Brazil just experienced one of the most dramatic moments in its democratic history. Four years ago, Jair Bolsonaro was an Army reservist and a congressman from Rio de Janeiro with relatively limited national influence and connected to a minor party. When his name did pop up, it was usually to be condemned for his outrageous, stupid, hateful, racist, misogynist, or homophobic comments, or his enthusiasm for the military dictatorship and the torture that it inflicted on dissidents. His legislative achievements were almost nonexistent. On Sunday, however, he solidified his role as the leader of a far-right counterrevolution that swept through the nation like a tornado.
Bolsonaro won nearly 50 million votes in the first-round election – 46 percent of the electorate in a 13-way race. His party hit Congress, jumping from one seat to 52, sucking support for the traditional, center-right parties that have run Brasília since re-democratization. More than half of the lower house will be new members, and only eight of 54 Senate seats that were up for grabs were filled by incumbents. The collapse of these parties, rife with corruption and incompetence, would normally be grounds for celebration — if their seats weren’t being filled by some of the most extreme elements in modern politics.
Now, Brazilians must endure three more weeks of campaigning until the second-round elections on October 28. Bolsonaro will face off against Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party, an academic and former one-term mayor of São Paulo. Haddad failed to win re-election in 2016 to a man who now supports Bolsonaro. In the presidential race, Haddad came in 17 percentage points behind in the first round and suffers from an enormous enthusiasm gap and messaging problem.
To get a better sense of what happened in this election, what is at stake, and what to expect in the coming weeks, I called Rosana Pinheiro-Machado, an Intercept Brasil contributor and a professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Maria. She explained how the Workers’ Party has alienated much of its base since 2013 and helped create the perfect storm of chaos and discontent for a right-wing ideologue like Bolsonaro to seize upon.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
There’s been a lot of hype about Bolsonaro, what he represents, and what his popularity means. He took his party, the PSL, from one congressional seat to 52 while traditional, center-right parties were decimated in Congress. Does he represent a new phenomenon in Brazil?
It’s hard to say what’s new. In Brazilian history, democracy has always been the exception. This is the first point that we have to remember when we think about Brazil: Democracy is very fragile and has very shallow roots in our culture.
People often speak of a “new conservative wave” or a “new Brazilian fascism,” ignoring the history, which has always been very conservative, has always been governed by whites, and has always had a violent and genocidal policy toward the rest of the population. So, yes, I’ll say: Well, we have something new, which is, in recent times, the phenomenal rise of Bolsonaro — phenomenal — and the wholesale reorganization of the right.
We have clearly there, from the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 to the JBS corruption scandal in 2017, you had Bolsonaro with 7 percent in the polls. From there, the collapse of the political system became increasingly apparent, the people realizing that right and left were all the same in the popular mind, and Bolsonaro began to grow from that moment. That is, an idea that the political system is entirely corrupt.
The right had been able to organize the coup, successfully removing the PT on the grounds of corruption. But then, with the disasters of the Temer government that took over and the corruption scandals involving [Michel] Temer and his allies from the PSDB, there is a real collapse of the political system. It was a window of opportunities for Bolsonaro to grow and rearrange the center and the right.
I still need to analyze these data, but I imagine that his party’s victory is the greatest expansion in the history of the Congress, going from one to 52 seats. He manages, through the force of his name alone, to elect 52 candidates and reorganize the entire right around him. In this sense, it is something new, not just a rightward turn, but it is also the destruction of the traditional right field in Brazil and the reorganization around the far right.
He brings together a series of frustrations, hatreds, and prejudices — which have more than one cause — to coalesce around one person. It’s phenomenal.
On the other hand, obviously former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s controversial incarceration was catastrophic for the Workers’ Party, or PT, since he was the clear favorite in early polling. Did the PT respond and adapt wisely during the first round? Must they make any course corrections for the second round to boost their chances?
For me, the PT’s problem in the first round was to focus so much on the “Lula Livre” [“Free Lula”] narrative and so little on actual proposals. For the second round, the most obvious thing to me is that they need to advance other agendas, and not only social programs, but also on the issue of corruption, because it is the popular question that is in the minds of the population. If the PT does not see this and continues with “Lula Livre,” it’s unthinkable that they’ll be able to convert any votes among an electorate leaning towards Bolsonaro. They need to go on the offensive and tone down the “Lula Livre” rhetoric. Because, in the popular mindset, it’s the first time that a president was convicted and sent to jail, and the PT wants to keep him and release him from prison. This, in the popular mind, is the definition of impunity.
So focus less on Lula and more on the election, on policy proposals, and an anti-corruption agenda. Build a narrative. Position yourselves as the party that did the most to stand up against corruption, bring Dilma’s anti-corruption achievements to the front, talk about how much the PT has invested, and intends to continue investing, in the anti-corruption agenda.
The second issue is to focus on a pro-democracy agenda, reminding people what torture is. I think this is the moment to speak about what a dictatorship really is, exactly what it represents, what the risks are. But not only in the vague discourse of democracy vis à vis “Lula Livre”; explain what it means to praise dictators and torturers. I think they have to move along those two lines.
