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Pro-Torture, Pro-Dictatorship Misogynist Wins First Round of Brazilian Elections

Brazil’s far-right candidate won the first round of elections with a 46% majority. The Workers Party (PT) candidate came in a dismal second, with only 29%. How did this happen?

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“I’m pro-torture, and the people are too.”

“I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly.” (said to a woman representative in Congress.)

“I’d rather have my son die in a car accident than have him dating a guy.”

These are quotes from Jair Bolsonaro, who may be Brazil’s next president. In the first round of elections, Bolsonaro came out with a 17-point lead ahead of Fernando Haddad, of the Partido de Trabalhadores (Workers Party, or PT).

After the major favorite in the elections, former President Lula Inácio da Silva, was barred from running in the elections by a right-wing operation that jailed him, Haddad became the lead candidate on the PT ticket only a month ago. Lula has led the polls for the past year, but the reactionary judicial branch robbed the Brazilian people of the right to vote for their preferred candidate.

And so a right-wing, pro-dictatorship misogynist won a major victory in this first round of elections. With the support of financial capital, the evangelical church, the judicial branch and the right-wing media, Bolsonaro has shaken the Brazilian political establishment and nearly monopolized the anti-establishment sentiment. The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which in the last elections went to runoffs against former President Dilma Rousseff, went from 33% to 4.77% in these elections. Marina Silva, the third runner-up in the last elections, got 21.32% and now got 1.32%. This does not mean that these parties have disappeared locally or in Congress, but it is a hard blow to their most important political figures. Their votes went to Bolsonaro.

To have won the election outright, Bolsonaro would have had to get over 50% of the vote, a mark he narrowly missed by 4%. The runoffs between Haddad and Bolsonaro will take place Oct. 28.

Who Is Bolsonaro?

When, in 2016, President Rousseff was impeached in an institutional coup, the members of the Chamber of Deputies made speeches before casting their votes. They spoke about everything but the corruption charges levied against Rousseff: They spoke about God, the traditional family and their own families. The most reactionary was Bolsonaro, who dedicated his vote “to the memory of colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra”—the country’s most well-known torturer, who worked under the CIA-backed military dictatorship (1964–85). More than 500 leftists were tortured during the dictatorship, which formed part of a wave of dictatorships that gripped South American countries, including Chile and Argentina. Today, some of Bolsonaro’s most avid fans wear T-shirts that read “Ustra lives!”

A retired army captain, Bolsonaro portrays himself as a tough-on-crime political outsider coming to the federal capital, Brasilia, to wipe out corruption. Although painting himself as anti-establihsment, he has been in the federal Congress for 26 years. He is backed by “the bullet” (those who want tough-on-crime policies), “the Bible” (evangelical sectors advocating the traditional family) and “the cow” (agribusiness and large landowners). Well-known as antiwomen, LGBT people and Black people, Bolsonaro and his supporters have depicted the PT as communists who allowed crime and corruption to run amuck.

In the economic realm, Bolsonaro has yet to outline a clear policy plan. What he has said points to an even deeper attack on the working class and poor than the current government of Michel Temer: privatizations and austerity. His economic advisor, Paulo Guedes, is a firm proponent of austerity and privatization. The day after his electoral victory, he has promised to privatize 50 of 150 state-run companies, opening them to multi-national investments.

The Great Powers Behind Bolsonaro

Five actors came together to help Bolsonaro triumph. The first is finance capital, both Brazilian and international, which has long been pressuring the government to implement austerity measures. Near the end of the campaign, these financial capitalists made Brazilian stock go up when Bolsonaro went up in the polls. Donald Trump weighed in, complaining about Brazilian trade regulations instituted by the PT, which Bolsonaro would be likely to lift. The plan is to end labor protections, roll back pension reform, curtail civil rights and pay off Brazil’s massive foreign debt while ensuring their own profits. The day after Bolsonaro’s victory in the first round, Brazilian stocks “soared” and “investors cheered”.

Bolsonaro was also supported by the powerful agribusiness sector and large landowners. He is a major opponent of land reform and increasing protected lands for indigenous peoples. He regularly speaks out against landless peasant activists, as well as the indigenous population.

Second, Brazil’s judicial branch played a key role. The courts played a central role in advancing the impeachment of Dilma and now, of ensuring that the Brazilian people were unable to vote for their preferred candidate. Lula was barred not only from running but also from communicating with the leaders of the PT during the campaign, sending a public message of support to Haddad, and even from voting, even though the vote is compulsory for all citizens in Brazil. According to Wikileaks documents, leaders of the courts, such as Sergio Mouro were trained by the US State Department.

Third, TV Globo, Brazil’s most important TV network, openly campaigned for Bolsonaro. Created under the military dictatorship, Globo is a noncable network that practically all Brazilians watch. It has the most popular soap operas and news programs. Essentially every bar, coffee shop and household has Globo on throughout the day. The network gave Bolsonaro a lot of airtime and favorable commentary, and it focused relentlessly on the issue of urban crime.

Fourth, the evangelical church openly called for a vote against the “communist devil, Haddad,” and organized a militant campaign on WhatsApp and Facebook against the PT and Haddad. One in four Brazilian voters is evangelical, as are 90 members of Congress.

The last important sector behind Bolsonaro’s victory is the Brazilian military—which only 30 years ago was ousted from power. Eduardo Villas Boas, the chief of the military, made near-constant declarations “against corruption,” echoing the rhetoric of Bolsonaro, as well as against Lula.

