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Brazil Is on the Brink of Authoritarianism

What Jair Bolsonaro's 47 percent plurality means for women, minorities, and democracy

Fernando Souza/AFP/Getty Images

The stage is set for the second round of voting in Brazil’s presidential election. On October 7, a sprawling field of candidates was reduced to two, the extreme right-wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who ended with close to fifty percent of the vote, and the moderate progressive Fernando Haddad, who ended with about thirty percent. On October 28, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect one of these men. Considering how close Bolsonaro came to winning outright—which a simple majority of votes in the first round would have accomplished—he is the clear favorite to be Brazil’s next president.

Bolsonaro, a retired army captain who has consistently praised the military regime that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985, suggesting he wants to resume its authoritarian project of social control and economic modernization, would have won outright were it not for enduring support in the northeast for Haddad’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT). In the closing week of the campaign, Bolsonaro looked to be chipping away at the PT’s hold in the relatively impoverished Northeast, forcing Haddad to change his plans for the end of the first round. Instead of a final push in a union stronghold on the outskirts of São Paulo, he finished off the campaign in Bahia, the largest state of northeastern Brazil. The move was reminiscent of Clinton and Obama desperately rushing to seemingly-safe Michigan as the curtains drew on the 2016 campaign, a sign that the PT might have trouble shoring up even its most solid bases of support. Momentum seemed on Bolsonaro’s side as the final numbers of the first round came in.

The two sides now have strikingly different tasks ahead. To win, Bolsonaro needs only to hang on to his initial supporters and convert a handful of voters who opted for more moderate conservative candidates in the first round. Bolsonaro has almost certainly not hit his limit: Many voters will now hold their noses against his many offensively racist, sexist, and homophobic utterances and choose him over Haddad, the standard-bearer for a party many voters see as hopelessly corrupt. Haddad will also grow as he inherits the vast majority of votes cast for Ciro Gomes, another center-left figure in the race who tried unsuccessfully to present himself as an experienced progressive leader untainted by the PT’s scandals. Haddad needs to stall Bolsonaro’s momentum immediately to keep the race even. It’s not clear what it would take for that to happen.

Many of Bolsonaro supporters, like supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, have dismissed their candidate’s most inflammatory proclamations as unserious, loose talk. Yet there is reason for concern that Bolsonaro’s rhetorical violence will not stop at the level of discourse. For one thing, many of Bolsonaro’s allies rode to victory in the first round of voting. His son was elected to the lower house of Congress with the most votes of any candidate for that position in Brazilian history. Bolsonaro’s party, the Social Liberal Party (Partido Social Liberal, or PSL), which four years ago was a non-entity in Congress with only one member, elected fifty-one representatives, becoming the second largest partisan bloc in Congress literally overnight, second only to the PT. Bolsonaro will thus have eager foot soldiers in the legislature. Congress as a whole may curb some of Bolsonaro’s most radical impulses, but it is certain to let more than a few measures through. 

Clearly, there is latent hostility in many quarters of Brazilian society to women and minorities. Even if only 10 percent of what Bolsonaro has promised comes to pass, it will have a devastating impact on the meager advances of recent decades and will likely have a cascading effect on citizens’ everyday lives. Recently, for example, cell phone footage emerged of Bolsonaro supporters verbally harassing a gay couple at a metro station in São Paulo. They warned the couple to be careful—that Bolsonaro was going to “kill queers.” Bolsonaro’s verbal attacks against public institutions and the very idea of human rights are a palpable threat to marginalized groups in Brazilian society.

As Brazilian democracy stands at an existential inflection point, it has become clear that a great many Brazilians are willing to trade the meager advances achieved since the return of democracy in 1985 for the moral satisfaction of seeing the PT lose a presidential election for the first time in sixteen years. Indeed, many of the same Brazilians who wondered how the United States could have elected a figure as odious as Donald Trump are now on the verge of elevating a man who is arguably even more objectionable. (They are doing so for very similar reasons—namely that they find the alternative worse.) The cost may be high for Brazil, where basic rights for marginalized groups like Afro-Brazilians, women, LGBTQ people, and the poor have been secured through arduous and unsteady struggle since the dictatorship ended. The constant sense of impending dread that once hung over Brazilian politics for anyone deemed subversive or otherwise not aligned with the regime’s priorities threatens a comeback. Under the dictatorship, election rules were flagrantly manipulated by the generals in power, dissidents were arrested, tortured, and killed, and the press was censored. Bolsonaro denies most of these historical facts, which suggests not that he will revive all of these measures but that he is likely to overlook eventual excesses by his most aggressive right-wing supporters. To elect him is to invite the same disdain for democracy and popular politics that reigned in Brazil between 1964 and 1985.    

After the 1964 military coup, a general named Carlos Guedes urged immediate submission to the new status quo with an implicit threat: “We should love God and if we don’t love God we should at least fear God,” he said. “In the same way, those who don’t love the Revolution or the situation that has been imposed should at least fear it because we will know, if needed, how to impose it.” The generals who seized power in 1964 called their putsch a revolution, a way of white-washing a political intervention that was clearly illegal. In contrast to those uniformed usurpers, Bolsonaro would come to power with the explicit support of millions of Brazilians, an enemy of democracy elevated through democratic means. Unlike with any election since the end of the dictatorship, many have ample reason to fear the outcome of Bolsonaro’s revolution.