The fallout from years of corruption scandals in Brazil came to a head 10 days ago with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, and the battle between hope and despair has already begun – Isabel Bull writes from Brazil
The election results start coming in late afternoon. In Bahia, north-east Brazil, it is already getting dark. By seven in the evening, Jair Bolsonaro is declared president-elect of Brazil. Fireworks set off in the distance and Bernardo’s head falls into his hands.
On Sunday 28 October, Brazil elected the far-right extremist Bolsonaro as president. After a bitterly fought campaign, in the second round vote off against his Brazilian Workers’ party (PT) rival Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro won 55.7 per cent of the vote.
To call Bolsonaro a polarising figure is somewhat of an understatement. Seemingly arising from political insignificance, he has captured the imaginations of millions of Brazilians in a political landscape mired by corruption, crisis and scandal.
He is openly racist, misogynistic and homophobic, has spoken favourably about Brazil’s brutal 1964-1985 military dictatorship and declared himself in favour of torture. Already likened to Donald Trump in style and rhetoric, his rise to power has sparked fear across Brazil and beyond.
‘I don’t even know how to express how I’m feeling in words. I feel depressed’, says Bernardo, an NGO worker. It is election night and with 90 per cent of the votes now in, the result has been released. ‘I will never be able to look at those who voted for him in the same way again.’
Gabrielle, an English teacher, is similarly bemused. ‘This situation is disturbing’, she says. ‘Half of my friends have already moved to Europe and the other half are thinking about it. I have a degree, I have a masters degree. With the Bolsonaro win, I may leave and take my skills with me’.
When asked why they thought people had voted for Bolsonaro they both point to an array of factors.
‘For a lot of people, facts and knowledge and history did not matter. It was just about revenge. People wanted to get rid of PT at all costs’, says Bernardo.
Val, a business owner, is, in comparison, happy about the result. He voted for Bolsonaro. ‘Brazil has many problems. Armed robberies are common and Bolsonaro will stop criminal behaviour by legalising guns’, he says.
‘Bolsonaro is not corrupt’, adds Val, ‘He will be a clean slate’.
So, where did it all go so wrong for Latin America’s biggest democracy?
Following the downfall of the military dictatorship, Brazil welcomed back democracy in 1989. Right-wing parties were hegemonic until 2002, when former metalworker turned union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – known simply as Lula – became the first PT President of Brazil. Under Lula, Brazil’s minimum wage almost doubled, access to health services and education soared and Brazil’s GDP bloomed.
When he stood down in 2010, Lula’s personal ratings were still sky high. Today, however, he is in prison.
In 2017, Lula was charged with 12 years in prison for corruption. He denies all charges laid against him and earlier this year tried to run as PT’s candidate in the election. Despite his prison sentence, he is still popular amongst Brazilians. He was, however, barred from running. Legal experts in Brazil and around the world have called the validity of this decision, as well as Lula’s trial, into question, and evidence against him is lacking. Many insist Lula should instead be seen as a political prisoner.
Lula retired from office in 2010, his successor Dilma Rousseff then became the first female president of Brazil. Rousseff was well liked to begin with, but after Brazil’s Petrobras scandal, which saw statewide corruption and kickback to the company’s officials, she was impeached in 2016 following an ugly and misogynistic campaign.
No direct evidence implicating Rousseff has come to light, and she denies all knowledge of the scandal during her time in office. But, the Petrobras scandal, along with many other allegations of corruption – some fair, some perhaps not – have stuck, causing many to turn against PT.
The trouble is, for a country like Brazil where corruption and political instability are rife: who else should people vote for?
Two days before the vote-off, Grazi is shaking her head. ‘We are not satisfied’, she says, ‘People no longer want a corrupt government. But, Bolsonaro is in favour of arms, wants to get rid of the ministry of environment and is against women, black people and gay people. We are sad, both options are bad’.
Even those who voted for PT see its problems. ‘For sure, there was corruption’, says Gabrielle, ‘But, there has always been corruption in Brazil. It’s how people think that things work. The left in Brazil needs to be stronger and bigger’.
Bernardo adds, ‘When they were in power of course PT made mistakes, but every other party makes mistakes’.
He points to the role of Brazil’s media in demonising PT and its politicians over the last 15 years. In Brazil, media ownership is highly concentrated in the hands of a select few families heavily linked to the right wing political establishment. In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Brazil comes in at 102.
So, what now?
Bolsonaro will be sworn into office in January. Whether he will relax gun laws, imprison his left wing opponents, or even bring back military rule is still to be seen.
Most troubling has been his rhetoric on the environment. Given the global ecological importance of the Amazon and the Cerrado Savanna, we should all care about what is to come next.
For some, though, the fight back has already begun.
‘My name is Eduardo. I am a psychologist and political scientist and a militant for democracy, human and social rights’. A pro-democracy activist during the military dictatorship, Eduardo has seen it all before.
Now, however, he has a message of hope, shared by millions of Brazilians who rejected Bolsonaro’s extremism. ‘Bolsonaro’s win should not discourage us. Those of us who have lived through the military dictatorship know to look at history with greater perspective. In these moments we have to mobilise and promote hope and persistence’, he says.
Protesters have already marched in cities across the country, vowing to defy Bolsonaro and defend rights and freedoms in Brazil.
PT’s fall has not been without immense consequence, and looking ahead to a presidential term – or perhaps more – with Bolsonaro in power, Brazil’s future suddenly seems far less secure.
Latin America’s biggest democracy has many social problems and even greater structural difficulties, and so drawing parallels can seem almost futile. But, the global left should be paying attention and take heed. When the left is weak, divided and incoherent, a vacuum is created.
And, extremists like Bolsonaro can arise from the ashes.
Isabel Bull is a writer for Progress. She tweets @isabell_bull
Photo 1 source: Progress / Issy May Bull
Photo 2 source: Wikimedia Commons / Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom
Photo 3 source: Progress / Issy May Bull
Photo 4 source: Wikimedia Commons / Jose Cruz
Photo 5 source: Progress / Issy May Bull
Photo 6 source: Wikimedia Commons / Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom
Photo 7 source: Progress / Issy May Bull
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