In the fall 2018 section newsletter, scholars Marisa von Bülow (Universidade de Brasília), Carlos de la Torre (University of Kentucky), and Katherine Jensen (Tulane University) discuss the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil:
Why the Far Right Won in Brazil
Marisa von Bülow, Universidade de Brasília
A couple of years ago few (if any) scholars would have predicted the victory of the far right in the 2018 Presidential elections in Brazil. Many did point to the dangers of the moral and political crisis of the governing coalition, which, coupled with an economic crisis, created a context that was ripe for authoritarian and populist turns. However, no one really believed that Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain best known for his outrageous comments about torture and women than for his charisma, would be able to reap the benefits of this crisis in such a momentous way.
Much of what has been discussed about the causes of this upheaval has emphasized the role of factors such as the rising levels of crime and unemployment, or have pointed to what other political forces did or did not do, such as the corruption scandals of the left or the inability of more moderate forces to channel dissatisfaction.
While these are all relevant, in this op-ed I wish to change the focus of the discussion, by highlighting a less explored but central dimension: the effectiveness of the strategies of the far right. Three factors are particularly important to explain why the far right – and not a more moderate opposition – was able to win the Presidential race.
The first factor is the successful building of a broad conservative coalition. The so-called “bullet, beef and Bible” sectors of Congress have long been allies, bringing together the traditional power of farm owners with representatives of the security community (former military officers and policemen) and conservative religious actors, mostly from neo-Pentecostal churches.
In the past five years, this coalition has gradually broadened, to include new actors and organizations. Mimicking the bridging movement of “fusionism” that brought together traditionalist and libertarian strands of conservatism in the United States in the 1960s (Edwards, 2007), the new conservative actors of the 2010s have built bridges with the more traditional actors in Brazilian politics. Among these new actors are youth-based groups that took root in the student movement in the 2000s, and that have since created a network of civil society organizations and think tanks dedicated to promoting neoliberal economic ideas and criticizing the left (Gobbi, 2016). These tech-savvy groups became more visible during the campaign for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, when they helped organize massive street protests with the help of social media (Dias, 2017). At that time, however, these groups were not among the supporters of Bolsonaro. They came onboard in 2017 and in 2018, as the far right candidate rose in the pools and consolidated his favoritism (von Bülow, 2018).
They are strange bedfellows to the extent that these groups sponsor very different views about trade and the role of the State in the economy. However, this Brazilian-style fusionism has become feasible by focusing on broad agreements around three issues: the fight against corruption (and the demand for tougher laws against crime in general), the defense of moral values (in opposition to LGBT and feminists’ agendas), and pro-business economic policies (in detriment, for instance, of environmental protection).
The second factor that helps explain the success of Jair Bolsonaro in the elections is the highly strategic and effective use of social media in general and of the messenger app WhatsApp in particular. Again, this was not done overnight. The online network of Bolsonaro supporters was already very influential during the impeachment of President Rousseff. In 2018, the mapping of the presence of political actors and civil society organizations on social media platforms shows that there is a large and unwavering difference according to ideology. To illustrate, I will mention only one fact: a week before the second round of the Presidential elections, Bolsonaro’s Facebook page had over seven million followers, while Fernando Haddad’s (the other candidate, of the leftist Workers’ Party) had less than one million.
While it is undoubtedly true that the use of digital media in this election has been characterized by false news and misinformation, as many have argued, it is also important to recognize that much of Bolsonaro’s impressive ability to mobilize online has been based on the organic actions of a well-oiled machinery that learned, from previous protest cycles and campaigns, how to best produce and disseminate content. Of key importance in this machinery have been WhatsApp groups. In Brazil – and in other countries such as India – this messaging app is extremely popular. Around one hundred million Brazilians use WhatsApp groups to quickly disseminate messages, creating an arena that is inscrutable both for researchers and for electoral authorities.
Finally, the third factor is the ability of Jair Bolsonaro to be reborn as a charismatic leader. A former army captain, Bolsonaro had been elected, seven times in a row, as a congressman from Rio de Janeiro. Until recently, however, he was not well known at the national level. He was not even well known among his colleagues in Congress. As early as February 2017, he launched a bid to become the Speaker of the House, and was mocked among his peers after getting only four votes (the winner received 293 votes). He was the “enfant terrible” in Congress, always eager to defend the military dictatorship and to pick fights with women, gays, or human rights defenders.
