To be anti-PT in Brazil these days, makes one a member of the country’s largest political “party.” The PT is Brazil’s famous Workers’ Party, which was formed by leftists, neighborhood activists and labor union militants in order to renovate democratic politics and escape the stale pull of Brazil’s communist parties as the country’s 21-year-long military dictatorship (1964-1985) came to a tortured end. After many attempts, the PT’s founding light, Luís Ignacio Lula da Silva, served twice as Brazil’s president (2003-2010). His protégé, Dilma Rousseff, was also elected twice for president, becoming Brazil’s first female executive, but her second term ended abruptly in a parliamentary coup d’etat in 2016.
On Sunday, October 7, the size of the anti-PT vote became apparent when more than 49 million citizens marked their ballots for Jair Bolsonaro, a retired army captain and current Rio de Janeiro congressional representative, who is campaigning to be Brazil’s president on the ticket of the Social Liberal Party (PSL). Critics call Bolsonaro a “fascist” due to his expressions of authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism, machismo, and racism. His aggressive rhetoric and meteoric growth in popularity certainly mark him as Brazil’s contribution to the rightward tilt of politics internationally, something of a Brazilian Donald Trump. In this first round of elections, the voters’ top two choices were Bolsonaro, with 46 percent of the vote, and Fernando Haddad, the PT’s candidate, with 29 percent of the vote. The remaining electorate cast their votes for one or another of the remaining 11 candidates. In essence, 70 percent of 107 million electors voted against the PT.
Due to polling, the overall results surprised few. Nevertheless, nearly all earlier polls had shown a rejection rate for Bolsonaro of over 60 percent. Now, a short time before the final election round on October 28, reliable polls show Bolsonaro winning with 58 percent of the vote. Many worry that a country that struggled so hard to overcome military rule is about to vote for military rule. In fact, Bolsonaro rose to rank during the later stages of the dictatorship. His vice presidential running mate is a retired Army general and another general is coordinating the work of some 30 study-groups developing policies for governing the country. Many additional military officials man each of these groups. Military men are capable of respecting the law, but leading officials in Bolsonaro’s camp express their disdain for laws and regulations, like those controlling deforestation and protecting minorities. Just about four years ago, the country passed through a period of reckoning, involving truth commissions at every level - from local institutions to the federal government - analyzing the dictatorship and its crimes on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 coup d’etat. The current resurgence of the military in politics seems in part to be a reaction, as they have stridently rejected any wrong-doing and oppose reparations for violating the human rights of their victims.
Bolsonaro, like Trump, shows little respect for democracy. During the campaign, he refused to participate in debates and proudly rejected negotiation with political leaders and parties, accepting endorsements while declaiming deals. After the first round, he accused the electoral system of fraud and has said that he will not accept electoral results if he loses the final vote. As the date of the first debate of the final round approaches, Bolsonaro has announced that he will not attend. He claims his doctor warned him against participation since he suffered an assassination attempt during the campaign, requiring surgery for knife wounds and three-weeks in hospital.
In the meantime, Haddad and the PT are anxiously planning, negotiating and campaigning to accumulate at least more 9 points to win. During the first round, the PT calculated that Haddad would stand the best chance of winning if his opponent in the final round were Bolsonaro, but the results challenged their faith in the likelihood of this scenario. Bolsonaro received significant support from evangelical Christians, and Haddad is reaching out to them as well as Catholics, whose progressive leaders and laypeople have long supported the PT. In recent days, some presidential competitors from the first round, including the third place candidate, have endorsed Haddad. But many parties and politicians have endorsed Bolsonaro and some have expressed neutrality. Given Bolsonaro’s lead, a neutral position is actually an endorsement for the former Army captain.
With Bolsonaro’s campaign oriented by Paulo Geudes, a “Chicago boy” neoliberal trained by Milton Freidman, and staffed by military officials, Brazilians can expect a reactionary transformation similar to that undertaken by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Following the 1973 coup there, thousands of dissenters were murdered. While Bolsonaro expresses impatience with his opponents, Pinochet’s more insidious economic policies are more likely to be adopted in Brazil. These include huge cutbacks to education and health care as well as privatization, selling off public universities and hospitals. A flat tax is proposed to fund a reduced bureaucracy. Even before the first round election, the agribusiness sector endorsed Bolsonaro and their lobby - the most powerful in congress - was the first to present him with a slate of demands, among them the relaxation of controls on Amazon rainforest deforestation. The lungs of the world could soon be lost. Bolsonaro’s plan for the government has not yet been released, but statements from his camp already make clear his intention to ignore constitutional responsibilities to respect indigenous peoples and their lands, quilombolas and their lands, agrarian reform settlements, labor laws, and pollution controls.
