This Sunday, Brazilian voters head to the polls to decide between incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Earlier this week in Italy, Giorgia Meloni of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party won election as prime minister on an anti-immigration platform. Academic and translator Arthur Goldhammer joins Ryan Grim to discuss the Italian election. Then Grim is joined by Brazilian sociologist Sabrina Fernandes, who breaks down the election in her country.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: On Sunday, Brazilians head to the polls for the first round of voting in their presidential election. Former President Lula da Silva is surging in the polls, climbing over the 50 percent he would need for a knockout first-round win. If the polls are accurate, he’s likely to do significantly better than that even — because a significant portion of voters remain undecided, and if they break his way, or some portion of them break his way, he could even crack 60 percent.
Incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who styles himself the Donald Trump of Brazil, has signaled he won’t respect a result like that, arguing the polls are wrong and the election is being stolen. The Biden administration, however, has sent signals it plans to recognize the results of the election, putting the U.S. in a totally novel situation, working to prevent a right-wing coup in South America. Weird times.
In Europe this week, the fascist-adjacent Giorgia Meloni won the Italian election for prime minister, which came a few weeks after a surging right-wing took power in Sweden. All of this, while a massive attack on the Nord Stream pipeline has led to global finger pointing ahead of what could be one of the most pivotal winters in Europe in half a century or more.
To sort through all this, I’ll be joined first by Art Goldhammer, one of the leading translators of French work into English, including his work on the seminal translation of Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”
After that, I’ll speak with Brazilian sociologist Sabrina Fernandes, who often tweets in English at the handle @safbf.
But first, on Italy and all things Europe, I’m joined now by Arthur Goldhammer.
Arthur Goldhammer, welcome to Deconstructed. Thank you so much for joining me.
Arthur Goldhammer: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
RG: So, before we get into Italy, or Sweden, or the rest of the politics of Europe, recently — we’re recording this on Wednesday — there was the either sabotage or explosions around the Nord Stream pipeline — huge news, there’s already wild speculation that Ukraine did this, that Russia did this, that the United States was responsible for this. We may never get to the bottom of what happened, but who people are speculating may have been responsible and why, I think, tells us something about the way that people are viewing the crisis and the politics.
What is the reaction to this so far? And how significant is this gonna be for winter and energy prices?
AG: Well, I don’t think it will have particular significance for energy prices because the pipeline was already cut off and no longer supplying gas to Europe.
It is being seen, however, in European capitals, as a warning shot that the entire European gas infrastructure is vulnerable. Obviously, if this deep-sea pipeline could be blown up, then other pipelines supplying gas to Europe are also vulnerable.
The accusations flying back and forth depend on which side the accuser is on, vis-à-vis the Ukraine war. Clearly those who favor Ukraine are quick to blame Russia; others on the Russian side tend to blame Ukraine. Ukraine has never been happy with the North Stream pipelines supplying gas to Germany from Russia.
But it would be pure speculation on my part to offer an opinion. I have no idea who did it.
RG: Right. What is the latest on the energy situation there? How prepared, in general, is Western Europe for this winter?
AG: Well, the short answer is that Western Europe is not prepared. The longer answer is that it’s a bit better prepared than many had feared back in February when the war in Ukraine started.
Germany has sought and found some alternative sources of gas, and some months ago began filling its storage facilities. Those are now, at last report, over 90 percent full; by now they may be 100 percent full. So Germany is somewhat better prepared than people had feared.
However, even with 100 percent storage capacity filled, that amount will last for less than two months in an average winter. If it’s a particularly cold winter, the gas will run out before then.
The German government has already taken steps to request industries that are heavy gas users to moderate their usage and to request ordinary citizens to take cold showers, reduce their heat, and so on.
And all across Europe, governments are asking citizens to raise their heat no higher than 67.5 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter. So Europeans are taking precautions, but a lot depends on the weather. So there’s major uncertainty there. And then if there should be attacks on gas and oil pipelines, all bets are off. Europe could be plunged into total chaos.
RG: And Putin’s political calculation, everybody seems to say, is that this type of energy crisis is going to cause political unrest, which then redounds toward the benefit of European right-wing parties that are more sympathetic to Russia. Are you starting to see significant protests? Is that panning out for Putin?
AG: No, I think it is not at this point. The pain has not been felt by ordinary citizens except at the gas pump and in their electric bills. And so far, they’re willing to bear that pain in solidarity with Ukraine, which enjoys a fairly substantial support across Europe.
In Italy, where, as you know, a far-right government was just elected on Sunday, the leader of that new government, the likely leader, Giorgia Meloni, is surprisingly staunchly pro-Ukraine. So if Putin’s calculation was that precipitating your crisis over Ukraine would drive the far-right into an overt, pro-Russian stance, it looks like it’s not going to pan out. Of course, that could all change if things get really bad during the winter. People are willing to pay higher gas prices; it’s not clear how willing they will be to freeze to death or suffer substantial discomfort during the winter.
RG: [Laughs.] Right.
AG: But all that is still speculative.
RG: So where did Meloni draw her support?