It is precisely this outspoken characteristic that has been successfully flipped, from bullying behavior into a political asset. While it still entails many negative reactions – public opinion polls before the second round showed that around 40% of the electorate argued they would never vote for Bolsonaro, a very high rejection rate – many began to see in him a welcome candid approach to politics. His supporters believe that whereas all politicians are corrupt and lie, Bolsonaro says what he is really thinking.
“Mito” Bolsonaro – “the Legend,” as his most fervent followers call him – was thus born. One whose potential was highly underestimated by all the other political forces and by scholars alike.
Other factors of course also had an impact, be they more structural ones (such as the seemingly unending economic and political crisis mentioned above), or more contextual ones, such as the knife attack suffered by Bolsonaro before the first round. This attack helped in consolidating a narrative of Bolsonaro as a victim fighting a corrupt system. It was also instrumental in allowing the candidate to withhold from any public debates, while maintaining a large coverage in mainstream media.
It is also important to acknowledge that the process of far-right empowerment is not a national one. In fact, many of the strategies that led to this successful outcome in the elections were lessons learned from far-right leaders and conservative movements in other countries, such as the United States. It remains to be seen, of course, whether these strategies, so successful for winning the election, will be sustainable during Bolsonaro’s Presidency. We are treading new territory in Brazilian politics, and the future is highly uncertain.
Dias, Tayrine dos Santos. 2017. ‘É uma batalha de narrativas’: os enquadramentos de ação coletiva em torno do impeachment de Dilma Rousseff no Facebook. Master’s thesis, Political Science Institute, University of Brasilia, Brazil.
Edwards, Lee. 2007. “The Conservative Consensus: Frank Meyer, Barry Goldwater, and the Politics of Fusionism.” First Principle Series, No. 8. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation.
Gobbi, Danniel. 2016. Identidade em ambiente virtual: uma análise da Rede Estudantes Pela Liberdade. Master’s thesis, Political Science Institute, University of Brasilia, Brazil.
Von Bülow, Marisa. 2018. “The Empowerment of Civil Society in Brazil.” Pp. 13-19 in Youngs, Richard (ed.), The Mobilization of Conservative Civil Society. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Bolsonaro and the Future of Democracy in Brazil
Carlos de la Torre, University of Kentucky
Jair Bolsonaro is not your regular Latin American populist, at least until now. Contrary to leftwing populists like Hugo Chávez, he did not promise to deepen democracy and to abandon neoliberalism. His platform is law and order, and the restriction of civil, socio-economic, gender, and LGBTQ rights. Bolsonaro is not the first rightwing populist to get elected either. In the 1990s Alberto Fujimori in Perú, like Bolsonaro, combined challenges to the political establishment with neoliberal policies. Yet differently from Bolsonaro, he did not use open racism to win elections. Nor is Bolsonaro just another rightwing winner like Iván Duque in Colombia or Sebastián Piñera in Chile.
Bolsonaro is a new brand of Latin American populist because he uses nostalgia of the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s to imagine a time of law and order, free of crime. His populism is a reaction to the corruption of the political establishment, especially of the leftist Worker’s Party (PT). It is also a protest to the inability of politicians to deal with a long and deep economic crisis. When the prices of commodities were high, Brazil under the PT experienced an economic bonanza, drastic reductions of poverty, and a new middle class moved out of poverty. The economic crisis, which was not well managed by the PT, threatened the status of a new and fragile middle class. Bolsonaro’s election is a white reaction to the policies of affirmative action that incorporated Afro-Brazilians to universities. It is also a conservative and fundamentalist Christian response to women’s rights and their visibility in the public sphere, and to the recognition of LGBTQ rights. He pledged to put neoliberal economists in charge to reverse the redistributive policies of the PT. He promised to open up protected areas of the Amazon rainforest to capitalist exploitation, and to get rid of conservationists and indigenous people who are resisting natural resources extraction.
