Back to Forum

Democracy, Economic System, Hate and Fear: Elections in Brazil

I began to write this article just after the first round of elections in Brazil. Now, one day after the second round and the victory of Jair Bolsonaro, I am reviewing my own writing. The result of the first round, with 13 candidates, gave the first place to Bolsonaro with 46.06% of the votes, and Fernando Haddad, candidate of the Workers’ Party, in second with 29.26%.  The top two candidates moved on to three final weeks of campaigning until election day. On October 28, 2018 Bolsonaro was elected the next president of Brazil with 55.13% of votes against 44.87% to Haddad. This election was marked by hate and fear fed by aggressive rhetoric and social media manipulation, especially by the Bolsonaro campaign team that counted on the support of US white supremacist Steve Bannon.

Bolsonaro was elected by the popular vote in a democratic election. His victory is legitimate. But the big question is how will the Bolsonaro administration be? His discourse and love for the military dictatorship lead us to fear that his administration can break the rules of the democratic and constitutional Brazilian republic.

In the first draft of this essay, I concluded encouraging people to vote against the candidate that represented a threat to democracy and to the development of the poor. With a seed of hope, I believed that Brazilian could say no to him. This did not happen. Now, it is necessary to see what will occur in the next months, especially after January 1, 2019, the day that the Bolsonaro administration will begin.

Pedro Casaldáliga, a bishop who spent his life serving the poor and the indigenous people in Brazil, said: “If you have doubt, take the side of the poor.” Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher and educator, in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, said that “those who choose neutrality, actually take the side of the oppressors and of the status quo.”

Brazil, a country with 205 million people, has a young democratic experience that began after 30 years of a violent and repressive military dictatorship. The Brazilian Constitution was promulgated in 1988 and the first presidential democratic election took place in the following year. Known as the Citizenship Constitution, the magna carta of the Federative Republic of Brazil establishes that this nation will be governed by a president elected by the popular vote with separation and autonomy of the three powers: executive, legislative, and judiciary. In its first article, the Constitution says: “All power emanates from the people, who exercise it by means of elected representatives.” Later, in article six, it affirms the social rights of all citizens: “Education, health, food, work, housing, leisure, security, social security, protection of motherhood and childhood, and assistance to the destitute are social rights.” Only these two articles of the Constitution are enough to show that the power of the president is related to the desire of its people and committed to their welfare through creation of policies that can guarantee the fulfilment of social rights.

In a country with a young democratic experience and great inequalities, any policy that represents risks for the expansion of programs toward the realization of social rights must be seen as unconstitutional and an attack against Brazilian democracy. An example of this is the approval of the proposal of a Constitutional Amendment made by the Temer administration. Known as PEC do Teto, this Amendment freezes the public expenditure and investment in crucial areas of social rights for 20 years, including health and education. This policy has led to the dismantling of the Brazilian public healthcare and educational systems. Consequently, the private sector has grown in these areas with the expansion of the health and education markets of neoliberal character. Healthcare and education have become more elitist, and inequality has grown. Those who are more fragile and vulnerable are those who pay the bill, being excluded from accessing healthcare and education.

If “all power emanates from the people,” the questions are: Do Brazilian people want more inequality in accessing social goods/rights? Does the public administration consider the will of the people? It seems that the answers to these questions are NO. But why was this Constitutional Amendment proposed by the executive branch and approved by the legislative? It is extremely complicated to respond to this question, especially in a short essay, but the answer points out that the current administration, with the worst approval rate in the Brazilian democratic period, has commitments that are not for the majority of its own people. The commitments are much closer to the financial market and those at the top 10% of Brazilian society than to those who, in fact, better represent the Brazilian people.

In this election, the Brazilian citizens had an opportunity to choose a political platform that can better reflect the Constitutional rights and the well-being of the people toward more equality and opportunities. However, it seems that the choice was for something else. Most Brazilian voters chose to vote for a strong leader who can exercise power with authoritarian force to repress the opposition, to ignore the minorities, and with a free-check to use violence to keep “the order.” In its 30 years of democracy, Brazil moves from a project of a democratic state based on inclusion of promotion of social rights to the rise of a far-right movement that denies the brutality of the military dictatorship and praises those who were responsible for this regime of exception, repression, and authoritarianism. How did Brazil arrive at this situation?

The answer to this question will certainly be a topic for many future doctoral dissertations in the departments of history, sociology, political sciences, and philosophy. But the political events of the last years, mostly related to the Workers’ Party, help us understand the current context. The Workers’ Party (PT[1] as it is known in Brazil) governed the country for 12 years (winning four democratic presidential elections) until it ended in a questionable process that impeached president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. All evidences of this process led to a conclusion that it was a parliamentarian coup, instead of an unbiased juridical trial of the president because of her disrespect of the law, as the Constitution established for an impeachment. The PT was involved in a giant corruption scandal that, fed by a biased Brazilian media, shaped public opinion against the first female Brazilian president and her party, making them responsible for all problems in the country. The judiciary branch began politicalizing its judgment, punishing people from the Workers’ Party disproportionately compared with members of the opposition parties, also involved in corruption. The lack of credibility in the PT was total. In the middle of this turmoil, the vice-president – who was also investigated for corruption, involving him and his party – took power. Later the investigations showed that many parties had been involved in corruption, revealing that the Brazilian political system itself had been sustained by corruption.