AG: Well, in the four years since the last election, she has been steadily increasing her support. Essentially, it came from the other two right-wing parties, which will now be her coalition partners, the so-called Lega or League, which used to be the Lombard League, and then the Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini; and Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia, which has been declining for a number of years.
The overall total of votes for right-wing parties did not increase, but Meloni increased her share of that vote from about 4.4 percent in 2018 to over 27 percent this year. So a substantial increase in her vote, which has come about because she’s not only taken a strong anti-immigration stance, which Matteo Salvini also did, but took a very strong pro-family, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, anti-gay rights, anti-gender transformation, what have you, very right-wing position on a whole range of social issues, which seem to have appealed to the electorate on the left.
Enrico Letta refused to enter into an alliance with what’s called the Five Star Movement, which was founded by a TV comedian named Beppe Grillo many years ago. But the movement has, since then, passed into the hands of Giuseppe Conte, who was prime minister before Mario Draghi, the outgoing prime minister.
The decision by Conte to withdraw his support from the pro-Draghi coalition, which included all the parties except Meloni’s, led to a split on the left, and Enrico Letta refused to ally his social democratic party, which is called the Partito Democratico, or Democratic Party, with the Five Star Movement, which itself had internal factional split. I don’t know how much in detail you want to go into Italian politics, which is always comically factionalized.
RG: Comically factional. But I’m curious who the constituencies of these factions are to see if we can draw any kind of transnational parallels to them, because my understanding is Letta would be more social democratic with upper middle class technocratic professionals. Is that accurate? And the Five Star Movement is trying to appeal to working class people through material concerns, rather than cultural ones. Is that generally right?
AG: Yes, you’re generally right.
Letta’s party certainly is a social democratic credit party which appeals to the professional classes. Letta himself is a technocrat and Mario Draghi is a technocrat, former head of the European Central Bank. So that’s the social base of that party.
The Five Star Movement is a little bit more diverse. It was founded as an anti-elitist party, whose motto was “throw the bums out,” the bums being both of the right and the left. But it became a party of government under Giuseppe Conte, and therefore, joined the ranks of the bums.
Luigi Di Maio is a little bit more left-leaning than Conte was, and his faction of the Five Star Movement would have been more compatible with Letta. It was pro-Draghi, unlike Conte. It was Conte’s decision to withdraw his support from Draghi and from the technocrats. So, that move alienated his party from the professional classes. And Letta’s decision to seek an alliance on the left and at any chance of a further coalition, which was dangled for a while with Matteo Renzi, who had been the prime minister of the Democratic Party, but split with his party and tried to forge an alliance with centrists who were dissidents from Berlusconi’s party.
AG: So before we get into much more Byzantine description, that’s what’s happened.
On the right, the story is much simpler: The appeal is largely to the working class, which has become strongly anti-immigrant — and much more strongly than in the past traditionalist. The secularizing influence of the Italian Communist Party, which was very strong in the 1960s and ’70s, has entirely waned, and much of the working class in Italy has reverted to more conservative social positions.
RG: And so you had two factions vying for working-class support. You had the Five Star Movement which, when they were in power, implemented some version of universal basic income — trying to very much appeal directly to workers’ interests, and then you have Meloni appealing to their cultural grievances. So it seems like she did better, like she drew a lot more working class people. How much better did she do? In other words, how much more excited were these working class Italians to vote with their cultural values rather than their material values?
AG: Well, she drew approximately three times the vote of Conte’s party.
AG: Conte, however, was particularly strong in the south, where there are a lot of working poor, and the fact that his party had implemented what’s called the citizens’ income, which, as you say, is a kind of universal basic income, appealed to those voters. So there was actually a surge of the Five Star Movement in the south. They did better than they had done in the past. And that represents a certain change.
On the other hand, Meloni’s appeal to the more conservative parts of the working class — the more traditionalist, more Catholic parts of the working class, particularly in northern Italy — put her over the top and led to her party’s best results in its history.
RG: And Jonathan Smucker, who’s a guest we’ve had on here before, kind of an American author and political strategist, has a term that he calls “the margin of maneuver.”
His argument was, say, in the 2020 Democratic primary, that the Sanders wing of the party had gotten to within the margin of maneuver — they were outmaneuvered by Obama, Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Clyburn, everybody kind of coming together at the end and outmaneuvering him at the end, rather than at a massive kind of structural deficit.
And so I’m curious if the Italian center-left and left were within the margin of maneuver in this election, and if they had made different tactical decisions, could have prevailed? Or if just structurally they were swamped by these cultural forces that you’re describing?
AG: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. I think they were within a margin of maneuver. But even if they had made different tactical choices, it probably would not have been enough to overcome the structural advantage of the right.
There are certainly many on the left in Italy who think that Letta made the wrong choices. And, in fact, he immediately drew that conclusion himself and took himself out of the running for the future chairmanship of his party. So there will be other people now vying for that position who will be willing, and will run on the basis of their willingness, to consider new coalitions, particularly with the Five Star Movement and with the Italian Greens.
I think what changed on the right was an expansion of the margin for maneuver. Meloni had been limited in the past; her party, which is called the Brothers of Italy, is descended from an earlier party called the Italian Social Movement, which itself was descended from the fascist party of Benito Mussolini. So many workers who considered themselves anti-fascist would not consider a vote for the Brothers of Italy until recently.