As other rightwing populists, Bolsonaro is a threat to democracy, civility, and to basic values of modernity such as free and open public spheres and plural civil societies. Similarly to Trump, he promises to restore a patriarchal, heterosexual, and white-dominated past when minorities occupied subordinate roles, yet in addition he has nostalgia for dictatorship. Like Rodrigo Duterte, he wants to give impunity to the police and to vigilantes to get rid of crime. Similarly to other rightwing populists, Bolsonaro moves on a thin line between fascism and populism. Contrary to fascists that disregarded elections, populists’ claims to legitimacy lie in winning elections. Populists belong to the democratic family, yet once in power often act against pluralism, use laws instrumentally to punish critics, and restrict fundamental rights of the individual. Fascists use paramilitary and state violence to physically eliminate enemies, while populist attacks against enemies remain at the discursive and symbolic levels.
Yet Bolsonaro’s followers during the election beat up opponents, and like Trump, he opened up spaces for neo-fascists and alt-right groups. Contrary to U.S. rightwing populists, until Bolsonaro’s election, Latin American populists did not use openly racist tropes. When populists politicize race and racism, there is always a threat that it could become fascism.
It is unlikely that Bolsonaro will attempt a coup d’état. It is more likely that Brazil will experience processes of democratic erosion to restrict freedoms of expression, association, and privacy. Bolsonaro will attempt to concentrate power, and like Trump and other populists will transform political adversaries into enemies. State and paramilitary violence against indigenous people in the Amazonia, and poor and dark- skinned Brazilians in the favelas, will increase. Confrontations between his followers and the resistance to his autocratic government will further polarize a divided nation. Bolsonaro won the vote of whiter and more affluent voters in the south. Darker skinned and poor people in the northeast remained faithful to the PT. Bolsonaro got more votes from males than from women who took to the streets to protest his misogyny (Llaneras 2018).
The Brazilian election illustrates the diffusion of rightwing populism. As historian of populism and fascism Federico Finchelstein put it, Washington, DC is becoming the new center of populist diffusion. In the recent past, an openly autocratic candidate like Bolsonaro would have met with warnings from the U.S. embassy. Things are different under Trump. He admires macho autocrats, and he will probably bless Bolsonaro without making him accountable for human rights violations. Bolsonaro’s new brand of populism unfortunately might not be confined to Brazil. Would-be Bolsonaros could emerge in other nations to fight against crime and insecurity. Fundamentalists are ready to rise up to reverse women’s and LGBTQ rights. Where Bolsonaro imitators pop up, hopefully supporters of democracy will learn from the mistakes of Brazilians. Luis Ignacio da Silva, the founder of the PT that is serving time in jail for corruption, tried to run for the presidency while incarcerated and only a few months before the election named Fernando Haddad as his candidate. The non-PT political establishment reluctantly endorsed Haddad who was unable to stop Bolsonaro.
It is worth remembering that the wave of brutal military dictatorships of the 1970s started with the 1964 coup in Brazil. Nowadays democracies do not face sudden deaths. The main challenge to democracy comes from populists in power that incrementally restrict rights, concentrate power, and use laws instrumentally. Some, as Nadia Urbinati argues, disfigure democracy, while others push fragile democracies towards autocracy.
Llaneras, Kiko. 2018. “Bolsonaro divide Brasil: arrasa en los municipios más ricos y blancos.” El País.
Bolsonaro Marks a Xenophobic Turn for Brazil
Katherine Jensen, Tulane University
Commentators have rightfully underscored varied elements of Bolsonaro’s depravity. They have detailed his misogynist, racist, and homophobic record. Others have focused on his praise of the former military dictatorship, which he believes should have killed 30,000 more. He sees state and vigilante violence as fair avenues for imposing a conservative and oppressive societal order. Many have called him the “Trump of the Tropics.” He embraces the comparison. Others see him as the next Duterte.
His xenophobia has received less attention. Bolsonaro’s stances on immigration further clarify the severity of Bolsonaro’s profound departure from politics as usual in Brazil.
“The scum of the world is arriving in Brazil,” Bolsonaro bemoaned in 2015. He has pointedly named this “scum” as the “Senegalese, Haitians, Iranians, Bolivians…and now Syrians” in Brazil, and the “bad natured” people coming from North Africa. He believes Haitians are bringing diseases. Bolsonaro claims Brazil needs more armed forces in the streets to handle these immigrant and refugee communities. “We cannot put our society at the mercy of this minority, scum, who will join the other scum that’s in Brazil…to inflict terror here among us.” He declared: “We cannot allow this!”
