The hashtag was clear – #EleNão (#NotHim). Everyone knows about “him”. He is Jair Bolsonaro, the leading candidate for Brazil’s presidential election. The first round of the country’s elections will be held on 7 October. Last Saturday, tens of thousands of people – mostly women – took to the streets of Brazil to say that they would not tolerate Bolsonaro as the country’s next president, with good reason.
Bolsonaro has openly declared his nostalgia for Brazil’s terrible, two-decade-long military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. He dedicated his 2016 vote to impeach former president Dilma Rousseff to Colonel Brilhante Ustra, the man who led the torture unit that brutalised Rousseff in 1970. The ugliness of Bolsonaro’s act is in keeping with his career, which is one defined by misogyny, homophobia and racism. It almost seems as if the only person Bolsonaro would favour is himself. #NotHim, then, is a good standard to raise as voting day inches closer.
Mission from God
On 6 September, as Bolsonaro campaigned in the city of Juiz Fora, a man stabbed him. The man – who told the police that he was on a “mission from God” – was not connected to any other candidate or movement. Bolsonaro was rushed to a local hospital, where he began his recovery. After the attack, his son Flàvio was quoted as saying: “You just elected him president.” Indeed, Bolsonaro’s poll numbers swept upwards. Even more tellingly, the economic indicators also surged – the Bovespa jumping upwards to make gains not seen since 2016.
There was a time when Bolsonaro held his nose against the free market. He saw the world from the barracks, eager to make all of Brazil as disciplined and closed off as an army camp. But during this presidential run, Bolsonaro brought in his own “Chicago Boy” – Paulo Guedes – who has commitments to the international financial world, both to the bankers themselves and to the way the bankers see the world. With Guedes by his side, Bolsonaro is not only the candidate of the armed forces, and from the sewers of the hard right, he is now mostly the candidate of high finance. It would appear that he’s backed by the three ‘Gs’: Guns, God and Gold.
There are 13 candidates for the presidency. If one of them gets more than 50% of the vote on 7 October, that candidate will be elected to the presidency outright. If no one gets more than 50%, the two top candidates from the first round will run against each other on 28 October. All the polls show that of the 13 candidates, 11 of them will not come near the mark. They include candidates from across the political spectrum from Cabo Daciolo of the extreme right, who wants God to take over Brazil, to Guilherme Boulos of the far left, who leads the movement to end homelessness. An additional candidate has been prevented from running in the election – former president Lula da Silva, who is screamingly popular but was controversially imprisoned and barred from contesting the polls.
If Lula were running, the election would be all but over by nightfall on 7 October.
Looking for the Lula moment
But Lula and the Workers’ Party hope to transfer some of the former president’s magic to Fernando Haddad, a former mayor of São Paulo and the minister of education in Lula and Rousseff’s governments. It is difficult to be as charismatic as Lula, which is what makes Haddad seem plain. An economist, Haddad worked tirelessly in the education ministry to push for a landmark expansion of public higher education in Brazil. Haddad’s running mate, Manuela d’Ávila, is a leader in the Communist Party of Brazil and former federal deputy. They are hoping that Lula’s shine will rub off on them.
Both Haddad and d’Ávila pledge to defend the gains made by the Workers’ Party government, which governed Brazil from 2003 to 2016. These gains are considerable and include an end to hunger, an increase in education and an improvement in basic social indicators. Neither Lula nor Rousseff governed with as strong a class perspective as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but they nevertheless moved the largest country in South America into more humane territory.
The impeachment of Rousseff and the persecution of Lula has moved the Workers’ Party further to the left, deepening its understanding of the limitations of gradual change. The old aristocracy and the new financial oligarchy are obstinate about their privileges. Neither Lula nor Rousseff went after them and they paid heavily for it. Now, the base of the Workers’ Party and its social allies are not willing to be so diffident. They will demand more. It is what the aristocracy and oligarchy fear, which is why they are willing to stand behind a scoundrel like Bolsonaro.
It is very likely that Bolsonaro will come first on 7 October. All the polls show that. But in the second round, the 147 million Brazilians will not simply hand him victory. Almost half (45%) of voters reject Bolsonaro outright. Haddad and d’Ávila hope that they will be able to galvanise those who voted for the other marginal candidates towards them – that they will reject Bolsonaro’s fascism. It is a scary scenario. Bolsonaro has said that if he does not win, he will not recognise the verdict. Bolsonaro’s running mate – retired general Hamilton Mourao – has said that if they win and if there is unrest, the government will conduct an auto-coup and set up an elected dictatorship. Either way, these men have threatened violence.
#NotHim. That’s the hope. But, he is going nowhere. His threats loom over Brazil like an ugly fog. These are not optimistic times in South America.
Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. With Teo Ballvé he edited ‘Dispatches from Latin America: Experiments Against Neoliberalism’ (2006).