Brazil’s history is repeating itself: democracy at stake

On October 7th, 2018, Brazilian citizens witnessed the consolidation of the far-right as the leading political force in the country. The former military Jair Bolsonaroalmost won in the first round for the presidency. His party – the Social Liberal Party –achieved one of the largest congressional benches in the Chamber of Deputies (51 out of 513 seats) and candidates associated to Bolsonaro excelled in Senate, Gubernatorial and Legislative Assemblies elections all around Brazil.

The country seems to mirror the path that was already trailed by European countries, such as AustriaGermanyPoland and Italy – not to mention Trump’s election in the U.S. The recent Brazilian experience is connected with this broader global movement towards the far-right, an outcome of a structural crisis of capital in its neoliberal phase.

Differently from Europe, xenophobia does not seem to play a relevant role in the Brazilian case – even though Bolsonaro has already referred to recent immigrants in Brazil as the ‘scum of the world’. Indeed, the very possibility of Bolsonaro taking over is an outcome that combines this global element with the authoritarian political culture in Latin America. The current rise of the far-right, which follows the fall of the 2000s’Pink Tide, reproduces and synthetises the swing of democratic and anti-democratic regimes that historically characterises politics in the region.

The former Brazilian dictatorship started in 1964 and formally ended in 1985. Ademocratic period was set up when the so-called citizen Constitution was released. It became the mark of a transition from the dictatorship to a democratic period: the ‘new Republic’ (1988-2015). However, the self-amnesty of the militaries (1979) and the continuity of former political forces in power show that this label ‘democracy’ should be relativized.

The 1987-88 Constituent Assembly represented a unique event in which the organised democratic forces of society demanded the ‘rules of the game’ to be reset, as well as the creation of a certain kind of welfare state in Brazil. This happenedcoincidentally with the period that neoliberalism was spreading throughout the world as ‘the only alternative’. The Brazilian paradox was then how to reconcile democracy, neoliberalism and a to-be-constructed welfare system.

Curiously, re-democratization was only viable due to the arrangement of ‘co-optation democracy’ – gestated during the transition from the civil-military dictatorship to a democratic regime and only consolidated during the Worker’s Party (PT) terms. Co-optation was the political device used by hegemonic class fractions to incorporate, in the political and economic arena, a variety of sometimes conflicting values and interests, via the generation of dividends to different classes and class fractions. The point, however, is that co-optation does not truly integrate the poorer in the civil or political society, as the economic power of the old plutocracy is still determinant.

The Brazilian Social Democracy Party’s (PSDB), which ruled the country from 1995 to 2002, provided a response to that paradox through the combination of commercial and financial opening and a ‘successful’ stabilization plan that tamed high inflation. However, positive effects of price control on wages and living conditions wereephemeral. After a short period, the detrimental consequences of a neoliberal agenda in terms of employment, productive structure and social equality come to the fore.

But co-optation democracy would be best portrayed when PT took over in 2003. Ironically, this political party, created to stand for the workers’ cause, undertook the PSDB agenda and consolidated neoliberalism in Brazil. PT assumed ‘macroeconomic soundness’ as a synonym to ‘economic development’ and the party put forth economic policies that incorporated millions of people to the financialised consumption market.

PT’s response to the paradox achieved some positive results in the short-term (employment, wages and extreme poverty), but they were also fragile. The shortcomings of PT’s tactics proved to be rather frustrating as, ten years later, people went to the streets to stand up for poor public services, bad conditions of life and politicians in June 2013.

The 2013 demonstrations paved the way to the polarisation in 2014 general elections and benefited right-wing candidates, with the election of a very conservative Congress, even though Dilma Rousseff (PT) was elected again for the presidency.Dilma’s second term marks the end of the ‘co-optation democracy’, with international and local pressures and dissatisfaction with the results of the ballots. The instability promoted by central capitalist fractions eventually led to a parliamentary coup that impeached Dilma in 2016.

The replacement of Dilma by Michel Temer inaugurated a period of enhanced austerity and structural reforms against workers. This resulted in a wave of hatred of masses: a cathartic moment in which people express violence against the system in social media. Bolsonaro emerges in this context. He presents himself as a somewhat ludicrous character, just like Trump or Berlusconi. He openly supports the civil-military dictatorship and he is also known by his racist, sexist and homophobic speeches.

Moreover, Bolsonaro’s campaign is based on the capillarity of WhatsApp and it is built on the dissemination of fake news, resembling and enhancing the Cambridge Analytica-Trump strategy. His campaign is marked by contradictory messages coming from himself, his deputy General Mourão and his economic guru, Paulo Guedes,regarding many programmatic points (tax reform, wages and privatisation of public companies), and by several manifestations of violence by his supporters.

Despite the confusion induced by fake news and by his team’s ‘hybrid informational warfare’ strategy, three things can be taken for granted in the likely case of his success in the ballots: the military direct influence in the government will be widespread, regardless some naïve opinions; social movements will be severely repressed and workers’ rights will suffer another assault.

The lack of legal punishment to the culprits of the political crimes of the civil-military dictatorship is to be thought over if democracy is to be kept safe. The democracy/anti-democracy pendulum is now clearly pointing to the emergence of an authoritarian regime in Brazil, even though we do not know properly the form it will take.

Norberto Montani Martins

Jaime Ernesto Winter Hughes León

Institute of Economics (IE), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)

This post is endorsed by the World Economy Working Group

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