To make a long story short, the result of this turmoil was the rise of Jair Messias Bolsonaro. There is a saying in politics that suggests: “There is no vacuum in politics.” A space that is not occupied by a party, a group, or a leader is filled by another. As a radical left party, the PT was born in the restauration of Brazilian democracy after the dictatorship. It always played and respected the rules of the democratic game. It lost three presidential elections, moved to the center-left, and won four elections. Even against its desire, the PT accepted to leave power after the conclusion of a questionable process of impeachment. The opposition parties joined to take the power from the PT, but they didn’t know how to hear the cry of the Brazilian people, that is, the opposition failed to fill the vacuum left by PT. As there is no empty space in politics, Bolsonaro, with his far-right discourse, filled the vacuum.

Fed by PT’s mistakes, traditional right and center-right parties, having the mainstream media as their allies, developed a narrative that PT was responsible for all of Brazil’s problems. This created a feeling of anti-PT that dominated the hearts and minds of many (perhaps most)   Brazilians. Economic recession and the growth of violence created a feeling of insecurity and fear. The political system failed, and the society collapsed, impacting the life of the citizens with unemployment and urban violence.

Jair Bolsonaro is not an outsider. He has been a congressman for the last 28 years with mediocre performance. A former army captain, Bolsonaro has public records for being a supporter of the military regime and a defender of the return of the dictatorship. He has always been clear in his positions against gender equality, gay marriage, and minorities. Even affirming not understanding anything in economics, he defends neoliberal economic policies, such as austerity, privatization, and deregulation. This man is saying that the way to combat violence is to give guns to the good citizens to protect themselves from the bad ones. This man – who said that votes will not change the country, but a civil war – was elected the next president of Brazil by the popular vote.

In the second round of election Bolsonaro ran against the Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad. It was an election between a former military man with 28 years in the Congress, and a university professor who was ministry of education of the Lula administration (2002-2008). Unfortunately, Brazilian voters could not have the benefit of an honest debate among the two candidates. Bolsonaro refused to debate with Haddad and in the public square with the people. He led his campaign basically from his home using social media. The lack of dialogue/debate between the candidate extended to the streets and their supporters. This created a social environment of conflict fed by untruths without an opportunity of a healthy confrontation between both sides and their platforms. Therefore, instead of a clear debate of ideas between two different platforms, the votes were divided between those who hate the PT and those who fear the end of Brazilian democracy after this election.

Polls indicated that Bolsonaro would win the election. The voting confirmed it. Bolsonaro’s victory created a huge dark shade with a question mark in the middle. Based on his discourse, his administration can represent the return of the authoritarianism of dictatorship times. A few people say that this will never happen, and Bolsonaro supporters may think this will happen only against the “bad guys.” He won in a democratic election. The hope is that he will respect the democratic institutions of a country that has a new and fragile democracy. But even respecting the institutions, the application of his platform – weak and confused from the point of view of a sustainable socio-economic political project – will create more difficulties and challenges for those who are at the bottom of society, the poor and vulnerable groups, such as women, blacks, and LGBTQ.

In current times, it seems that the socio-political ideal presents democracy as the most acceptable regime of governance. Democracy is grounded on participation, discussion, free expression of ideas, and liberty to choose. Democracy is a system that pursues justice in a way that citizens can participate in the process of fairness. Being a real democrat is not easy. It requires tolerance to dialogue with the different; humility to accept decisions that are not your primary choice. Therefore, democracy is limited and vulnerable to movements that gain force inside democratic regimes to act against what is considered democratic. This is frustrating. But everything can change if the rules of the democratic game are respected. If this does not happen, the limitation of democracy may lead to its own end, creating a vacuum that will be filled by its opposite: the lack of participation and liberty.

Returning to Casaldáliga and Freire’s sentences, when one has opportunity to choose and have doubt about which side is better, choosing the side of the poor is an option for justice. If among both political sides, you don’t like either, don’t be neutral because neutrality is not neutral. Rather it is the side of those who support the status quo of a few against the those who are marginalized. In the Brazilian case, “neutrality” is the side of the one who is pro authoritarianism. Democracy is fragile and frustrating. Hate and fear cannot be the motivation to force citizens, in a democratic country, to choose the option that puts at risk the young Brazilian democracy and the fortification of the wall separating the rich and the poor. But the choice was for the one who has a discourse that praises authoritarianism and threatens the democracy. Now, for those who believe in democracy and liberty, it is time to see how the new administration will be. If it threatens the democracy and oppresses the people, especially the poor and marginalized groups, a new era of resistance and struggle for freedom and justice must begin.


[1] In portuguese “Partido dos Trabalhadores” (PT).