One of the most emblematic moments in the campaign exemplifying this embrace of “Lula Livre” and the lack of any anti-corruption rhetoric was in the last presidential debate, when Sustainability Network presidential candidate Marina Silva asked Haddad if the PT had done anything that he wanted to apologize for, and he basically said “no” and talked about how great Lula is.
Exactly. They have to change their narrative, speak immediately about corruption and the reorganization of the party. As long as the left does not speak about corruption as a matter of economic policy, they’ll have no success moving the debate to the left and talking about the role of corporations — they’ll get nowhere. The popular perception — and it is correct, although the left denies it — is that it has sunk the country. It is not what caused the crisis, but, in the popular perception, money does not reach average people because it has been stolen. It is one of the principal popular issues today. It’s from here that the imaginary communist threat originates. It is fundamental not just to engage in self-criticism, but to change the discourse as well.
I think for everyone who paid attention to this election, it was very clear for a while that Bolsonaro would win and his allies would gain many other seats. But were there any surprises for most observers on Sunday?
I don’t think most people expected the election to be so massively conservative. I think the big news is the numbers. They are overwhelming, far beyond expectations, a much bigger caucus than imagined, probably the most conservative Congress in history. I think this is a new element.
If you think about it, 46 percent of the valid votes represents 50 million voters. One in 3 eligible Brazilian voters voted for Bolsonaro. It’s a phenomenal, scary thing. But it also has a very small, positive side, which is to think about progressive gains. The PSOL party doubled its caucus. Feminist candidates were able to get elected with substantial numbers of votes, such as Sâmia Bomfim in São Paulo with 250,000 votes and Fernanda Melchionna in Rio Grande do Sul with 114,000. Fernanda went from 15,000 to 114,000 votes in two years.
That is to say, there is a feminist wave that is relatively tiny in the greater scheme. I have described this moment as a different cleavage in Brazilian history, which is a polarization that is no longer right and left; it is ultraright male with a left feminist. It is a double cleavage of gender and ideology. I think it’s also worth looking at the positive side of what these very young feminist candidates will represent in the Congress. I think that’s where a resistance will come in the next few years.
Yes, it will be interesting to see them going to battle head-on into the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house in Brazil’s Congress. In my view, the strongest forces in this election were the deep rejection — on all sides — of politicians and institutions, which, in fact, is not a new phenomenon. But it grew considerably with impeachment and corruption scandals, as you said. And, more importantly, that a large portion of the population identifies these institutional and political failures as almost exclusively as the fault of the PT, despite all of the corrupt actors from other parties and groups. For me, these were the two most evident trends in this election, and the PT was unwilling or unable to rebut them. Do you agree? How did we get here? How did it materialize in practice?
First, there is a trend today among progressives of waking up and saying, “It’s the PT that brought us here.” On the one hand, this is extremely unfair, blaming the left or just the PT for what is happening, because if you think of the reorganization of forces that we’ve had — from the rise of the evangelical churches; Edir Macedo, the billionaire evangelical preacher and owner of the Record media empire; all of the other huge conservative forces that exist in society — to blame only the PT administrations, or even the inability of the left to communicate, is somewhat unfair. They cannot be the only ones to blame for this giant wave of reorganization of forces that have always had great power in Brazil.
On the other hand, the PT does bear a great deal of guilt. My assessment always begins with the massive street protests in June 2013, before the crisis. The movement emerged precisely because of a process that has been cultivated by the PT, of new political subjectivities, new actors entering universities, a population that is more willing to demand their rights. People went to the streets, initially asking for more public goods and services, and the PT did not read what was happening on the streets at that time.
And violently repressed the protesters.
The first point to highlight is this inability of the PT to read what happened in June 2013. And, from there, is to close a narrative only around the coup, to choose a narrative that everything else is bourgeois and fascist and thereby gradually losing, little by little, much of the base that supported it. Instead of the PT joining together with the June 2013 movement and digging into popular dissatisfaction, raising the flag of more public services and anti-corruption — they didn’t make that analysis. Instead of the PT engaging, interrupting the protests, and seeing the window of opportunity to rebuild itself, it denied their point of view and began its own denialist narrative.
The economic crisis came and — for me, the worst part is that this is rarely discussed by analysts — the PT totally denied the crisis, which was one of the worst in Brazilian history. People had their lives devastated, they lost jobs, the shops closed. In one year, 200,000 people went to the streets to work as street vendors. Daily life deteriorated in every sphere, as the PT denied the corruption scandals and denied a horrible economic crisis. When we do field work, talking to regular people, they see the economic and political crisis together. At the same time, the PT denies this and calls anyone who disagrees a coup-monger or bourgeois.
When the pro-impeachment demonstrations began and since that time, I’ve been talking in the media about how I saw a group with which we could negotiate and bring to our side by addressing these issues. But then they began arguing that everything, everything is a coup. Though it was a coup and the PT is indeed the victim of a movement that seized a window of opportunity created by the economic and political crises, the PT also totally denies its share of guilt and began to target its discourse to be very focused on its core militancy, assuming only the position of the victim.
