News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Brazil / Paraguay Showdown in Brazil

The stakes are high in the face-off between ex-President Lula and Jair Bolsonaro



Torge Löding,

Masks of Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro, current President Jair Bolsonaro, and former Justice Minister Sergio Moro at a shop in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: picture alliance / REUTERS | Rahel Patrasso

Can Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro be voted out of office in October 2022? Is the electoral defeat of the notorious and reviled anti-democrat, as “Trump’s last henchman”, perhaps even a foregone conclusion?

Torge Löding heads the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s regional office for Paraguay and Brazil in São Paulo.

The situation is not so clear. The fanatically religious right has deeply anchored itself into Brazilian society, and will try with all its strength to hold its position. This military language is very consciously chosen, given that the movement around Bolsonaro, himself an ex-captain, includes broad swathes of the military.

Despite his disastrous leadership — starkly demonstrated by his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic — and in the face the multiple crises currently shaking Brazil, Bolsonaro’s support has never sunk below 20 percent in reliable polls. While ex-President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) today leads the field with up to 48 percent support, it pays to remember that the charismatic former unionist was also ahead by a similar margin four years ago. Back then, plans for his candidacy were quashed by the politically motivated manoeuvring of the anti-corruption task force Lava Jato (or: “Operation Car Wash”). As a result, Lula lost his right to stand and was jailed for a period of three years.

A Political Programme of Destruction

From the outset, Bolsonaro made no secret of his plans. Even in his youth, spent in the small city of Eldorado in the hinterlands of the state of São Paulo, Bolsonaro was fascinated by the military, which in the late 1960s was largely preoccupied with hunting down the scattering of communist guerrillas in the mountains.

The current president began his political career in 1988 at the age of 33 as city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, following his dishonourable discharge from the paratrooper corps (in which he was accused of involvement in plotting a terrorist attack on the military). From 1990, he was elected to the federal parliament in Brasília seven times. In his occasional public appearances, the backbencher glorified Brazil’s period of military dictatorship (1964–1985), praised its practices of torture, and expressed regret that the dictatorship’s opponents had not all been executed. During the controversial impeachment trial of Dilmar Rousseff (PT) in 2016, he dedicated his vote for her removal to a notorious torturer from the period of her political imprisonment.

The regime takeover through Rousseff’s Vice President, Michel Temer — who belongs to the right wing party Democratic Movement of Brazil (MDB) and today, in the main, supports Bolsonaro — was no doubt an overture to Bolsonaro’s leadership style. Temer suspended all spending from the public sector, which Bolsonaro used as the point of departure for his ultra-liberal economic policies. Today, he continues to focus his political energies on bleeding the public education sector dry, as well as public authorities for protecting the environment and Indigenous minorities. The public general health care system, SUS, was already damaged by cuts, frozen wages, and the closure of public health facilities.

Bolsonaro openly declares war on all concepts of life that contradict his ostensibly Christian values, which are in fact entrenched in fundamentalism. As a consequence, Brazil has experienced a massive increase of violence against Indigenous people, People of Colour, political dissidents, and LGBTQI in the past three years.

A Friend of Agribusiness

A key prop for Bolsonaro’s politics is the powerful agricultural sector with its club of white land barons, the main financial backers of Bolsonaro’s 2018 electoral campaign. Additionally, according to research platform “The Intercept”, those same big landowners were the most important donors for the mobilization of Bolsonaro’s supporters on 7 September 2021. On that day, hundreds of thousands gathered in numerous cities across the country to frenetically applaud their president. The recent deregulation of gun laws will not only benefit these fanatical Bolsonaro supporters, but also the big landowners, who will now be able without much ado to take justice into their own hands when landless workers attempt to assert their constitutional rights by occupying land. While Brazil’s gross domestic product sank in 2020 by 4.1 percent overall, agriculture was the only sector to experience growth. Preliminary prognoses point towards an even greater increase in 2021.

In return for the loyal support he received from agribusiness, Bolsonaro is in the process of leveraging the apparatus in Brazil’s constitution designed to curb the unbridled expansion of monocultures. As a consequence, deforestation of rainforests has reached a record high, while violence against traditional rural populations has escalated.

The government quietly condones the incursions by land grabbers, illegal gold miners, and loggers into Indigenous territories. At the same time, it disregards the rights of Indigenous people and turns a blind eye to the formation of rural militias, who disseminate fear and terror at the behest of the big landowners. Agrarian reform and the designation of Indigenous territories have been suspended; systematic violations of workers’ rights are ignored. On top of this, in the first half of his period in office alone, Bolsonaro managed to break the country’s record for the issuing of pesticide permits — twice in a row. Many of the newly approved products are forbidden in the European Union.

