Cue the theme from “Rocky”: Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, holding the Brazilian flag, leads a rally. Photo credit: Ueslei Marcelino. Source: Americas Quarterly
Back in January 2014, months before the Soccer World Cup got underway, I blogged about street demonstrations held in host country Brazil against it. Among other things, I mentioned that what Brazilians likely had in mind was that there were better things to do with the exorbitant amount of money spent on the tournament, given the existence of still unresolved issues such as crumbling mass transit systems, under-resourced hospitals, and deficient schools. By the time the ref’s whistle was blown for the last time, local and visiting soccer fans saw or heard about more demonstrations, but none of those derailed the tournament or caused the same commotion in Brazil as the 2013 protests. What did cause a commotion in Brazil during the Cup was losing to the Netherlands in the third-place match. (Fortunately, though, that relatively lackluster performance was reversed with a dramatic win by penalty kicks over world champ Germany in the gold medal match at the 2016 Olympics, with Brazil’s very own soccer idol Neymar scoring the winning goal.)
In the four years that have passed since the 2014 Cup, things have gotten worse in Brazil, as I have blogged about previously and reports continue to tell us. In a recent essay, Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly and someone who knows Brazil intimately, delivered a stark verdict that puts all the bad news into a depressing context: “The Brazil of mid-2018 is a frightened, leaderless, shockingly pessimistic country. It is a country where four years of scandal, violence and economic destruction have obliterated faith in not just President Michel Temer, not just the political class, but in democracy itself.” (For our purposes, we will define democracy in liberal terms – that is, unfettered electoral competition and political freedoms.) Calls for the Brazilian military to intervene have been made repeatedly as of late, in the midst of a truckers’ strike that has all but paralyzed the country, itself caused by rising gas prices. On top of that, there will be a presidential election this coming October – one of several highly consequential electoral events to be held this year in Latin America.
It is imperative to put those calls for a military intervention in perspective. In the last installment of Vanderbilt University’s AmericasBarometer, Brazil was shown as having the lowest levels of support for the political system in the Americas. Indeed, the pollsters state that those levels have been in decline since 2010 due to the double whammy of corruption and Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In addition, Winter mentions a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, in which 38% of Brazilians thought that military rule would be good for the country. That finding dovetails with three takeaways from the most recent Latinobarómetro poll: 1. Democracy is not supported by the majority of Brazilians (only 43% do so), 2. Satisfaction with Brazilian democracy is almost nil (13%), and 3. The military is one of the most trusted institutions in Brazil (50%), second only to the church (69%). It would not be a surprise, then, to hear about Brazilians demanding a military intervention in politics. At the same time, though, AmericasBarometer also found that Brazilians are politically tolerant – over 50% identify themselves as being in agreement with that hallmark of liberal democracy. Connecting the dots, we therefore should not interpret that public clamor in Brazil for a military intervention as an outright approval of authoritarianism as a form of government. There is no subversion to eliminate, as it was the case for the Brazilian military during its two decades in power (1964-85). What is really at play here is the public clamor to “throw the bums out,” as it happened in Venezuela at the time of the military coup that made Hugo Chávez a household name. One of Winter’s interviewees, a Brazilian political analyst, is clear about it: most Brazilians do not want a coup, but they would support one if it happened. It is not about changing the regime, but disinfecting it.
In any case, Winter also mentions that the likeliest way the Brazilian military will intervene in politics once more is not by way of a coup (at least, not according to President Temer), but by way of riding on the coattails of Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman (with a record, as of last October, of two bills passed out of 171 proposed during his 26-year legislative career) and retired army captain (with a disciplinary action for insubordination on his record) whose popularity has been steadily increasing as Brazil’s crisis has deepened, to the point of positioning himself as a front-runner and, according to some polls, the leading candidate. The incumbent defense minister likes Bolsonaro’s candidacy because he thinks Brazilians are looking for leaders with values like those embodied by the military; and Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the prestigious Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, opines that what explains Bolsonaro’s rise is the current lack of faith in the traditional political class. Already known for speaking his mind first and maybe asking questions later, Bolsonaro once stated publicly that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” and, accordingly, has proposed a solution to Brazil’s overwhelming crime problem: basically, to emulate Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte and declare open season on criminals – both figuratively and literally. However, it is not clear at this point whether this move will increase citizen trust in law enforcement (which Latinobarómetro 2017 puts at 34%) or uproot the pervading culture of corruption within it. And it is not that Temer has been playing the lyre while Rome burns: last February, he ordered the army to take over police duties in Rio de Janeiro State until the end of the year. The only problem with that order, though, is that the army is faring no better than the police. One thing is a certainty, though: hypermilitarized police units like Rio de Janeiro State’s Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE in Portuguese) will be delighted with the chance Bolsonaro will give them to go all out. Racial profiling? Civil rights violations? Extra-judicial killings? Oh, well. C’est la guerre.
Yet for all of Bolsonaro’s electoral appeal, he is not necessarily a shoo-in. Looming large over his chances is Lula da Silva, the former president. Electoral authorities have declared that Lula is barred from running because of his current imprisonment on corruption charges, but his lawyers believe that his ineligibility could be suspended under current law and, consequently, his party is poised to present him as a candidate, hoping that he can be officially added before election day. This is where things get really interesting. Datafolha, a well-known Brazilian polling firm, ran a series of scenarios last April and came up with very interesting outcomes: in a scenario where Lula’s name was presented to respondents, he would receive more votes than Bolsonaro, and in a scenario where Lula was not on the list, Bolsonaro would be the most voted candidate. But in a pool of at least 16 presidential candidates running under a majority rule, as it is the case in Brazil, no one is likely to even come close to the 50% necessary to win outright, which means that there will be a runoff round between the two most voted candidates in late October. In the first Datafolha scenario, that round would be disputed between Lula (31%) and Bolsonaro (15%), and in the second scenario, it would be Bolsonaro (17%) versus 2014 runner-up Marina Silva (15%). And if Lula’s ineligibility stands, his party will hope that any substitute picked from its ranks will benefit from his backing (a different poll says that could happen). In any case, the electoral horse-trading will ensue immediately after the first round, and that means Bolsonaro will have to win over the support of the candidates who did not make the cut, as well as their respective voters. Not every single one of those candidates may support Bolsonaro in the runoff, and those that may could ask for political favors in return under Brazil’s “coalitional presidentialism”, itself a by-product of an overpopulated political party system and how it deprives ruling parties from having solid legislative majorities. Also, according to some analysts, Bolsonaro’s policy proposals and abrasive public persona could scare away moderate voters; for the runoff, that will cost him. Others also raise the possibility of significant electoral abstention, which could also steal invaluable voter support away from Bolsonaro (and all others, of course).
Winter concludes that there is no political consensus within Brazil that could bring about the policies needed to turn things around and, instead, Brazilians are intent on simply tearing down the system. In this sense, many Brazilians see Bolsonaro as a sledgehammer. Stuenkel is more optimistic: the situation stinks but has also spurred Brazilians into action (for example, here). Winter is correct in pointing out that the political class is to blame for what is going on, but after all Rousseau had a big point by stating that political representatives should not deviate from the “general will”. Stuenkel admits that the situation is very hard to remedy, but his optimism makes much sense. Enforcing accountability on the political class, instead of taking the easy way out by electing someone whose outbursts do not jibe with the image of a politically tolerant citizenry, is the most cathartic way to turn things around in Brazil.
In the meantime, this year’s World Cup is about to begin, and Brazil is playing in it. If Neymar and his team manage to win it all, it will be reason enough to throw one hell of a party.