Such statements mark a new era in Brazilian politics. Under former President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil began an open-arms migratory policy for Syrians. Since 2014, any Syrian can acquire a visa to come and obtain refugee status in Brazil. Consequently, Syrians are now the largest refugee community in the country. Brazil is the third largest recipient of Syrian refugees in the Americas, after the US and Canada. As Wael, a Syrian refugee in Rio de Janeiro, told me, “We have the freedom to work, to study, really to do what we want, because we have rights to everything.” Wael believes it is like “no other place in the world.”
Brazil has one of the fairest and most democratic asylum process in the world, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2014, 93% of asylum seekers had their refugee status claims approved. In 2017, Brazil passed a new Migration Law, finally replacing the Foreigner Statute instituted during the military dictatorship.
These formal processes have seen recent cracks from above and below. In August 2018, a judge ordered the suspension of entry of Venezuelans through the bordering state Roraima. In March, the National Committee for Refugees instituted a resolution whereby asylum seekers who have obtained residency status can have their asylum claims closed. And Brazil is no immigrant paradise. Venezuelans seeking refuge in Roraima have been terrorized by locals, their belongings set aflame. Syrian refugees have been accused of being suicide bombers. While seeking medical treatment, Hadi, another Syrian refugee living in Rio, was asked by his nurse to lift up his shirt to make sure he wasn’t carrying any bombs.
But Bolsonaro’s election marks the concretization and intensification of a new national political moment of xenophobia. Prior to Bolsonaro, Brazilian political conservatism had not been aligned with immigrant hatred in the ways with which we are familiar in the United States. Bolsonaro marks a radical departure even amongst conservative politicians in Brazil. In September 2016, then president Michel Temer spoke at a UN General Assembly meeting on migrants and refugees. Temer argued for increasing global measures to provide safe haven for immigrants. He boasted of Brazil’s welcoming of refugees. He spoke with pride as he declared at the UN that Brazil had received more than 95,000 refugees. The true number was 8,800. Temer inflated the number of refugees in Brazil by more than tenfold. Through such bombastic claims, Temer, a staunchly conservative president, sought to have Brazil stand out for its openness to immigrants, not its closures. Temer sought to position Brazil as distinct from global restrictive trends and called for other countries to be as accommodating as Brazil.
Bolsonaro marks a grave departure from the political status quo on immigration in Brazil. And he wields xenophobia as part and parcel of his broader political agenda. It provides for the co-produced denigration of “the other scum” in Brazil—“the marginals” of the Landless Workers’ Movement, for example—whom Bolsonaro decries as having immigrants in their midst. It also signals the global diffusion of a particular Islamophobic current, so ubiquitous in the United States but relatively new to and spotty in Brazil and which, frighteningly, is also an avenue for resurrecting the rhetorics of national security and domestic terrorism used by the military dictatorship to justify violent repression.
Poor, black, indigenous, and LGBTQ communities will suffer tremendously under a Bolsonaro presidency. So too will women and leftists. We should also be attuned to the threat Bolsonaro brings for the immigrant and refugee communities struggling to construct their lives anew in Brazil.
Azevedo, Rita. 2015. “Bolsonaro chama refugiados de ‘escória do mundo’.” September 22. Exame.
Cintra, Natália and Vinicius Cabral. 2018. “O Governo tem uma solução para reduzier a fila de pedidos de refúgio: Retirar direitos dos refugiados.” June 6. The Intercept Brasil.
Gazeta do Povo. 2018. “Bem antes de Trump, Bolsonaro chamou haitianos e outros imigrantes de ‘escória do mundo’.” January 15.
Nogueira, Maria Beatriz and Carla Cristina Marques. 2008. “Brazil: ten years of refugee protection.” Forced Migration Review 30(April):57-58.
Romero, Simon. 2016. “Conservative’s Star Rises in Brazil as Polarizing Views Tap Into Discontent.” May 7. New York Times.
UNHCR. 2016. “Dados sobre refúgio no Brasil.”