A Springboard for the Military

For the military high command, Bolsonaro may cut an uncomfortable figure at times, but for the troops, his government is a bonanza. The military currently receives record-setting budgets, and remained protected from cuts during the pension reform. The Bolsonaro regime additionally represents a springboard for officers from the barracks to the political stage in numbers unprecedented since the democratic constitution of 1988 was established. Members of the armed forces can found state-run enterprises and are taken into consideration for high public offices. In 2020, the government granted 341 members of the military and so-called “security” forces positions of trust in the regime, for example in the office of the President or in strategic administration. According to the Brazilian court of accounts, there are 6,157 of them in public office, reaching down to the lower levels of the executive branch — more than during the military dictatorship.

Most faithful to Bolsonaro are the troops of the barracked military police, who also take on civil policing tasks. The military police, ostensibly under the command of the governors (a structure Bolsonaro is currently attempting to change), in practice follows a military logic and is subject not to civil but military law. In the lead-up to mobilization for 7 September 7, states where governors turned against the pro-Bolsonaro campaign — such as in São Paulo — experienced insubordination among military police, who took part in the marches in uniform.

The role of the military is likely to again become interesting should Lula win against Bolsonaro in October 2022. Parts of the military have repeatedly expressed concern that Lula represents a “communist” threat. Not dissimilar to Trump in the US, Bolsonaro continually cries “electoral fraud”, maintaining that he already gained 50 percent of the vote in the first ballot round in 2018. This unproven mantra finds great resonance among members of right-wing military circles — who opine that they themselves will prevent further “electoral fraud” in the future.

On the other hand, leading military figures are also making efforts to dispel such fears. On 31 January this year, the liberal daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo cited the commandant of the air forces emphasizing that even if Lula were to be victorious, no such intervention from the military would take place. How exactly the armed forces will decide in this case, however, is still unclear. And Bolsonaro is laying his groundwork: before the elections, he wants to replace the outgoing executive director of the Superior Electoral Court with his former minister, General Fernando Azevedo.

Evangelicals as a Social Base

For Jair “Messias” Bolsonaro, the ideology of the “traditional family unit as a moral basis” has constantly been a guiding star. In 2016, the Catholic Bolsonaro was re-baptized by an Evangelical pastor. The central tenet for him and his new brothers in faith is the doctrine of “prosperity theology”, which pushes a liberal market economy mantra in which social advance represents a gauge for both godliness and personal progress. This can be viewed as a neoliberal answer to the emancipatory conceptions of Catholic “liberation theology”, which attracted many followers in Brazil in the 1980s.

The rise of the Evangelicals has meant that today, only a little more than half of Brazilians adhere to Catholicism; 31 percent belong to one of the numerous Evangelical or Pentecostal churches — and it is expected that the majority will do so before 2030. Many Evangelicals belong to the working class and live in favelas. It is precisely among this milieu, where the Left still had broad support in the 1980s, that the PT has neglected its work in recent decades. In the vacuum left behind, religious groups take hold, often with financial support from the US.

The connection between politics and the church in Brazil is no new phenomenon. In the past, the powerful Universal Church supported the PT regime. The businessman José Alencar, Lula’s vice-president between 2003 and 2011, was a Universal man. The party became estranged from the church beginning from 2009, as the PT regime increasingly began defending the rights of LGBTQI and pushing to decriminalize abortion. Universal’s swing to the political right took place during the election of 2018, when Silas Malafaia, its chief pastor, used his influence over millions of followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to garner support for Bolsonaro.

Family Ties and the International Alt-Right Network

It may well be that Bolsonaro possesses oratorical skills and a reputation as a “man of the people” — he meets his followers in the government district of Brasília many times a week. However, he would never have built his complex network of supporters alone. Above all, his four sons — Jair Renan, Flávio, Eduardo and Carlos Bolsonaro — are accountable for this network, taking care of its various facets via a familial division of labour.

In this way, Senator Flávio tends to the base in Rio de Janeiro, where he maintains connections to the militia — successors of the “death squads”. Carlos is a municipal councillor in Rio de Janeiro and plays an important role on social media. The federal parliamentarian Eduoardo Bolsonaro is particularly involved in international affairs, maintaining close contacts to the “alt-right” in the US and beyond — in particular to Steve Bannon, but also to Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini, and further leading figures of the far right. The surprising death of the right-wing radical internet guru Olavo de Carvalho — a key architect of the Bolsonaro network — no doubt represented a recent setback.