Experts have probed the anti-PT position expressed by so many Brazilians. They tend to emphasize corruption charges that have put several party leaders behind bars. The PT has repeatedly denied the charges, but the evidence is credible. We can say that the PT learned to play the political game. Money has long greased the wheels of power and since the PT’s working class base has little of it, they used inflated government project budgets to get it. The money was spent buying votes, either of opposition politicians in congress or of citizens, as much of it was used on political campaigns. Since very little money was spent making PT politician’s rich, which is what other parties do with graft, the PT has defended a claim of being more honest than any other political party in Brazil. It won three presidential elections with this argument and up until a month before the first round election, polls showed Lula as the front-runner, even though he was in jail. Barred definitively from running, the PT put forward Haddad, a former university professor and mayor of São Paulo. As his running mate, they selected Manuela D’Ávila of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), both publicly endorsed by Lula just before he was jailed. Few expected the ticket to take off, but it soon became clear that the final round would pit Haddad against Bolsonaro.
Normally, voters have distributed their votes among the diverse candidates, but at the last minute, many of those who did not want the PT to win, concentrated their support on Bolsonaro. Analysts have shown that working class voters were swayed by their pastors, who like the candidate’s emphasis on traditional family structure, male-dominance, opposition to reproductive rights, and intolerance for the LGBTQ community. (Manuela is strident in her support for LGBTQ rights, making her a lightening rod for the anti-PT movement among evangelicals.) Many poor folks living in the periphery of large cities, where they suffer insecurity and violence, were attracted to Bolsonaro’s tough law and order proposals.
While the very nature of corruption allegations against the PT underscore its support for the capitalist system, Bolsonaro has used Manuela’s party affiliation to redbait Haddad and warn of Brazil becoming another Venezuela. Haddad’s poor showing in São Paulo during the first round demonstrated the ticket’s limited appeal among the middle and ruling classes. Revealingly, Bolsonaro enjoys significant support among these voters due to his opposition to the Workers Party, tough talk on crime and neoliberal economic policies. These were the groups that gave their full support to the 1964 coup. Bolsonaro’s success at mobilizing the support of poor, working class and Afro-descendant voters, including women, is what has surprised analysts on the left. Certainly, contradictory aspirational outlooks, especially in the context of a difficult and long recession, play an important role. Bolsonaro’s running mate has expressed his belief in Brazil as a “racial democracy” where miscegenation “whitens” and thus improves the population. Of course, such thinking has long been debunked by scientific studies documenting discrimination against darker Brazilians and the randomness of pigmentation diversity through the generations.
In the face of Bolsonaro’s popularity, the PT will have to struggle relentlessly to retake the presidency. It is clear that the Bolsonaro campaign is oriented by hatred, as is the anti-PT movement in general. The PT would do well to adopt an Anti-hatred stance. It could be geared to undermine Bolsonaro, while it indirectly provokes people to reconsider their dismay with the PT.
In appealing for a politics oriented by love rather than hatred, the PT has to emphasize its outsider status and thus the Change its victory will represent. The recent elections, as well as support for Bolsonaro demonstrate intense voter hopes for change. Bolsonaro and his party are new to the national political scene. The parties currently in power lost big in the election, despite their advocacy of neoliberal policies very similar to those of Bolsonaro. Their presidential candidates received little more than five percent of the vote.
Finally, Haddad and Manuela need emphasize how they symbolize not the restoration of Lula - the current jingle is “Happy again” with the PT - but the renovation of the party. In other words, they have to make people believe in the dream the PT represented to people when Lula was inaugurated in 2003 and tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital to cry with joy. As new but politically experienced and savvy politicians, Haddad and Manuela give the party a chance to reach the presidency and nurture the growth and prosperity of a socially just Brazil. The alternative, Bolsonaro’s victory, will instead bring division, repression and more capital accumulation for one percent who already recieve a third of Brazil’s income, making the county the world’s worst in income distribution.
Against hate, for love, change and renewal!