But after 2018, things changed in that respect. Meloni dissociated herself from Mussolini, whom she had praised in the past. She changed her position on Europe; she had been anti-European, but became pro-EU, became an Atlanticist, and denied any affinity at all with Putin’s Russia, which became a particular point of pride for her after the war in Ukraine began last February. So she increased her margin for maneuver and began to take more and more votes away from Salvini, who had been the rising power on the right as Berlusconi, who is now in his late 80s, faded from his once dominant position as the uncontested champion of the right.
So I think the story is that there may have been a larger margin for maneuver on the left than Letta was able to recognize, but Meloni expanded her margin for maneuver on the right. And that’s the story of how the election was won.
RG: And so was the, I don’t know what you would call them, neo-fascist, or hard-right, or populist hard-right — whatever term you would use — were they being held back in recent years, by kind of an anti-EU sentiment and a pro-Russian sentiment that getting in the way of winning significant working class support, and now, shed of that, their basic principles are pretty attractive to people without whatever nationalist implications you draw from —? Well, it’s not nationalist, because it’s pro-EU, but you know what I mean?
AG: Well, I think the Russian issue was not so prominent until this year. What really dominated Italian politics vis-à-vis the EU in previous years was the fact that Italy was a kind of ward of the EU. Its very high level of debt, I think close to 180 percent of GDP, made it beholden to decisions of the European Central Bank; there were several occasions on which the European Central Bank essentially dictated a change of government in Italy: Berlusconi was replaced by Mario Monti back in the early 2000s, for example, because Berlusconi was unwilling to fulfill the conditions imposed by the European Central Bank for supportive Italian debt. So a technocratic government led by Mario Monti, who had the seal of approval of the European Central Bank, was put in.
More recently Mario Draghi replaced Giuseppe Conte under similar conditions. The EU, as a condition of Covid-19 aid, wanted a more technocratic government, more willing to implement stringent economic reforms, and Draghi had done to do that. The paradox is that his reforms were actually quite popular and enjoyed support across the political spectrum, but for reasons of eternal jockeying, Conte and the Five Star Movement decided that they no longer wanted to put up with the Draghi government. The polls were indicating that the right-wing had a chance to win; until recently, that was not the case. And so the right wing was willing to go along with Draghi. But when it saw that it might, according to the polls, have a chance to take over the government, it capitalized on the opportunity provided by Conte’s decision to back out of the pro-Draghi coalition and go for a new election, and that paid off with the election of Meloni.
RG: Mhmm. And how does Sweden fit into this? A couple of weeks ago, you had a surge of the right there with parliamentary elections. Is that something completely different? Or is this part of a wave that you’re seeing?
AG: Well, I know far less about Sweden than I do about Italy or France, so I’ll preface my remarks with that.
AG: There is the obvious commonality between the two situations: that anti-immigrant parties and anti-immigrant politics are now front and center in the governing coalitions.
In both countries, you have a coalition which includes far-right parties and less far-right parties. Although in the case of Italy, there has been a kind of creeping of the boundary between the center right and the far-right. When Berlusconi first came to power. He was considered far-right, but now he’s considered quite centrist —
RG: Hmm. That sounds familiar, as an American.
AG: Yeah. It does. And there are lots of similarities with the American situation, but it would probably take us too far afield to go into those. But I think the main similarity between Italy and Sweden is the dominance of anti-immigrant politics. In Sweden, however, the immigration problem is far less severe than it is in Italy.
Italy is what the Europeans call a “frontline state” — that is, it’s a state that receives immigrants coming directly from Africa on rafts. The island of Lampedusa is only a few miles from Libya. And that’s become a major immigration route. So there are large numbers of immigrants piling up in Italy. And under EU law, the state in which an immigrant arrives is responsible for their ultimate disposition. So Italy has been under tremendous pressure, and has been urging the EU to try to alleviate this pressure. But it’s very difficult to get other countries to take immigrants that Italy wants to get rid of.
So Italy has been having to cope with this for more than a decade now. And that has steadily strengthened the hand of anti-immigration parties, which include all three parties of the right now in what will be the governing coalition.
RG: And, last question: What is the sense among Europeans of how the Russian war in Ukraine ends? Is there a sense that this is going on for the foreseeable future? Or is there an idea that there’s some jockeying going on ahead of negotiations that could potentially end this over the winter? Where are people’s minds around this war?
AG: Yes. Well, I wish I knew the answer to that question. For the moment, everyone is making public statements in support of Ukraine — I shouldn’t say everyone, but the vast majority of Europeans, ordinary citizens, government leaders, industrial leaders, and so on, are emphasizing their support for Ukraine as a defense of democracy and defense of the West.
However, within that facade of unity, there are certainly underlying differences, particularly among industrial leaders who are becoming increasingly worried about the threat to the European economy, and to their own companies of continued high energy prices.
There are a number of companies across Europe that are particularly energy intensive, which have had to lay off workers and begun to curtail production. The New York Times, last week, had an article on this featuring a glass factory in France, which is the largest producer of drinking glasses around the world —
AG: — which has had to curtail its production by 50 percent, and laid off something like 3,000 workers.