In the meantime, all four Bolsonaro sons have been subject to criminal investigations — one reason for the President’s dwindling level of support. Many former supporters lament that Bolsonaro has not delivered on his promise to fight corruption, while now his own sons are embroiled in corruption lawsuits. Even Bolsonaro’s Christian values have been questioned since December 2021, when during the flood catastrophe in the state of Bahia, the President refused to interrupt his beach holiday, preferring instead to continue riding waves on his jet ski.

Left or Right?

Nonetheless, there is no way that Bolsonaro is likely to disappear soon — despite more than 660,000 deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crash, inflation, and famine. Despite previous improvements secured by the Lula regime, 55 percent of Brazilians today say that they do not have enough money for healthy nutrition, and nine percent, meaning more than 21 million people, are going hungry. But all this appears to bounce off the “Teflon President”.

Even if the right wing “centre” supporting Bolsonaro, consisting of various small- to medium-sized parties, has its ideological differences with the President, arrangements were able to be made once their elected members began massively profiting from a vast shadow budget.

Additionally, the civil society movement against Bolsonaro has failed. This was evident on 7 September, when it became clear that the President is capable of mobilizing far more people. The reasons for this failure are partly to do with divisive electoral tactics, but also the fact that many people feared violent street clashes.

For all the dissatisfaction with Bolsonaro, it must be acknowledged that there is also much resentment and rejection of Lula and the PT. This anti-PT sentiment has spread from the upper and middle classes to parts of the working classes. In the upper and middle classes, rejection of the PT is born out of social envy: in Brazil’s racist class society, domestic workers, for example, are not granted opportunities for social advancement. Fake news also serves as an amplifier for anti-PT sentiment, but the Workers’ Party itself — members of which were also embroiled in corruption scandals during its period of leadership — bears responsibility for its own unpopularity too.

Meanwhile, a “third way” between Lula and Bolsonaro is not viewed as having a chance in the forthcoming election. Both former Bolsonaro minister Sérgio Moro (Podemos) — a right-wing stalwart, former judge, and controversial due to his role in the Lava Jato proceedings — and Ciro Fomes from the moderate PDT (centre-left) currently claim less than 10 percent of the vote in surveys.

Following the apparent failure of attempts at impeachment and mass mobilization, the only option is to vote Bolsonaro out in October 2022. According to surveys, the 76-year-old Lula is the best candidate for achieving this — and there is no doubt that he will run. It is highly improbable that it will be possible to prevent him from doing so with the sort of legal wrangling seen in 2018.

International Solidarity Means Keeping a Watchful Eye

Presently, various currents of the political left in Brazil are preparing for the election. Among social movements, there is broad consensus that Bolsonaro will be defeated only if they ally themselves with Lula. However, Lula’s move to propose the much-hated former governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, as vice-president has been discussed with much scepticism. Alckmin governed for the conservative Social Democratic Party (PSDB) with an iron fist, repressing social movements and pushing for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.

Lula’s decision to work with Alckmin is aimed at winning over swing voters from the political centre, while at the same time demonstrating to the economic centres and the banking sector that they need not fear his taking any radical measures. However, Lula has met with resistance against this move even within the PT, which, with 1.6 million members, constitutes the largest Latin American left-wing party. Here, consensus reigns that Lula does not need a crutch like Alckmin to win.

The much smaller leftist socialist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), with 200,000 members, decided after heated debate at its federal congress last year to desist from running its own candidate and instead support Lula from the first round of votes. (In Brazil, if no candidate achieves at least 50 percent of the votes in the first round, a run-off vote takes place two weeks later.) The question of possible participation in the government is still open.

PSOL is currently focusing on strengthening its parliamentary presence. To this end, it is in negotiations around forming a “federation” with Marina Silva’s ecologically oriented party Sustainability Network Party (REDE). Well-known figures from the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), whose precursor will this year celebrate its one-hundredth birthday, may well yet join in supporting PSOL. In an election dominated by the duel between Lula and Bolsonaro, there is likely to be little space for manoeuvring — for the first time, a minimum threshold requirement of 2 percent of the winning vote will apply.

The elections in October are already casting their shadows. If the incumbent president loses, it is feared that his fanatical supporters could take up arms. If the election process is to run smoothly, and if power is to be peacefully transferred, the full attention of observers abroad will play a key role. This is a genuine task for international solidarity.