Bolsonaro also capitalized on the insecurities of the middle class, as well as some sectors of the working class, against the ultracorrupt Brazilian political system. Everyone knows that the politicians make massive salaries legally and then almost openly engage in corruption schemes. Thus, Operation Car Wash, the judicial branch’s “anti-corruption” campaign, focused exclusively on the PT, even though corruption in Brazil is widespread. For example, over half of the Congress that impeached Rousseff was being investigated for corruption.

These sectors also supported Bolsonaro by capitalizing on the fear and discontent created by rising crime rates—a result of the massive financial crisis, unemployment and austerity. Last year, homicides in Brazil reached almost 64,000.

How Did Brazil Get Here?

Brazil is deep in a financial crisis that hit over four years ago, creating a situation of massive unemployment and fear for the future. In March, the jobless rate was at 13.3%, with many more underemployed. The capitalists are seeking ways to make a profit even though the Brazilian economy is not growing much: only 0.3% from June to August. Now the way to make a profit is to take it from the pockets of the working class.

Bolsonaro’s victory is the result of a years-long operation organized by Brazil’s right wing to implement further austerity as a “solution” to the financial crisis. The first manifestation was the institutional coup against Rousseff organized by her own vice president, now President Michel Temer, the right-wing media and the judicial branch. The courts have continued their right-wing activism by barring the Lula. He is serving a 12-year prison sentence on arbitrary charges of corruption.

Lula would have very likely won these elections had he been allowed to run. His poll numbers have steadily remained the highest in the polls. In prison, however, he stepped down, handing over leadership to Haddad, an almost unknown politician.

Lula was a political favorite because he represented a moment of economic prosperity when the Brazilian working class had more access to commodities and credit, as well as some very small social welfare programs. It was also a time of massive profits for the capitalists—even Lula says that they and the bankers never had such huge profits! Yet the image of the PT was sullied by the austerity measures implemented by the PT as the financial crisis hit Brazil. The PT’s strategy was moderation and negotiation with the capitalists and the right wing. In fact, Haddad was chosen as Lula’s vice president because of his moderate political positions.

Although the PT has been a victim of these right-wing attacks, it has reacted by trying to prove its fiscal responsibility instead of mobilizing the millions of workers in PT-run trade unions against these attacks. During the administrations of Lula and Rousseff, the PT formed coalitions with the center-right, inviting in the groups that would eventually help organize the party’s downfall.

Yet the last two years since the coup have not seen a unilateral rightward shift. Rather, in the year after the coup, there were three one-day general strikes and massive mobilizations against austerity measures, such as a labor reform policy that expanded subcontracting and rolled back workers’ rights. The PT, which runs Brazil’s largest labor union, the CUT, refused to organize tougher fights against austerity, refusing to support general strikes longer than a day and dragging its feet at organizing the strikes that did take place. Similarly, when Lula was imprisoned, he and his supporters did not organize the working class against his arbitrary and undemocratic imprisonment; he handed himself over, promising to prove his innocence in the right-wing courts. While in the past year, the Brazilian workers’ movement receded, only a few week ago, hundreds of thousands of people took the streets in women’s marches against the right wing.

Crisis of the Establishment Parties

The electoral result is just one more manifestation of the deep organic crisis rocking the South American giant. After years of Pink Tide governments, right wingers have won the presidency in many countries in Latin America, such as Mauricio Macri in Argentina and Sebastián Piñera in Chile. These governments have pursued austerity, attacks on the working class and deals with the IMF. In Brazil, the election represents not just an advance of the right wing but also a deep crisis of the traditional leadership. The center and establishment right-wing Presdiential candidates were annihilated, with their votes going to anti-establishment Bolsonaro.

Can we characterize the situation in Brazil as solely a right-wing phenomenon, or is it more complicated? Given that this election result has come at a moment when just two years ago, Brazil was seeing general strikes and massive mobilizations against the right wing, and Lula was still massively popular, we believe the situation is more complex. The election shows that with Lula barred from running, the Brazilian masses do not feel politically represented by their traditional leaderships. Since there is no real alternative to the PT, Bolsonaro has been able to fill in the gap. The reactionary alliance outlined above barred the Brazilian people from electing their clear favorite, opening the door to an even deeper crisis of the establishment and electing a right-wing, pro-dictatorship candidate.

This story will not be unfamiliar to readers in the United States, where the defeat of a progressive candidate, Bernie Sanders, gave rise to the aberrant phenomenon of Donald Trump.

The Left

The Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) ran Guilherme Boulos and Sônia Guajajara against both the PT and the right wing. The PSOL officially stood against the institutional coup and the arbitrary imprisonment of Lula, while also offering a political alternative to those leftists who know that that PT does not offer a way forward for Brazil’s oppressed and working class. Boulos got 0.6% of the vote nationally, struggling to keep the base of Luciana Genro, who got 1.55% of the vote four years ago. While the PSOL has vacillated in its position of independence from the PT, having signed a unity manifesto with the PT, center-right wing and capitalist parties, its candidates were the best choice in the current political climate.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The PT, which is the traditional leadership of the working class, may be facing the end of an era. They have won the last four presidential elections and would likely have won had Lula not been stripped of the right to run. Will the PT face its first presidential loss in 16 years against a right-wing, pro-dictatorship candidate?

For the past years, the PT has attempted to negotiate with the right wing. They allowed a president to be impeached and their primary leader get locked up without a fight. The PT has demonstrated again and again that it refuses to stand up against the right wing.

But the working class and oppressed tried to put up a fight in the past few years: the general strike against pension reform, the massive mobilizations of women against the right wing and the youth who occupied their high schools and colleges under the PT, as well as under Temer.

This is the seed to build a revolutionary alternative in Brazil: to the only option to defeat the advance in the right wing, as well as the sectors of financial capital, agribusiness, military leaders and US-trained judges that back the right wing.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.

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