Other industrial leaders have been less outspoken about this. But it’s known that within Germany, for example, there are quite a number of companies that are dependent, for their competitive position, on cheap Russian gas and would like to see this war end as soon as possible.
That said, it’s hard to envision any end game to this war that will lead to a restoration of cheap Russian gas on the terms that it was provided prior to the war; Europe is going to have to reorient itself for defensive reasons towards developing new sources of energy, but that takes time. What the interim solution will be is not clear to anyone. And what the endgame will be is not clear to anyone. It would take a mind reader to understand what Putin’s ultimate conditions might be. But I think it’s fair to say that there are many in Europe who think that this winter will be a crucial test if the Ukrainians continue to make gains, and if Russia does not retaliate in some of the more frightening ways that it’s threatened to retaliate, then a negotiated solution is perhaps within sight.
So this winter will probably change people’s minds and begin to lead to some more open statements of how people would like to see the war end. It’s premature for that at this moment however.
RG: Arthur Goldhammer, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
AG: Thank you, Ryan. It’s been my pleasure.
RG: That was Arthur Goldhammer.
Now the Brazilian election in particular is a seminal moment for us here at The Intercept. Without the reporting in 2019 of my former colleague Glenn Greenwald, and others at The Intercept Brasil, Lula would quite likely still be in prison. Instead, he’s potentially on his way back to the presidency.
Now to talk about Sunday’s vote, I’m joined now by Sabrina Fernandes.
Sabrina, welcome to Deconstructed.
Sabrina Fernandes: Thank you, Ryan. Thanks for having me.
RG: For sure.
So Sabrina is a Brazilian sociologist; she’s an activist. So to set the stage for listeners here: Who are you supporting this presidential campaign and what’s the background in Brazilian politics been?
SF: Yes, I am one of those Marxists who are with Lula. [Laughs.]
RG: [Laughs.] Mhmm.
SF: So we have decided that this is a very particular situation, where even though we have been critical of Lula’s policies in the past, something that we consider to be class conciliation, really working with capital while not really helping to break through paradigms in Brazil around development and the issues that we have with the capitalist class, we have been quite critical. [But] we understand that Lula is going to set some priorities straight in the new government, especially in terms of lifting people out of poverty again, fighting hunger, and bringing back more ecological approaches as well. So we are, together, with Lula. Not all of the socialists in Brazil are with Lula right now, but the great majority of the socialists are with Lula.
RG: And for our American audience, let’s sketch out his career really briefly, and I’ll give a quick overview, and you tell me what I missed.
As I understand it, he really emerged as a union leader and a kind of unapologetic leftist when he burst onto the national scene, but was not able, in that incarnation, to get over the top and into the presidency. And it was when he kind of began, I don’t know what you would call it, moderating or compromising, with some of the factions of the elite that he was then able to pull together a governing coalition while in office, overseeing one of the most rapid bursts in economic development for the nation’s poor probably anywhere in the world, maybe outside communist China, over the last several decades.
But that move, toward the middle or toward the center-left, alienated some on the left. And so, as he has reemerged out of prison — and I want to get back to that – what did I miss and what has it been that has been able to pull the left back behind him again?
SF: Yeah, so the trajectory of Lula is quite interesting, because he used to speak a lot in terms of class antagonisms. That was his role as a union leader, that was quite important for fighting the dictatorship way back then. He was persecuted by the dictatorship as well. And after the dictatorship, when he started running for the presidency, his discourses ended up more moderate each time. And so you got to the point when the Workers’ Party was more open to, for example, accepting donations from private entities and corporations. So things started changing. There were some schisms, like organizations leaving the Workers’ Party. This led to the creation of other leftist parties in Brazil — for example, the PSTU and the PSOL.
And PSOL, for example, has been quite the opposition to the PT for a while, but in the past few years, primarily because of Bolsonaro, there’s been more of a tighter relationship between PSOL and Lula. PSOL earlier in the year decided not to launch its own presidential candidate, but stand with Lula from the beginning — but also contribute to Lula’s program.
RG: What are their politics? Like, light socialist?
SF: Yeah. PSOL is something that is radical left versus the moderate left, like the Workers’ Party would be. So it does have a socialist perspective. But within the PSOL, this is quite a fragmented party. It is a small socialist party. So we’re talking here about between 200,000-250,000 members, if you count those who are registered and those who are not. But it is the biggest, I would say, socialist party in Brazil, because there are other ones with socialist in the name that I would not consider to be socialist.
But the thing with PSOL is that even the part of PSOL that is very, very critical of Lula, who had been accusing the party of becoming more and more like the PT, so transforming itself and becoming more moderate, everyone is with Lula nowadays — different levels of critiques, but this understanding that the left wasn’t able to produce another name.
SF: And this is something that was quite clear in 2018 already. So when Lula was in prison, and he couldn’t run against Bolsonaro, there were a lot of conversations in terms that Lula would have won — so let’s say, like, in the U.S., people talking about Bernie.
RG: [Laughs.] Right. Bernie would have won.
