Why the rise of extreme right in Brazil?

Brazil suffered under a military dictatorship for two decades, from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s. As with most military regimes, Brazil’s military left behind economic wreckage and a long trail of human rights abuses.

It took civilian politicians more than a decade to tame hyperinflation, stabilise the economy and normalise the government. The bulk of the credit for this success goes to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a prominent sociology professor who rose to become president and served two terms, from 1995 to 2002.

Fast forward to 2018: Brazilian voters overwhelmingly elected a military man, who cannot praise the dictatorship enough. Jair Bolsonaro’s only lament about the dictatorship was that it was not bloody enough.

“The dictatorship’s mistake was to torture but not kill,” he reportedly said. “They should have shot 30,000 corrupt people, starting with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, which would have been a great gain for the nation.”

For at least the next four years, this man will be in charge of the world’s 9th largest economy. How to explain this radical swing to the right in a nation with a relatively strong record on rights and democracy?

One argument is that Bolsonaro is the correction of a long leftist period in Brazil.. After the end of dictatorship, Brazil essentially had different shades of centrist and center-left politics. President Cardoso was from the center-right social democratic party. Under his watch, Brazil implemented significant privatization and pro-market policies. His rule marked the beginning of Brazil’s strong economic growth and integration into global markets as an emerging power.

Yet, despite his solid pro-market policies, Cardoso also had a re-distributive agenda. He tried novel ways to address Brazil’s massive inequality problem. For example, his conditional cash transfers to poor families became widely popular and successful. Even Turkey used similar social policies, such as the government handing cash to families who send their girls to school.

After Cardoso, Brazil elected Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) for two terms, which steered politics further to the left. He was followed by his protégé, Dilma Rousseff, who also served two terms. It is possible that voters grew tired of the left and it was merely time for the political pendulum to swing.

Since the late 1990s, Turkey’s pendulum seems to be stuck in an extended swing to the right. Yet one could argue that Turkey’s June 2015 elections marked a brief electoral swing away from the conservative right. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority and a coalition that included the left should have been formed. But the AKP abruptly dismissed the June result and called for snap elections that November, then manipulated its way back to power.

The pendulum argument has merit. But it should not absolve Brazil’s Workers’ Party from its grave mistakes. Despite being in power for more than a decade, the party could not tackle the crime and violence corroding the nation.

The longer they stayed in power, the greater the scale and scope of their scandals became. Corruption involving the largest corporations in the country, including state-owned petroleum conglomerate Petrobras, undoubtedly stained the party. Even the party’s supposed social justice warriors were not immune to taking kickbacks from massive public procurement deals.

Lula’s astronomically high popularity ratings likely led to overconfidence. But the Brazilian judiciary rained on their parade. The party watched as their Iron Lady Dilma got impeached, and both of their iconic leaders, her and Lula, were sent to prison on corruption charges.

The party’s last-minute presidential candidate substitute for Lula was Sao Paolo Mayor Fernando Haddad. The fact that Haddad wore Lula masks during his campaign only served to illustrate the weakness of his candidacy.  

For generations, Brazil has tried to bridge its vast socio-economic gap, with marginal success. It has also sought to instill a sense of equal citizenship for all Brazilians, regardless of skin color.

Yet in 2018, nearly 58 million Brazilians (out of a population of 210 million) voted for a man who referred to Brazilian citizens of African descent as “animals” who should “go back to the zoo”.

Bolsonaro advocates discriminating against women in the workplace. He appointed religious zealots to his cabinet. His approach to law enforcement is “shoot first, don’t even ask later”. Yet he received the majority of votes in every Brazilian state, except the impoverished northeast.

As for the Workers’ Party, after ruling Brazil for more than 15 years, they are now reduced to a regional party, popular in the northeast. This is similar to the social democrats in Turkey, who had the chance to make a difference in the 1980s and 1990s and blew it.

One might say Turkey’s conservatives are on a similar path today, given all the compromised public procurements, kickback accusations, and cozy relations with moneyed interests.

Whether it is in Brazil, Turkey or elsewhere, politicians who stay too long in power tend to lose their integrity. Instead of transforming the nation through structural reforms, they get caught up in their own short-term gains. Better infrastructure, better education, and better industrial policy are all forgotten. The party becomes a criminal network to distribute spoils.

The sad part is that elections may no longer be the magic bullet to end this crisis of governance. Social scientists used to have faith in the middle classes to serve as bastions of stability and democracy. Recently, the middle classes seem to be cozying up to anti-democratic populists at record speed, just look at the United States, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary and beyond.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.