Deputado Federal Jair Bolsonaro em audiência pública no Conselho de Ética da Câmara dos Deputados do Brasil. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, 9 November 2016 Deputado Federal Jair Bolsonaro em audiência pública no Conselho de Ética da Câmara dos Deputados do Brasil. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, 9 November 2016

As Brazil’s elections progress to the second round, Orlando Hill examines the prospects for the left in defeating the presidential candidacy of the far right Jair Bolsonaro

As predicted the presidential elections in Brazil have gone to the second round with the extreme right wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) leading with 46.03% of valid votes. Fernando Haddad (PT) came in second with 29.28% followed by the other centre-left candidate Ciro Gomes (PDT) 12.47%.

The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which governed under the leadership of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (aka FHC) from 1995 to 2001, suffered its worst performance achieving 4.6%. The left wing socialist party PSOL also made a bad performance with 0.58%.

Around twenty percent of the electorate did not bother to vote in a country where voting is compulsory. New elections will be held on 28 October with Bolsonaro facing Haddad.

In an opinion poll published on 10 October by Datafolha, Bolsonaro is leading with 49%, Haddad 36%, 8% are intending to cancel their vote, and 6% are undecided.   

For readers who are not familiar with Brazilian politics the sheer number of political parties might seem confusing. Brazil is the country with the most parties represented in congress. However, most of them are not ideological and are simply used as a bargaining tool by regional political chiefs. The main exceptions are the Workers Party (PT), whose origins are in the trade unions, social movements and the theology of liberation; the Democratic Labour Party (PDT) whose roots are in the centre-left labour party whose government was overthrown in the 1964 military coup, and the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) that was formed in 2003 when several politicians were expelled from the PT for voting against the pension reform of Lula’s first government. It defines itself as the real alternative for the left.

Bolsonaro’s Social Liberty Party (PSL) was founded in 1994 and officially registered in 1998. It represents the more conservative sections of the middle class and small businesses. Bolsonaro only joined the PSL in the beginning of the year with the intention of running for president. It defends economic liberalism, a small state and social conservatism. They are against the “ideology of gender”, and “the privileges derived from ‘quotas’ that result in the division of the people, whether due to gender, sexual choice, colour, race, creed”. Their constitution prohibits “alliances or coalitions with Bolivarian left-wing parties, such as PT, PSOL, PCdoB, PSTU, PCO, PCB, and any others that support authoritarian regimes installed in other countries.” In their view a society needs autonomous citizens.       

PSDB’s dreadful performance is significant. Up to this election PSDB was the party of choice for the ruling class, especially the financial sector. It is the ideological defender of the project of neoliberalism with democracy, and their main leader FHC is venerated as a statesman by mainstream media. They have controlled São Paulo, the richest state of the union, since the end of the dictatorship. They are now having to dispute the control of the state in a second round for governor. It is the greatest loser in these elections.

Bolsonaro’s backers

Many thought that Bolsonaro would fall once the debates and campaign started in view of his mediocrity, lack of competence and reactionary views on women, blacks and gays. However, the degree of the resentment and hatred towards the Workers’ Party (PT) and the left in general was ignored. That and the sympathy provoked by him being stabbed during a campaign rally strengthened Bolsonaro.

Behind Bolsonaro are seven important groups: agribusiness, mining corporations, conservative evangelical churches, the mainstream media, the financial sector, the armament industry, the judiciary and the armed forces. If Bolsonaro were to win, it would be a victory for the bulls, the bullet and the Bible.

According to Alexandre Lemos, musician and activist, his victory would be a combination of a neoliberal agenda sustained by the ultra-right wing of the military. The fact that an authoritarian government with a neoliberal agenda and the backing of the military could be democratically elected is unprecedented and qualitatively different from the military or parliamentary coups.

Lulism vs the far right threat

For almost 20 years candidates with an openly neoliberal agenda have found it impossible to get elected, although we have seen governments once in office adopt neoliberal policies and maintain the neoliberal tripod (floating exchange rates, balanced budget and inflation targeting). “Brazil seems to be serving as a guinea pig (like in 1964, when the dictatorial model was tested in Brazil, which was then followed by Chile and Argentina)”, concluded Lemos.