SF: Yes. So Bernie would have won and Lula would have won. We fought really hard to get Haddad in. The second-round campaign was absolutely intense. We were in the streets talking to absolutely everyone. But some people didn’t know who Haddad was, and Lula is a person that has been very criminalized. So he’s associated with corruption and robbery and things like that. But he’s also associated with the good times.
SF: And his campaign right now is really playing on this. Lula is associated with the good times when people could eat three meals a day. Lula is associated with a time where you could go to university, and not be afraid of asking questions, and that people weren’t facing as much political violence as people are facing right now.
RG: So can you talk a little bit about Lula in jail? Like, what did he go to jail for?
And then let’s talk a little bit about how he got out. Because that actually involves not my organization, but our sister organization, The Intercept Brasil, and a guy who is very controversial here in the U.S., Glenn Greenwald — but I assume also controversial in Brazil — and that entire investigation. What role did that play in his release? And what were the charges that he was in for?
SF: Yeah, it’s very important that you mentioned that, because there’s been an approach by the far-right of just saying: You’re going to elect this person who was in prison. He’s an ex-prisoner, like a former convict.
RG: [Laughs.] Mhmm.
SF: Lula is not a former convict, because the charges were actually annulled in the end, because the justice system found that the judge who was involved in the case and prosecuting was not acting as a judge; he was acting as the prosecutor himself. So he was going after Lula from the beginning.
The charges were very, very odd. For example, there was something related to accusing him of getting an apartment as a favor from a construction company. And this will be connected to some contracts for mega projects, and contracts related to Petrobras, the national oil company. So all of these things.
But then Lula would be like: Yes, but where’s the signature in this contract, in this lease?
There’s no signatures. So, like, yeah, put that away.
There’s this very iconic moment from the interviews, when the judge was getting Lula’s testimony, when he just says: Yeah, this is not evidence. There’s no signature. Why are you showing this paper to me?
And, in the end, eventually, these ended up in courts and the conviction got annulled, as well as a bunch of other judicial processes that Lula was being charged with, but that he hadn’t been properly judged yet. And the Lava Jato investigation, which is this investigation by this judge, it’s called the Car Wash investigation, ended up being under scrutiny by the public, partly because of access to materials by The Intercept Brasil showing — and we call this Vaza Jato, the leaked Car Wash situation.
SF: So we had Telegram conversations between the judge and the prosecuting team. And by doing this, we actually got to connect things that we already knew. So we had proper evidence that they were colluding. So this collusion was a collusion to put Lula away ahead of the elections so he couldn’t run. So this is quite key.
And at the time, Glenn received a crazy amount of death threats.
SF: We actually had a big event together in July 2019 — so shortly before the pandemic — and there had to be a security detail because there were like Bolsonaristas coming together just to threaten him and stop him from talking. So he’s become one of the figures in denouncing this process.
But in the end, we also know this is quite connected, for example, to the power of social movements who were camping in front of Lula’s prison in Paraná. This is important. So it’s not just the lawfare approach to this. There was a lot of social movement support. This was also a little bit controversial every now and then, because, for example, we would have the Women’s March for International Women’s Day, and a lot of people wanted to turn that into a “Free Lula” march.
SF: So there was always some infighting within the left in how much attention we give to this, because yes, this is important — fighting for Lula is also fighting for democracy — but it can’t be just fighting for Lula.
But in the end, without social movements, I don’t think the impact of Vaza Jato would have been as great as it was.
RG: So Lula gets freed. When did it become clear, or was it always clear, that he was going to be so dominant versus Bolsonaro? And what’s your expectation going into Sunday?
SF: I think from the beginning — it was so clear that we knew in 2018 that Lula was the best.
RG: Like, if he were free —
SF: Yes, it would have made all the difference. So as soon as we knew that he was apt to run again — and he got released shortly before the pandemic, and there were already people in the streets super happy about it, and we already got into campaign mode. So it was about what we do before then.
And one of the big challenges within the Brazilian left was, well, do we keep pushing to get rid of Bolsonaro, or do we wait for the elections? And this is quite the conundrum in Brazil, because we do know that there was some level of demobilization within the left saying: Yeah, we’ve tried to impeach Bolsonaro. This is not working. So let’s just keep the opposition going, fighting in Congress, trying to stop some of these bills that are being proposed by the Bolsonaristas, but we’re going to have Lula in 2022, and then we’re going to get a new president.
And in the end, that’s it. We weren’t able to pull big mobilization efforts to get Bolsonaro out. It’s not the fault only of the left; the right-wing has a lot of merit here. They control huge chunks of social media threads, and chains, and bots, and they’ve maintained quite the hegemony of the discourse. But the left itself has had a lot of trouble in terms of mobilizing because we weren’t able to mobilize against the coup in 2016 as well. So it’s been quite the issue.
And now what we understand is that as soon as the polling began, Lula was already in first place.
SF: It was never Bolsonaro in first place, and Lula trying to catch up. So Bolsonaro has been in second place ever since, although Bolsonaro has been claiming in his own networks that if he doesn’t win this Sunday, October 2, in the first round, with a 60 percent margin, then it’s probably something fraudulent, [that] something off is happening. So he’s throwing that in the ring right now and just trying to claim that the polling is wrong: Lula is not going to win, I’m the rightful winner.
