Brazil 2018: Divided electorate faces second round of presidential elections

By Tracy Devine Guzmán

Brazil 2018: Divided electorate faces second round of presidential elections

By Tracy Devine Guzmán
University of Miami associate professor Tracy Devine Guzmán analyzes the landscape of Brazil’s presidential run-off election. Brazilians head to the polls on October 28.

“I won’t rape you, because you’re not worth the effort,” screamed Jair Bolsonaro from a podium inside the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, addressing his fellow Federal Deputy, Maria do Rosário, on December 9, 2014.

Bolsonaro was incensed that Rosário—also Human Rights Minister under then-President Dilma Rousseff—had lauded the National Truth Commission in honor of Human Rights Day for its investigation into abuses of the country’s 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship.

A retired army captain and current presidential candidate, Bolsonaro held a different perspective: that the biggest mistake of the dictatorship had been to torture rather than kill most of its victims. The next day, Bolsonaro reiterated his disinterest in raping Rosário during a newspaper interview with Zero Hora, explaining that she was “very bad,” “very ugly” and “not his type.” She sued, and ten months later, Judge Tatiana Dias da Silva ordered him to retract his statements publically and to compensate Rosário 10,000 reais for “moral damages” (danos morais).

The case landed in the Brazil Supreme Court, which ultimately decided in Rosário’s favor. But the ruling did little to chasten Bolsonaro. Just last month, the court dismissed Attorney General Raquel Dodge’s charges that the presidential candidate had used racist language on the campaign trail.

During a 2017 speech at the Hebrew Club of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro had juxtaposed fat and slothful descendants of rebel slaves (quilombolas) and hardworking Japanese-descended Brazilians, who would be “too ashamed” to beg on the street. He called Native Brazilian reservations a “joke” (brincadeira), and promised his administration would not demarcate a single centimeter of additional land for indigenous peoples. He described boatloads of Haitians, Angolans, and Chinese arriving to Brazilian shores to siphon off public health care and education, reiterating his opposition to affirmative action (cotas), and reminding listeners that Brazil was for Brazilians. Amidst a mix of applause and heckling, he told a divided audience that despite their possible differences, his heart was “green and yellow,” just like theirs.  

A seven-term Federal Deputy, Bolsonaro (Liberal Social Party, PSL) won 46 percent of the national vote in the crowded first round of presidential elections (and nearly 81 percent among Brazilians voting from Florida), handily defeating twelve other candidates on the Oct. 7 ballot. Subsequent polls indicate that 57 percent of eligible voters will support him on Oct. 28 in the next and final round against second-place candidate, Fernando Haddad (Workers’ Party, or PT), who currently polls around 43 percent.

Haddad, who holds a law degree and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of São Paulo, previously served as Minister of Education (2005-12), and held one term as an unpopular mayor of São Paulo (2013-17). He accepted his party’s nomination less than one month before the election—only after Brazil’s high court banned former President Luis Inácio (Lula) da Silva from running for office. da Silva is serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering, and faces additional charges related to a multi-billion dollar bribery scheme involving Petrobras (the national oil company), as well as dozens of businesses and hundreds of politicians across Brazil and the rest of Latin America (and in Miami). While da Silva affirms his innocence, and Rousseff has not been found guilty in the massive web of graft, the ongoing criminal investigation, otherwise known as “Operation Car Wash” (Operação Lava Jato), has made the Worker’s Party and its leadership the target of colossal public outrage since it began in March 2014.

Lacking widespread recognition as a national figure in a country where more than 147 million people are legally bound to vote, Haddad bears the weight of his party’s legacy and finds himself in a nearly impossible position. On the one hand, diehard partisans imagine a Haddad presidency might safeguard some of the PT’s most popular social policies and help secure a pardon for Lula. (The possibility of pardon is unclear, as President Michel Temer signed a decree in 2017 that altered the Constitutional provision, and has since been challenged and revised by the Supreme Court). On the other hand, any prospect of Haddad pardoning Lula risks alienating middle-ground voters who deeply dislike Bolsonaro, but also deeply distrust the Worker’s Party.

“Anti-PT [voters] against Bolsonaro” (Antipetistas contra Bolsonaro), has become a popular Facebook meme that captures the paradox faced by these members of the electorate. The eleventh-hour candidate thus walks a political tightrope—sporting a Lula t-shirt, while arguing that the former president desires not exoneration, but an opportunity to prove his innocence. “Brazil is not for beginners,” as composer Tom Jobim famously observed.

The depth and magnitude of anti-PT sentiment have certainly contributed to Bolsonaro’s popularity and now widely expected victory. Some voters point to the country’s grave socioeconomic crises and choose to look away from the candidate’s odious rhetoric, rationalizing that they have little left to lose. But antipetismo alone cannot explain how a man with a long and clearly documented history of offending massive swaths of the Brazilian population has catapulted himself to cult-like status at the forefront of the national political scene.

The candidate’s campaign materials and stump speeches reveal that his most ardent supporters do not look past his hateful and decisive bombast, but indeed celebrate it. Bolsonaro’s verbal assaults on fellow Federal Deputy, Rosário, for example, appear on his website with the title, “Bolsonaro puts Mária do Rosário in her place.”

Devotees refer to their candidate as a “myth” (mito)—a frequent online comment and campaign chant that became even more popular after he survived a brutal stabbing attack last month. 

Bolsonaro’s popularity among women, people of color, and residents of the marginalized communities he so often demonizes is nothing short of enigmatic. But clearly, the candidate has hit a collective nerve among a broad cross-section of the population by linking drug-related violence and other public safety concerns—both of which disproportionally impact the poor—to the country’s socioeconomic crisis. And he has successfully transformed one of his preferred campaign terms, “delinquency” (vagabundagem), into a blanket attack on all his declared enemies, ranging from “communists” and “crooks” to “do-nothings” and “Indians” who have the audacity to resist integration into mainstream society.

“Minorities must bow down to the majority or simply disappear!” Bolsonaro yells out to his riled crowds.

Blaming “backwards peoples” for the country’s social ills is an old discourse in Brazil, and Native Brazilians have heard the story many times before—including from the Worker’s Party, which failed miserably to safeguard indigenous lands or other interests. But Bolsonaro has revived the false charge with tremendous fervor, along with familiar, elusive solutions of miscegenation and racial democracy.

“All Brazilians are the same!” he blusters time and again, indignant that some indigenous peoples wish to preserve their resource-rich lands for posterity, rather than sell them to mining companies.

Among the newly-elected Congress members riding on Bolsonaro’s coattails (alongside those representing evangelical Christians and the gun lobby), is the so-called bancada ruralista – legislators backed by landholding elites who see indigenous peoples and conservationists as their archenemies. If a President Bolsonaro is able to follow through on his promise to join the United States in withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, he will find great support for that initiative among this contingent, as well as from a collection of interest groups who characterize environmentalism as either an international plot to take over the Amazon, or a folly that keeps Brazil from realizing its economic potential.

He will also hear at least one new voice of opposition alongside that of Maria do Rosário. Joênia (Wapixana) Batista de Carvalho—a Native Brazilian lawyer who argued successfully before the Supreme Court in 2008 to protect the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Territory in her home state of Roraima—will be the first indigenous woman, and only the second indigenous person, ever to serve in the National Congress. Those who observe the unfolding political scenario with some combination of incredulity, sorrow, outrage, and trepidation might find some small inspiration in remembering that Wapixana and her people have survived the Bolsonaros of Brazil for 518 years.     

Tracy Devine Guzmán is director of graduate studies in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, and an associate professor of Latin American studies.