Joaquim Ernesto Palhares, a political analyst, argues that the two victors in the first round were Bolsonaro and Lula.  

“Despite all the restrictions of his freedom – forbidden to write; to speak and grant interviews; to receive comrades; to be a candidate and the president of Brazil – Lula made viable his candidate Fernando Haddad, practically unknown to most Brazilians.”

Some couldn’t even pronounce his surname. It is quite an achievement for an unknown to reach the second round in twenty days.  

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro, with his hate speech, has tapped into the dissatisfaction felt by many from the working class neighbourhoods towards the elites and built a strong social base – all with applause from the arms manufacturers.

For Lemos that is the crux of the problem,

“the two candidates formulate a future promising the past. One promises Lulismo, and the other militarism.”

Is this what a fascist looks like?

Lately, the term fascism and fascist have been thrown around quite a bit. Trump has been called a fascist along with other authoritarian figures. Whether Bolsonaro is a fascist, and whether his government would be fascist might seem academic, but it is crucial if the left is going to defeat him and his project.

As Chris Bambery points out labelling incorrectly any racist, authoritarian or xenophobic as fascist “downplays the danger real fascist movements could pose”. Fascism has three basic characteristics. It involves the forcible closure of all democratic institutions with the support of a mass movement. It promotes vicious racism and contempt towards vulnerable social groups. Thirdly, it promotes national and social cohesion through a paranoiac nationalism.   

There is no doubt that Bolsonaro fits the bill of a fascist more than anyone.

He publicly defends the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1984. He is on record of saying that on the first day of his presidency he would close the congress. He is in favour of the pau de arara, a physical torture commonly used during the dictatorship. He actively promotes racism and contempt towards native Brazilians, women, black and gays. He gave a speech during his campaign saying that he would “make Brazil for the majority, minorities have to curve to the majority. Minorities have to adapt or disappear”.

His campaign has unleashed a tide of political violence. The master of capoeira,  Romualdo Rosário da Costa, was stabbed 12 times and killed by a Bolsonaro thug for defending the Workers Party. Over 70 politically motivated attacks by Bolsonaro’s thugs have been registered in the last two weeks according to a report published by Publica and Open Knowledge Brasil. Bolsonaro has declared on social media that he will finish off all social activism. Finally, he uses the concept of nation to canvass the public. His campaign slogan is Brazil above everything, God above us all.

A first step

Would his government lead to fascism, i.e. a complete closure of democratic institutions and the prosecution of vulnerable groups in society? He has made his thoughts very clear. He already has the backing of important sectors of the bourgeoisie (agribusiness, financial sector and arms manufacturers), the judiciary, the armed forces, the police, the mainstream media and his party (PSL) has increased its representatives from one to fifty-two. His victory would definitely be a first step. Whether he is successful or not will depend on how the left and the labour and social movements react. Labelling incorrectly someone as fascist can be dangerous, but failing to recognise a fascist is even more so.

According to a note entitled “How to Defeat Fascism” published by the Popular Unity for Socialism (UP) if Haddad carries on with a campaign of policies he will definitely lose. “The only possibility the left has to defeat fascism is the union around a broad anti-fascist front that has at its center a deep campaign of denunciations that clarifies to the people what the fascists intend to implement in the country and how this will affect the lives of ordinary people.” It must be made clear to the people that fascism means the withdrawal of the rights workers have fought so hard for. It means the cutting of funding for health, education and housing. Under a Bolsonaro government minorities would see an increase in the oppression against them. “If the Nazis chose the Jews as the inferior race, Bolsonaro has chosen gays, women, blacks, (and) indigenous peoples”.

The united front should make it clear that its objective is to undo all the evils perpetrated by the coup and to defend the expansion of investments in health and education. It is only by facing the interests of the financial oligarchy that fascism can be defeated. This election is about stopping the advance of fascism.

Confronting the enemy 

As predicted there has been pressure on Haddad to shift his campaign to the “centre”. The Financial Times lined up economists and political analysts to argue that he needs to distance himself from Lula and to quickly announce a market-friendly finance minister.  Haddad made it clear that his finance minister would not be a banker, like Bolsonaro’s Paulo Guedes, or anyone with ties to the financial sector, but “someone connected to production, not to the banks.”

