What Bolsonaro’s election victory means

Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America and the world’s sixth most populous elected a neo-fascist this weekend in the second round election run-off against Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT).

Jair Bolsonaro has promised to enact a historic cleansing against the left, promising that ‘red bandits’ will be imprisoned or banished. The problem with the term fascism, is that it has been so frequently used as a political pejorative it has lost its meaning, like the boy who cried wolf overuse has meant that when a real wolf arrives people are too weary to recognise ifor what it is. 

READ MORE: Brazil flirts with a neo-fascist

Bolsonaro is the embodiment of the most hardline faction military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for twenty-one years and embraced torture, murder and rape, as necessary tools in the fight against communism. He has always been quite open about his contempt for democracy but the majority of the Brazilian electorate is ready to vote for him.

This election has been driven by Anti-PT sentiment, which has come to stand for anti-systemic rage encompassing class hatred of the rich, weariness brought upon by the party’s four successive election victories, the bias of the mainstream media, anti-corruption sentiment and WhatsApp driven fake news. Paranoid ‘rooi gevaar’ type propaganda –– despite there being no active communist threat –– has been promoted by the mainstream media, fake news groups and the centre-right, who have made the PT to be some sort evil communist conspiracy.

READ MORE: Social media in the spotlight in Brazil presidential race

Bolsonaro’s Social Liberalism Party (PSL) has ridden this wave by jumping from irrelevance to becoming the second-largest party in the country overnight, as an array of scoundrels including Bolsonaro’s sons, an ex porn-actor and a police officer — who achieved fame after killing a suspect on camera — were elected through their connection to Bolsonaro.

Who Supports Bolsonaro?

Bolsonaro’s base is strongest among the upper-middle class, who after traditionally voting for centre-right parties, have radicalised en masse in the last few years and the powerful evangelical bloc who have put their huge numbers and resources behind Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro’s support base also includes large numbers of women, black and working class voters, all of who stand directly in his cross hairs. This can be explained in a large part by security concerns, in the context of Brazil’s rising levels of violence driven by organised crime. 

Large numbers of working class Brazilians are prepared to support an increase of violence against ‘criminals’ as a solution or like his support for gun ownership. Although it is worth noting that Bolsonaro’s support is lower in the most violent areas of the country.

Bolsonaro’s elite support

Bolsonaro has refused to debate his opponent, claiming that he belongs in prison and only grants interviews to the most sycophantic journalists. He has flaunted all standards of a normal election; he can get away with this because he has the backing of Brazil’s elite. Big capital is salivating over his pro-market policies and he is openly backed by powerful sections of the armed forces. Bolsonaro’s military allies, far from being a moderating force, are actively supporting many of his most extreme policies.

Brazil’s judiciary also has a key role in Bolsonaro’s election campaign. Brazil’s electoral court –– the TSE for instance, banned a PT campaign video containing testimony from the victims of Brazil’s military dictatorship highlighting Bolsonaro’s unashamed and open support for torture, while allowing Bolsonaro supporters to go around calling Haddad a paedophile. 

The court has proven itself unwilling to tackle the illegal campaign financing and fake news key to Bolsonaro’s campaign. Sérgio Moro, the protagonist of Lava Jato (Brazil’s gigantic anti-corruption investigation for instance) released damaging testimony from a close Lula ally collected six months before in the week before the first round in a clear move designed to enact maximum damage to the PT’s electoral prospects. Bolsonaro in turn has mooted his name as a possible future Supreme Court pick.

READ MORE: The man who could save Brazil is in jail

Despite posing as an anti-corruption crusader, Bolsonaro’s campaign has been driven by illegal funds set up by businesses to fund WhatsApp groups spreading toxic fake news. 

A survey of popular fake news stories has revealed gems such as the PT giving out ‘gay kits’ to kindergarten kids, complete with baby bottles with penis-shaped teats. This would be comedic, if large sections of the Brazilian public didn’t believe it, and if it hadn’t poisoned public discourse.

Brazil like South Africa suffers from high levels of violence, however in the past few weeks this violence has begun to take an openly political character. This includes incidents such as a transwoman being murdered by thugs chanting Bolsonaro’s name, a woman having a swastika carved into her neck for wearing an anti-Bolsonaro t-shirt and a capoeira master being murdered after admitting that he voted for Haddad in Bahia. The darkest sides of Brazilian society, the violence, racism and misogyny are being brought into the open as part of Bolsonaro’s campaign.

READ MORE: Brazil, weary of corruption, faces bleak poll

Bolsonaro will likely unleash a historic slaughter. In a country where already 63 000 people are murdered every year (5 000 by the police), the police and the military will have carte blanche to kill poor youth from the favelas. 

Right-wing paramilitary groups could expand and implement social cleansing in the territories they seize, given state backing in the war against ‘crime’. Organised crime will not be destroyed like Bolsonaro promised. Instead factions tied to the military or comprised of police will instead likely benefit. 

Brazil’s social movements such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) will be declared terrorist organisations and hunted down by the police or the private militias of landowners, activists will be either imprisoned or killed with the backing of Brazil’s congress, media, and big business. 

There is a good chance that the PT, which is still Brazil’s largest party, will be criminalised with its leading members joining Lula in prison after being found guilty of ‘corruption’. 

Bolsonaro’s election will have profound repercussions for the rest of the world.

Bolsonaro has said little on foreign policy during the campaign, but from his political stance, a number of key aspects can be gleaned. He will certainly pull out of the Paris Accords and move Brazil’s foreign policy towards the United States (and Donald Trump). This will see Brazil break with multilateralism, and might include leaving BRICS. Bolsonaro will also move Brazil’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. It could even include future military confrontation with Venezuela and cooling relations with China –– Brazil’s leading trade partner.

What can we learn from Brazil’s tragedy? 

The social and economic crisis that has set the stage for the entry of Bolsonaro to the political stage is not too different from our own. 

Inequality, racial segregation, an absence of political leadership, corruption and an increasing disillusionment in politics as vehicles for meaningful change are all things that will sound familiar to South Africans. 

It is by no means a stretch of the imagination that if the state fails to tackle underlying security concerns or offers meaningful and progressive alternative politics, large sections of South Africa could embrace an openly authoritarian politics. This would likely take the form of a chauvinism mobilised around xenophobia rather than Bolsonaro’s brand of anti-leftism. Politicians frequently call for military intervention in the townships and xenophobia is almost a political consensus among mainstream parties, the warning signs are there, but will anybody heed them?

In these circumstances one hopes that the South African government and civil society will take a strong stand against Bolsonaro, offering solidarity and even perhaps exile to those he will target after taking power.

Benjamin Fogel
Benjamin Fogel
Currently based in São Paulo, Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University and is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and website Africa is a Country
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