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Fernando Brancoli

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October 10, 2022

Brazil, an Authoritarian Crossroads

Inspired by Trump, Bolsonaro will exploit Brazilian elections to foment violence.

Brazil is preparing for the most important elections since the country's redemocratization in 1985, after decades of military dictatorship. The first round of voting ended on October 2nd, but since no contender received more than 50% of the valid votes, we will now have a second round. Brazilian voters disagree on whether to elect current president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, or former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), who led the country for eight years from 2003 to 2011. 

Despite polls indicating Lula as the frontrunner, the election has been the bloodiest in recent memory. Lula supporters have been viciously attacked - with the most notable case being a police officer, a Bolsonaro supporter, breaking into a left-wing politician's birthday party and murdering him in front of his family. Witnesses said the shooter refused to accept that someone could "throw a party for a corrupt party." Bolsonaro now heads a plethora of authoritarian coalitions ranging from institutional alliances of agricultural producers and military forces to more dubious partnerships with Rio-based urban gangs tied to drug trafficking and illicit mining operations in the Amazon. For weeks, the president has pledged to use these organizations to refuse to acknowledge the conclusion of the election if he is defeated, threatening murder and anarchy if he is deposed; however, this approach is not novel. After the first round of the 2022 elections, it is clear that Brazil's swing to the right in 2018 was not a one-time occurrence, but rather a manifestation of a long-term trend. A substantial number of Bolsonaro-backed candidates were elected to the National Senate, Lower Chamber, and Governor's offices. According to certain analysts, Lula's election in the second round on October 30th is not guaranteed.

Trump as an example

After being initially mocked, Trumpism is now being observed with interest throughout the world as it is quickly and viciously vindicated. But nobody has followed in Trump's political footsteps quite like the Bolsonaro family. Jair and his sons - three of them are congressmen now - have been Trump supporters since before he became politically renowned. Indeed, only a few days after the Capitol invasion, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the long-serving chairman of the Congress Committee on International Relations, observed, with regret, that if the assailants had been better prepared, they would have captured the Capitol and issued a clear list of demands. Brazilian analysts saw Eduardo’s Bolsonaro’s address as a preview of what’s to come in the largest South American country.

President Bolsonaro was one of the last international representatives to formally recognize Biden's victory in 2021. Following the election, the Brazilian president even stated that there were "strong indicators of fraud," echoing Republican allegations. Until recently, the Bolsonaros' failure to recognize Biden's election and the harm it has done to Brazil's relationship with the United States was seen as strategic blindness. Unlike authoritarian leaders such as ex-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Brazilian president has remained loyal to Trump even when it seemed that the Republican was on the edge of defeat. The reason for this loyalty is that Trump's actions after the Capitol insurrection would function as a case study for the Bolsonaros, revealing how far they could go, especially how far they could abuse the democratic system without consequences.

Indeed, what the Bolsonaro family has learned about Trumpism over the last year seems to have had a significant influence. Knowing, for example, that American military posture was key to the coup's failure may be adding to the Brazilian president's growing interest in co-opting the Armed Forces. Bolsonaro’s seeming perseverance on unsubstantiated ideas regarding the epidemic, even on issues that unify the fractured Brazilian public, such as children's immunization, may be explained by his realization that persistence in his follies earned unexpected income. For example, Bolsonaro's government was catastrophic during the COVID-19 epidemic. The illness was responsible for over 600,000 fatalities in Brazil. That is, despite having just 2.7% of the world's population, the nation has around 10.5% of the worldwide victims of the virus. However, Bolsonaro was able to exploit the crisis by pointing out that the politicians who encouraged the population to follow the lockdown were to blame for the calamity. In several instances, paramilitary  groups tied to the president compelled shopkeepers in impoverished communities to open their doors, against health officials' advice. Despite the poor outcomes, Bolsonaro's former Minister of Health, Eduardo Pazuello, was elected as one of the most popular state congressmen in Rio de Janeiro in October 2022, bolstering an anti-system narrative that the president was being assaulted by a global elite.

Above all, the American model may inspire Bolsonaro to try to reproduce the events of January 6, 2021 in Brazil. Thousands of Republican supporters are confident that the Congressional intruders were not criminals attempting to obstruct a lawful transfer of power, but rather citizens dissatisfied with a corrupt system, and there is no assurance that Trump will be held accountable for the incident. After the initial shock wore off, the attacks on the legislature reinforced the Trumpist narrative, thus giving Bolsonaro hope that even if they lose the election and face a coup, they will be able to regroup and emerge stronger.

Institutional conflicts, however, will not be the only ones related to violence and security if Bolsonaro is defeated. The president represents a movement that is larger than himself and over which he may have little control. 

Bolsonarismo is not going away.

Although Bolsonaro carefully positions himself as the necessary leader for the extreme right's survival in Brazil, "Bolsonarismo" has already exceeded the president. There is a broad coalition of far-right collectives based on President Jair Bolsonaro's image, rather than a cohesive organization with similar criteria. Despite the fact that Bolsonaro has come to dominate the majority of storylines, the term "Bolsonarista" refers to a variety of political sectors that have created a clear political orientation in recent years as a result of their interactions with politicians like Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro, on this view, is a subset of Bolsonarism that is not reliant on his performance or existence.

Despite its fragmentation, Bolsonarismo has developed an explicit political orientation in recent years, not only through domestic constitutive alliances (such as neo-Pentecostal churches and proponents of neoliberal policy), but also through articulations with international groups, practices, and subjectivities. Engagement with the Trump administration, discourses about Brazil's seeming support for the Holy Land and Israel, or Brazilian military personnels' expertise in peacekeeping missions are all examples of transnational factors that contribute to the collective constructo. Bolsonarism is currently a kaleidoscope of organizations ranging from structured political parties to paramilitary groups - groupings that do not have to operate together but share ideals, values, and practices. It is clear, for example, how everyone from state ministries to armed militia groups are motivated to safeguard "Christian values and traditional morality."

This means that even if Bolsonaro leaves power, the political structures, material conditions, and expressive popular support will persist. The most important factor in determining what kind of country Brazil will be in the coming years is how such extreme characters will react and respond - and how progressive groups will be able to form a functioning alliance to combat the rise of the extreme right in Brazil. In any case, some of these answers will be revealed on October 30th, when the nation elects its new president.

Fernando Brancoli

Fernando Brancoli is Associate Professor of International Security at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton and an Associated Researcher at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. His research interests are centered on how narratives of violence and neoliberalism circulate in the Global South, specially the Middle East and Latin America. In the last years, he conducted field research on Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

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