As a result, anti-PT sentiment grew amid the crisis. Since 2013, people have a feeling that Brazil is ungoverned and out of control and, consequently, anti-establishment anger begins to grow from there. This is the share of guilt, in my view, that they must assume.
The media and sectors of the right, obviously self-interested in deflecting and reducing their own guilt in all of this, threw all the blame on the shoulders of the PT, and the party arrived with a narrative that did nothing to fight against this manipulation. They called it manipulation, but they did not construct an affirmative counternarrative to counteract these attacks against them.
Exactly, I fully agree. I’ll start by saying that I find it unfair because the corruption scandal involves all parties; it involves all those seeking to get rich, it’s generalized. But in the popular perception, everything that happens in Brazil is the PT’s fault. You have to understand that, for the people, it’s the PT’s fault because in fact they had been in power for almost 14 years. There is also a widespread popular perception that life improved a great deal during the PT years, but here we are now. It’s very important that the PT listens to all progressive forces and tries to recover its legacy. I think the PT will do that; I really hope the PT does it in the second round.
One thing that was much discussed between the left, before and after the campaign, was the need to create a coalition of the left united to face the Bolsonarismo. It was much discussed, but everybody wanted to be the leader. The PT did not want to let Democratic Labor Party presidential candidate Ciro Gomes lead a coalition, and Ciro did not want to let the PT lead it, probably recognizing the anti-PT sentiment. What happened there? Why did we not have a leftist coalition? Do you think it would have made a difference?
It depends on who the candidate is. It is very difficult to imagine a leftist coalition considering the way the PT has set up the political debate, without wanting to give in to anything. Since Lula’s arrest especially, this is the focus of the campaign, always has been. It’s “Lula Livre” and for democracy. So it is very difficult for you to do alternative projects, even with Marina, even with Ciro, even with PSOL, when the principal left force is focused solely on their own narrative. I do not see how it would have made a difference in the first round, I think it would have been very similar.
Now, if they had gathered around the figure of Ciro — I don’t think we have another comparable figure today — it would be Ciro in the second round and with a very good chance of winning. I am not a Ciro supporter; I am talking about Ciro as a figure. Ciro is someone who would have better conditions to bring together the PT, the center, and the Bolsonaro supporters, because people strongly associate Ciro with not being corrupt, a bit of a local political boss, that idea of someone with a “firm wrist.”
Now in the second round, we’re going to have a coalition. Ciro already announced that he’s #EleNão [the anti-Bolsonaro slogan, “Not Him”], but some of his votes can go to Bolsonaro anyway. This coalition will emerge, it will be well thought out, but it comes at a moment of desperation; it was not a programmatic moment, it was not a moment in the name of Brazil, as it might have been considered before. Now it’s difficult, even with the votes of Ciro and Marina, to catch up to Bolsonaro. We have a very delicate situation, but this coalition is going to happen now, but it will only work if the PT is willing to think more broadly about the population and not so much about its own trajectory.
You wrote a very powerful column for The Intercept Brasil in defense of #EleNão, which were the largest, female-led protests in the history of Brazil, and they were against Bolsonaro. For many people, it was like a ray of hope that we could really take him down; people were joining together with a lot of passion and excitement. And then the day after the demonstration, the first election poll came out showing that Bolsonaro’s support among women had increased 4 percent. He then just kept increasing with every voter segment, but with women as well. The movement isn’t just one-day protest, but do you think #EleNão hurt or helped him? Is it seed of something greater in the future?
First, I still think that what made Bolsonaro increase among women was not #EleNão. It may have helped a little bit, but there are many other factors. It was the last week of the election; the churches publicly positioned themselves; Edir Macedo expressed support for him. Women who were undecided, particularly from the middle and upper classes, followed the historical trend of deciding in the last week. And that’s precisely the segment where he had the most votes. There are many factors that explain his late growth, so I do not think it is right to associate that with the #EleNão movement, although it clearly may be that, through polarization, it may have slightly influenced the decision-making of undecided women who already lean right.
We still cannot measure this, but my bet is that #EleNão might have helped him not get elected in the first round, because his rejection among women, although diminished, does exist. And I really believe in this movement and have been following it very closely. We have seen a movement of women talking to other women, women who were not politicized, women who were not in the public sphere and managed to convince their grandmother, their aunt from the rural interior — people who never talked about politics and who convinced their husbands say “#EleNão.” We have to look at the positive side of the movements, that maybe if it weren’t for the demonstrations, he would have won in the first round.
The second aspect is that resistance will come from women. We see these minor candidacies, although small, that also carry this anti-establishment vibe, from the left. And they are mobilizing a very substantial vote. So the resistance, I strongly believe that it will be focused in the women’s movement and that #EleNão will have much greater effect now, because women are already organizing the anti-Bolsonaro movement for new demonstrations. They’re ready to support Haddad this time, but with an independent agenda. The PT has to approach this with great care.