The media and social media have been alive with stories of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso giving support to Haddad. Cardoso served as president from 1995 to 2003 and was responsible for introducing neoliberal policies which included privatisations. So far he has officially not thrown his support behind either of the candidates. As he made clear he cannot support “Bolsonaro’s cultural reactionaryism” nor does he have any intention of strengthening the PT.

There are two distinct tactics on how to defeat Bolsonaro. One is to consider this a normal election and put emphasis on Haddad’s manifesto. As an activist said on social media, “this is an election, not a referendum.” On the social media profiles of some people the colour red of the Haddad banner has been substituted for the patriotic green and yellow in an attempt to attract voters who would in other circumstances not vote for a left wing party. Those who defend this tactic have criticised the #EleNão (‘not him’) movement organised by women. According to this tactic we should not mention Lula nor use the word NO as it can be too negative. So far Haddad has been successful in gaining support from the centre-left and left wing parties. They have given their support in the understanding that for democracy to prevail it is crucial to defeat Bolsonaro. There has been no mention in forming a government of unity.

The other tactic is to occupy the streets up to election day. The leading force behind this tactic is Frente Povo Sem Medo (Fearless People Front). FPSM was formed as a result of the struggle against the parliamentary coup and Temer’s reforms. It is made up of over thirty organisations from social and labour movements and the radical left. In their national steering committee soon after the elections they “voted to strengthen the fight against Bolsonaro and support Haddad’s candidacy in the second round. We have criticisms of the governments of the PT, but we also recognize the progress made and at this point, we must all be united in the struggle against fascism.”

Never again: rallying the resistance

During Wednesday evening rally Dictatorship Never Again organised by Povo Sem Medo and held in São Paulo, a representative of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) said “we will not go home. We will carry on in the streets to defeat Bolsonaro in the second round. In the second round it is not enough to put people in the streets. We have to put votes in the ballot. In the second round PSOL is 13 (the electoral number for PT); 13 to defeat Bolsonaro; 13 to defeat fascism; 13 to guarantee more rights. It is only by voting for Haddad that we can make sure that Brazil remains a country where a range of voices can be heard.” His speech ended with the crowd chanting “Haddad Sim, Haddad Sim” over and over again, which then went into “Lula Livre” (Free Lula).

Gleisi Hoffman (senator for PT) was the next to speak wearing a #EleNão t-shirt. She denounced the increase in political violence. A young woman had the swastika carved into her waist because she was wearing a #EleNão t-shirt; another was beaten up for wearing a Landless Movement (MST) cap. She reminded the crowd that Bolsonaro’s manifesto is far more neoliberal than Temer’s government. Bolsonaro’s potential government would deepen the crisis robbing workers of all their rights.

Guilherme Boulos (the candidate for PSOL in the first round and leader of the Workers’ Homeless Movement) spoke next,

“we have to understand that this is not one candidate against another. This is the election of democracy against dictatorship. This is the election of rights against privileges. There is no room for sitting on the fence. It is necessary to choose a side.”

In his post-election video broadcast Boulos declared his full support to Haddad’s candidacy, despite his criticism of PT governments. At this moment unity is crucial. However, he said that they would not lower their banners. In fact the best way to defeat fascism is not to back down.

We expect Haddad’s campaign in this second round to make a firm commitment to all workers’ rights, against market pressures, against economic privileges and old political practices that have increased both disbelief and opened the way for authoritarian solutions. This will be the best way to have a dialogue with part of the population that, disillusioned, voted in the first round for Jair Bolsonaro.

FPSM are inviting anyone who is “against the election of Bolsonaro to be part of a brigade and participate in the actions… in your neighbourhood.” All one has to do is fill in an online form and they will be put in contact.

If  Bolosonaro is beaten in the ballot, it will be experienced as a big victory for the left. However, as Lilian Hill, a biologist, feminist and LGBTQ+ activist said

“if there is one good thing that will come out of this dark period is the size of the net of resistance that is being built. And regardless of the results of these elections, but especially if fascism wins, this resistance cannot end.”

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.