RG: So in this same episode, we’re also talking separately about the Italian election, that just came off — and in particular about the fight between the far-right, and the center-left for the votes of the working class.
In the Italian election, the right won the working class by something like 3-to-1 by appealing directly to very cultural issues. So where is the working class in Brazil breaking down in this election?
SF: Yes, this has been a big concern, because we know that a lot of the working class was with Bolsonaro in 2018 because of moral panic. So we have these conservative sides of fundamentalist evangelicals, and these evangelical leaders who can actually gather immense crowds — pastors telling people in church who they should be voting for. They were able to elect not only Bolsonaro, but a lot of conservative people into Congress as well. So this has been an issue.
And right away there were a lot of people just saying: Wow, there are a lot more fascists in Brazil than we thought!
And this is such such an awful and completely wrong understanding of what’s going on, because it’s not a bunch of fascist workers; it’s a lot of people who have felt very abandoned through the economic crisis in Brazil and have been fed a lot of information that’s depoliticized, — and very anti-communist information as well — around being afraid of gender ideology, and the destruction of the family, and our children — very, very strong.
So [with] some of these things, we do find parallels with other parts of the world. We find parallels with this in Europe, in the U.S., in Latin America in general. So this was quite strong. But also what we know right now is that working class people are migrating back to Lula based on the understanding that the pandemic was hard and Bolsonaro was even worse than they expected.
During the pandemic, we had the second highest death toll. This is partially because Bolsonaro didn’t want to implement proper social distancing measures and Bolsonaro didn’t really want to give people financial support until Congress passed it, and Bolsoaro is trying to claim credit for the social support during the pandemic. Also Bolsonaro delayed vaccination.
So these led to him losing a lot within the working class, although we understand that Bolsonaro has something like 30 percent of the electoral, loyal base. It’s not enough to win. But it is enough to leave us with a lot of concerns regarding this state of political violence in Brazil: it’s heightening, it’s gotten worse over the past two months and the past two weeks. [There are] lots of cases — like horror stories, really.
And if Lula wins in the first round or in the second round, this political violence is not going to go away magically. We need to do something about this.
RG: So aside from having an iconic figure like Lula, what can the left around the world learn from what the Brazilian left has done to fight back against Bolsonaro, and to pull some of that working class support away from him and back towards left parties?
SF: Yes. I would think that we shouldn’t be learning that much from having an iconic figure like Lula because it means that we’re kind of stuck —
SF: — on having an iconic figure come and save us every time.
And this has been one of the problems. Lula is not going to stick around forever. And Lula is also full of contradictions. And we cannot detach ourselves from a historical analysis: a lot of the people who are in power today with Bolsonaro, they were also with the Lula government. And Lula is running in a very broad coalition.
So here, I think one of the biggest lessons is that the left started positioning itself again, as the antagonists of this guy who’s sitting right there. So playing on this antagonism was very important. But the left hasn’t done as much in terms of class antagonism. So this is going to be one of the weaknesses as we go along.
With Lula winning — and I’m hoping he will win — this is going to be a weakness, because this is such a broad coalition that Lula is not going to be able to please everyone. So everyone is just betting that: Well, he’s a very articulate, very skilled politician, ao he’ll be able to work around that, reach some level of consensus. But we know where the class power rests in Brazil right now. And it is still with agribusiness, it is still with banks. But they will just have to make some concessions because Lula is going to try to stop privatization efforts. And he’s going to put a lot of money back into social policy through public investment.
So it’s about negotiating these kinds of things. And what we understand is that getting Bolsonaro out is by no means getting Bolsonarismo out — we don’t know if we should be calling this Bolsonarismo after Bolsonaro, but it is definitely what we could maybe understand as the alt-right, right?
SF: This new right that was formed — and we talk about this in Argentina, we talk about this in the U.S. as well — there are connections between them. They have YouTubers, they have media personalities; these people are connected internationally. So it’s not just parallels; they talk to each other. And we know that this Brazilian alt-right is not going to go away just because Bolsonaro got defeated at the elections.
I think the rest of the world is going to have to pay a lot of attention to Brazil to see if we can actually pull it off —
SF: Actually burying Bolsonarismo and telling the rest of the country that we’re not going to allow for these alt-right operations in the country.
RG: A Brazilian colleague of mine sent me an interview that he said was kind of emblematic of Lula’s approach and outreach to the working class. And it’s this interview that he did with a guy named Ratinho, which I think means “little rat” or something.
SF: Yes. Ratinho. Yes. Correct. It’s one of those media personalities. But this is an old-school media personality from Brazil, right-wing guy, and he has a popular TV show.
RG: Is there an equivalent? Is he like a Fox News personality? I don’t know if you watch Fox News. But he’s a very popular right-wing personality in Brazil, and Lula went kind of into the lion’s den?
[Clip of interview between Ratinho and Lula plays.]
RG: Was it unusual that he would appear there?
SF: Yeah. What’s interesting here is that let’s say Ratinho would be a Fox News kind of personality, but as if he was hosting “Jeopardy!” [Laughs.]
RG: OK. [Laughs.] OK.
SF: So, that would be the parallel.
SF: So, he’s a very right-wing guy, but his TV show is not a political TV show.
