a real resistance is building on the ground. In a country which has more women than men, Bolsonaro’s anti-women speech has mobilized the women across the country. Within a week of its creation, a Facebook group opposing Bolsonaro surpassed two million members, with #EleNão (Not Him), effectively “Anyone but Bolsonaro” being shared millions of time. The group, with almost 3 million members, has organized protests against Bolsonaro around the country on September 28, 29 and 30. Millions of women – and men – cutting across political leanings will join the march against hate.

The march and the election a week later could Brazil the only thing the country needs at the moment: hope.

Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist.