“Power is like a violin, you take it with the left and you play it with the right.”
This phrase defines the decades old mix of socialist populism and crony capitalism behind Brazil’s brand of democracy that is about to be tested at the polls this weekend. Conservative firebrand Jair Bolsonaro and his Leftist opponent Fernando Haddad, will face each other in this run-off election. A Bolsonaro win would represent the first time in 30 years that a bonafide Right-wing candidate would ascend to the highest office in the country.
This election comes at the tail end of what is arguably Brazil’s worst economic crisis, starting with the impeachment of Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Rousseff oversaw the country’s GDP plummet by 7% over two years.
Coupled with the fallout from “Lava-Jato,” the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal that saw many in the top brass of Haddad’s Workers’ Party sentenced to jail. Among them was Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president from 2002-2010 and many of his ministers. Haddad himself has 32 indictments against him, including corruption, money laundering and criminal association charges.
Against this backdrop of political turmoil, both candidates regard the other as a threat to the rule of law. Haddad points to Bolsonaro’s open support for the military dictatorship in the past, including positive references to torture and calls for the shutdown of congress.
Bolsonaro points to Haddad’s praise for Marxist dictatorships such as the ones in Cuba and Venezuela, his repeated statements that he will seek to pardon Lula and his party cronies, releasing them from jail as he considers their imprisonment arbitrary.
Haddad’s manifesto outlines the establishment of government controls over the press, curtailment of the office of the public prosecutor investigation powers; and the proposal to call a national assembly in order to enact a new Constitution.
According to the most recent polls, Bolsonaro is the frontrunner by a comfortable, albeit narrowing, 12-point margin. Bolsonaro voters can be classified into three groups.
The first group is driven by a hostility to the Workers’ Party. To them, Haddad is acting as a puppet for a convicted criminal former President serving a 12-year sentence, and Brazil would effectively be governed from a jail cell if he wins, and that is unacceptable.
To the second cohort Bolsonaro is a modern version of an enlightened despot; a former authoritarian who underwent an honest conversion to democracy and free markets. They are willing to grant him forgiveness for his past transgressions, by giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Bolsonaro’s main trump card with this group is his lead economic adviser Paulo Guedes, the classical liberal superstar who commands an enormous amount of respect from the markets, and a University of Chicago Economics PhD. He went on to found both Latin America’s largest investment bank and one of Brazil’s top economics school.
To the third group, a smaller, louder and more loyal cohort, he is known as ‘The Legend.’ This group was the first to identify his potential as future president in 2014, when during his tenure as a member of the Congress’ Human Rights Commission, he stood up to the Left and its gender ideology and called for harsher punishment for heinous crimes, such as rape and homicide.
His legend grew during the impeachment hearings of Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, when his controversial statements caused a Left-wing fellow congressman to spit in his face on the congress floor. This campaign trail, however, saw the most dramatic addition to Bolsonaro’s lore, when he was stabbed in the stomach during a campaign event – an assassination attempt carried out by an extreme Left activist.
The failed assassination attempt was a pivotal moment in his campaign. During the month he was confined to a hospital room, the grassroots movement at the core of his strategy blossomed into a well-oiled political machine. On the back of this support, Bolsonaro rose in the polls and almost won the election in the first round, falling 4 points shy of a majority.
The Left’s heavily bureaucratic campaign failed to replicate similar results. Even with Brazilian electoral regulation affording the Workers’ Party roughly 7 minutes of free TV time every day compared to Bolsonaro’s meagre 20 seconds. It was largely Bolsonaro supporters’ social media engagement that gave him the upper hand in the war for the election’s narrative.
In the other corner, Haddad’s electorate is also roughly comprised of three groups.
The first and largest are the poor and disenfranchised voters that live in the least developed regions of the country, whose subsistence depends greatly on the minimum income programs that Lula boosted during his presidency. To them, this vote is not about ideology or the future of the country, it is about their next meal. They vote with their stomach, and the Left knows it. The Workers’ Party certainly didn’t shy away from using fear politics on the issue.
A second cohort is comprised of civil servants and unionized workers. These voters are the bread and butter of the Workers’ Party, their loyalty stems from a mix of Left-wing ideology and corporatism, driven by a pragmatic approach to power. To this group Lula represents the ideal of an infallible strong leader emerging from the masses.
Finally, the third group are independent voters that reject Bolsonaro’s views. To them, Bolsonaro literally represents the return to the military dictatorship, and that is unacceptable. It is clear many people on both sides will vote according to their views on either Bolsonaro or Lula, with Haddad’s name playing next to a non-existent role in the decision-making process.
Brazil’s constitution, issued in 1988, looks like something out of People Before Profit’s wildest dreams: it asserts rights to housing, universal healthcare and free college education among other goodies. It even places a hard cap on interest rates.
The reality however does not agree with the law of the land. The large government-controlled banks, that would deliver on the guarantee of housing for all, effectively prevent the mortgage industry from working by killing any competition.
Hospital corridors are packed with patients on trolleys, with most Brazilians paying prohibitive premiums for private healthcare. Universities were turned into strongholds for Left-wing political party activism instead of learning and research centers. Interest rates have never been below the cap.
This constitution is the embodiment of the founding myth of Brazilian social democracy, a regime that would undoubtedly be disrupted by a Bolsonaro win. This founding myth, which justified several experimental social changes, is based on the supposed struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor: rich versus poor, whites against blacks, men against women.
Bolsonaro’s success is a clear sign that Brazilian society has exhausted this intersectional model, and that the structures of power sustained by these divisions are coming under question.
In the same way that Bolsonaro is a threat to the electoral aspirations of Haddad, Lula’s decoy, he is also a threat to the Left’s decoy of a democracy.