SF: But he has become a political personality on the right through the past years because he helped to propel Bolsonaro, Bolsonarismo. His family is involved in right-wing politics as well in Brazil. He, himself, is part of this.
But he was promoting these interviews with candidates. And because Lula is not attending every debate; he’s given preference to some of these TV shows and Ratinho has been interviewing many of them, and we were kind of expecting a little bit more confrontation actually between Ratinho and Lula.
But in the end, it was all smiles. And now it depends on how you interpret this. A lot of people interpreted this as a sign that Lula is actually so skilled that he turned Ratinho around. He was able to get a lot of laughs from the crowd; it showed that he’s very charismatic, a popular leader. And one of the big tropes that Lula has employed since forever is: Back in the day when I was president, everyone made more gains. Everyone earned more. So the working class, but also agribusiness, also the banks — life was great for everyone!
So he threw that at Ratinho. Like: Even you made more money when I was president!
And Ratinho was like: Yes, that’s true.
And then he winks — and there was a little bit of a game. So if you think in terms of the campaign strategy, it makes a lot of sense, because a lot of the working class watch Ratinho, and they’ve been fed a lot of right-wing conservative things from Ratinho. And seeing Ratinho kind of bow down to Lula is a good sign in terms of the campaign.
But if you’re coming from a different political analysis of what comes next, I guess it’s in a worrisome stage of class conciliation, and Lula moderating his speech and his politics just to ensure that he gets four years of government.
RG: And tell me a little bit about Ciro Gomes — who was a candidate who I think the left had some hope in in the very beginning? And I saw there was a recent poll that found that a huge chunk of what little support that he has at this point are actually right-wing voters, which I think goes to the super-confusing times that we live in. But who is Ciro Gomes, and what happened with his campaign?
SF: Well, the interesting thing is that Ciro was part of the PT base in the past. He’s been a part of many different parties. So for the audience who’s not familiar with Brazilian party politics, we have over 30 parties in Brazil —
SF: Each one can run a presidential candidate, so we have lots of presidential candidates right now. And Ciro Gomes kind of broke away from the PT and Lula in the past. And he really wanted to be president. So he has been running for president for awhile and the big difference is what happened in 2018.
The idea was that Bolsonaro was representing the right; if Lula can’t run, Ciro wanted to be the person on the big leftist ticket — not in the Workers’ Party, but with PDT, which is another labor party in Brazil, but I would consider it to be to the right of the PT. It is a traditional labor party, but it doesn’t have the same connection to unions and social movements at the same level that the PT does.
And within the PT, we have people more on the left and we even have charges that there are people within the PT that have infiltrated as neo-fascists. So there’s this organization called Nova Resistencia. So there’s worry about these neo-fascists infiltrating the PT.
And what happened since 2018 is that because the PT didn’t want Ciro, not even as VP — though I think Ciro wouldn’t take it as VP, he wanted to be the main name on the ticket — Ciro kept running as the third option. So: You don’t have to go with the PT, you can come with me.
And when we went into the second round in 2018, it was Haddad with the PT versus Bolsonaro, Ciro decided not to campaign against Bolsonaro.
SF: He could have chosen: I’m not going to campaign with the PT, but I can campaign against Bolsonaro. What happens is Ciro left the country.
SF: So there’s a running joke nowadays that he’s just going to go to Paris afterwards anyway.
RG: Mhmm. [Laughs.]
SF: And ever since we have found that he’s been playing a lot into that trope of: Bolsonaro and Lula are one in the same, in always the pot calling the kettle black, and I’m the true alternative — and saying Lula is a convict, that Lula is corrupt.
So he ended up getting the support of a portion of the electorate who is very anti-leftist and anti-communist; anti-Lula, anti-PT, but don’t want to be with Bolsonaro because Bolsonaro is so bad. So Ciro gathered those people.
But this was a strategy that failed immensely for Ciro, because now he’s alienated himself from people who voted for him in 2018, saying that: I regret voting for him so much. Because when he needs to have a proper stance on what matters in terms of a democratic fight in Brazil, Ciro is choosing to be smiley towards Bolsonaro in the debates and attacking Lula more than attacking Bolsonaro, and things like that.
RG: So what are the main issues that the campaign is being waged over?
SF: I would say that the main thing is actually the issue around hunger and purchasing power.
So the Brazilian working class has had its living standards deteriorate over the past years; access to public services has worsened because there’s been a lot of cuts. So one of the things that we need to understand — key to the election here — is the austerity measures that were implemented right after the coup against Dilma Rousseff, that Bolsonaro helped to deepen these measures. So this really cut social spending. And we have issues — the minimum wage in Brazil is a wage that people can barely survive on. We have over 180,000 people living in the streets in Brazil today. Half of the nation is facing some sort of food insecurity. So these are quite key issues.
And Lula has been running on this, saying: Remember when I was president, it wasn’t like this. It was better. I was fighting hunger.
