Brazil – On October 7, Brazilians went to the polls to elect a new president. When the results were tallied, leading the way with 46 percent of the vote was Jair Bolsonaro, a radically reactionary former army captain who has served in the lower chamber of Congress for twenty-eight years. In second place, with just under 30 percent of the vote, was Fernando Haddad, a mild-mannered professor who served as Minister of Education between 2005 and 2012 and the mayor of São Paulo, the most populous city in the Americas, from 2013 to 2017. In Brazil, if a candidate secures an absolute majority of the votes in the first round, he or she wins the election outright. Bolsonaro came close but could not forestall a run-off. The sprawling field of over a dozen candidates was thus reduced to the top two for three additional weeks of campaigning. On October 28, Brazilians once again went to the polls, and once again Bolsonaro received the most votes. He will be inaugurated as Brazil’s next president on January 1.
Bolsonaro is an untested navigator, but where he intends to steer the largest nation in Latin America matters greatly for the hemisphere and the world. A right-wing extremist with a well-documented history of misogyny, homophobia, and hostility to civil liberties, his election is a stunning break for a country that, since the early 2000s, had been closely associated on the global stage with the charismatic leadership of former metalworker Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), known widely as just Lula. During its first decade in power, Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party (PT) coupled an assertively independent foreign policy with internationally-renowned domestic initiatives that eased intractable problems like hunger and homelessness. Successive PT governments pulled millions of Brazilians from the mire of abject poverty even as they carefully avoided direct confrontations with foreign investors and big banks. In 2010, Lula secured the election of his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, before leaving office as one of the most popular heads of state on the planet. Dilma survived a tumultuous wave of social agitation in 2013 to eke out a win in her reelection bid the following year. Shortly thereafter, however, Brazilian democracy was unsettled by clamorous yet substantively thin calls for impeachment that culminated in her ouster in 2016. The PT, which won the last four presidential elections, began the 2018 campaign crippled by multiple highly-publicized scandals, with Lula himself arrested on charges of corruption and money laundering.
During the campaign, Bolsonaro presented himself as an incorruptible change agent, juxtaposing his supposed moral rectitude against the PT, a political party many Brazilians have come to see as uniquely insidious. This message undoubtedly struck a chord. The other key theme of Bolsonaro’s winning campaign is summed up in his de facto slogan: “Brazil above all, God above everyone.” This was an effective line, but not an original one. It was first introduced in the late 1960s by a group of right-wing nationalist paratroopers. Although criticized for echoing the Nazi rallying cry of “Deutschland über alles,” the dictatorship-era motto endured in military circles and became a central element of Bolsonaro’s aggressively nationalistic rhetoric. Leveraging the perceived corruption of the PT for political advancement is a uniquely Brazilian political story. The weaponization of nationalist sentiment by far-right forces is not.
Indeed, efforts by Bolsonaro and his supporters to link the PT to the slow-motion collapse of Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro in particular could produce a renewable source of political legitimacy for Bolsonaro’s right-wing coalition. By constantly pointing to Brazil’s dilapidated Bolivarian neighbor as what the country would become under another PT government, Bolsonaro reminds voters that things could get worse without his singular resolve. Bolsonaro will undoubtedly continue to use images of Venezuelan refugees pouring across the border to denounce opponents for their alleged affinity with the Maduro regime and complicity in the current tragedy. This potent rhetorical line of attack serves both to delegitimize the PT’s democratic credentials and to tether the PT to an authoritarian foreign regime that immiserates and torments its own citizens. Bolsonaro presents himself as an unabashed strongman who will nevertheless keep honest, hard-working Brazilians safe from criminals and a political opposition who would sell out the national good to shore up despotic ideological allies abroad. Other self-avowed nationalist leaders around the world are following a similar script in justifying democratic crackdowns.
The most commonly cited parallel for Bolsonaro is Donald Trump, and there are some similarities. Both condemn political correctness for making their once-great nations soft. Both denounce their political opposition as a cabal of out-of-touch malefactors ideologically committed to supranational institutions to the detriment of their own country’s needs. Other comparisons, however, are more instructive. In Russia, Vladimir Putin poses as a conservative patriarch sternly overseeing national political life in defense of traditional family values and an assertive role for his country in the world. As Charles Clover wrote last year in Financial Times, “for most western observers, the problem posed by Russia’s relationship with the far right only became truly pressing when it showed up on their doorstep. But the Kremlin’s turn towards nationalism was nothing new for Russians: it had come storming back into political discourse in 2012, when Vladimir Putin returned to the executive branch of power for a third term.” Bolsonaro represents a similar fusion of radical right-wing politics and conservative nationalism in a region the United States long considered to be its backyard. Another analog worth considering is General Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi, who has mobilized ardent militarism in the service of authoritarian Egyptian nationalism. When many Bolsonaro supporters describe what they hope their man will achieve in office, they are largely describing what El-Sisi has done since ousting the democratically-elected Mohammed Morsi in 2013: growing the economy while repressing dissent. Notably, Morsi was the only Egyptian president since the army-led coup of 1952 who had not prominently served in the military. Bolsonaro, for his part, pines for the days of military rule in Brazil, arguing that the brutal regime should have been even more deadly than it was. If his free-market proposals cannot produce employment and economic growth, however, Bolsonaro’s persona and its associated ideology might become as discredited as the generals were when they limped out of power in 1985, leaving a country in dire economic straits. This helps explain Bolsonaro’s assiduous attempts to play up his nationalist credentials while dismissing the PT as in thrall to ideologically bankrupt partners abroad.
As Haddad kicked off the run-off campaign, there was a noticeable shift in his political marketing. Gone were the red hues and the star that usually figured prominently in the PT’s political branding, replaced with the green, yellow, and blue of the Brazilian flag. Bolsonaro and his supporters mocked this change relentlessly, ridiculing the PT for having the temerity to evoke national colors in its campaign as Bolsonaro had been doing from the start. The PT was supposedly hiding its socialist inclinations, associated around the world with the color red, behind the façade of the country’s flag. The fact that associating the PT’s traditional iconography to a transnational leftist conspiracy was such an effective line of attack suggests the extent to which the Brazilian Right has succeeded in claiming patriotism. Haddad recognized the danger in this perception, incorporating the Brazilian flag into more campaign events and denouncing Bolsonaro as subservient to the interests of the United States. Progressive forces everywhere will have to try harder to wrest back the legitimacy nationalism can confer as voters around the world—in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Russia, and the United States, among others—have come to associate legitimate nationalism with aggressively reactionary politics.
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