Lula is really well-known for his social policies. So this has been key. But also, interestingly, we have the issue of the Amazon and environmental concerns being brought to the forefront, because Bolsonaro was so bad with this, like really attacking our biomes, promoting violence against indigenous and traditional communities, promoting violence against landless workers. So this is one of the key themes that Lula is talking about. He could be talking about this in a more advanced manner, like there are better things in his program than what he’s been stating. He’s very focused on saying how well his government did in Copenhagen. Like: We’re going to have good climate policy. Or: We’re going to regenerate the Amazon.
But these are not the only environmental concerns. We have concerns connected to how carbon credit schemes have made their way into Brazilian institutions. We have concerns that really have to do with indigenous land settlements — so how much is Lula going to go in terms of agrarian reform and indigenous land settlements? This is still not quite clear, though we know there is a push for him to actually have a proper indigenous ministry. So we’re going to see some advances with Lula there on this matter.
And I think this is something that bothers Bolsonaro very much. Bolsonaro was just at the U.N., and in his statement is claiming that we didn’t have this much deforestation, the data is lying.
But the data is quite clear.
SF: The level of ecocide is not contained only in the Amazon. We find this everywhere in Brazil.
RG: You often see stories saying that the Amazon is risking a point-of-no-return type of place where its ability to regenerate itself is diminishing as it shrinks ever more. What is the general sense in Brazil, what the hope is for maintaining that biome?
SF: We’ve had so much deforestation the past years that we think that the hydrological cycle is already not going to be the same; consensus is that it is actually interrupted. So patterns around rain in the rainforests have changed already and it has impacted other parts of the country.
And this is a problem in the whole of South America as well, because we know, for example, that Bolivia is having a lot of Amazon fires. So Bolivia is the country that we should also be paying attention to right now, because this is something that the Arce government should be a lot more keen [on] — and now we’re talking about progressive government — dealing with this.
SF: So we get into these contradictions around the use of territory and the contradictions around land ownership and developmentalism in the region. And when Lula says that we need to regenerate the Amazon, this is something that’s important here. So if we’re reaching a tipping point, we need to implement measures to help the forest try to reestablish a little bit of an equilibrium.
So there are a lot of conversations with environmentalists, with research institutes, with NGOs, and [with] indigenous communities on what to do about this. So the commitment has to be to not just fight deforestation to the point that we don’t have new deforestation, but we also need reforestation, we need agroecological approaches. And we already know that in terms of the understanding of the Amazon as a carbon sink, right now it is a net emitter of carbon.
SF: So this means something for the rest of the planet. And this is why we talk about this biome more than we talk about the others, even though all the others are currently endangered.
RG: As we’ve talked about on this show before — and speaking of Brazil — in 2020, the Bolivian right was planning a coup in the wake of that election. But their coup plans completely fell apart in the wake of an overwhelming vote on behalf of Evo Morales’ party.
So I’m wondering what Bolsonaro’s plans for clinging to power look like in the face of what could be an overwhelming vote? And how clearly is he sending signals that he plans to stay in power no matter what?
SF: Yeah. He does these livestreams for his audience, very popular, and he has said a couple of times that: You know what to do.
And by knowing what to do, we’ve already seen some glimpses of this in terms of the political violence: People are beating up pregnant women; they’re beating up people for just saying they’re going to vote for Lula. We’ve had cases of actual murders throughout the country. So this is something that we’re concerned about.
Whether this translates into a coup, there are other things to question here. One is the support of the armed forces: We’re not quite clear how much of the armed forces would support a coup attempt by Bolsonaro. He’s had a very strong relationship with the army; he has a lot of military within the government right now, within the civilian parts of the government right now, there are over 6,000 civilian posts occupied by military personnel. And we know that Bolsonaro’s running mate, Walter Braga Netto, is from the military as well.
But there’s been schisms in the military, like in the army, and in the air force, and the navy in the past years, because of Bolsonaro being really hard to control, being unpredictable. So this is something to pay attention to.
And the other thing is that things changed when Biden got elected. So without the direct support from Trump, Bolsonaro felt a little bit abandoned. He actually shifted strategy towards Biden; so in the beginning, after the election, he still claimed that the election in the U.S. was fraudulent, that Trump was the rightful owner.
SF: He applauded the efforts at the invasion of the Capitol. He did all of that.
Later on, so this year, in 2022, there has been an attempt to become a little closer to the Biden administration, these attempts at proximity. But there’s been very clear signals from the Biden administration that they’re going to respect the results of the election.
And I think that after what happened in Bolivia, with them actually being able to reverse the coup that was supported by the U.S —
SF: — it shows that once you started turning the tide of this — people have been calling it like a pink tide 2.0, new pink tide in Latin America with these progressive governments — once you turn the tide, it’s harder to have some foreign intervention.
SF: Bolsonaro can try anything. So we’re paying attention to this. I don’t think people should celebrate just yet because Lula is doing well with the polling, especially because if we go into a second round, October is going to be a critical month in Brazil and Bolsonaro has enough support to create havoc.
SF: Whether that havoc can be turned into a coup attempt, and this coup attempt is actually successful, this is another question.
RG: Well, Sabrina, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
SF: Thanks so much, Ryan. I hope that the audience can get a good feel of what’s happening in Brazil through the questions you asked and this discussion today.
RG: I think so. This was really helpful.
[End credits music.]
RG: That was Sabrina Fernandes, and that’s our show.
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