The recent presidential election in Brazil was marked by the comeback of former President Lula at the presidency, through the narrow defeat of the controversial incumbent President Bolsonaro. What were the main characteristics of this political battle and how will this result affect the future developments in Brazilian politics?

Leonardo Fontes, a postdoctoral researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap) and a Visiting Fellow at LSE-LACC, speaks to ENA for the elections in Brazil.

* Interview by Dr. Costas Eleftheriou, Coordinator of Political Analysis Unit, ENA Institute

Who were the main social blocs that clashed at the recent presidential elections around the two prevailing candidates? 

The 2022 elections in Brazil were extremely polarized between former President Lula and the current President Bolsonaro. But this was an asymmetrical polarization because Bolsonaro pushed his bloc to the extreme right and Lula, who comes from a center-left background, tried to occupy the political center making alliances with center and center-right politicians such as his vice-president Geraldo Alckmin who was governor of São Paulo and ran against Lula in the past. This gave Lula the support of important leaders from conservative and liberal backgrounds.

In social terms, Bolsonaro had the support of pastors from evangelical churches, military corporations, agribusiness sectors, and part of the middle classes. Lula, in turn, was supported by most of the popular classes, traditional unions (today very weak in Brazil), and groups organized around an agenda that I would call struggles for liberation against oppression, especially involving issues of race, gender and the protection of the environment. This was translated into a geographic difference in terms of votes. If you look at the Brazilian map, Bolsonaro won in the South, most of the Southeast, the Center-West, and part of the North while Lula won in the Northeast, other parts of the North, and in some peripheral urban areas like São Paulo.

This division has been established over a year before the election. Thus, during the campaign, Bolsonaro tried to increase his support among the popular classes, increasing cash transfer programs and enlisting the help of evangelical pastors to promote a conservative agenda among the poor. Lula, in turn, bet on the alliance with traditional politicians and center-right intellectuals to try to win the support of the middle classes and parts of the economic elites that opposed his agenda.

Dr Leonardo Fontes

What were the aspects of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and policies – for which you have employed the term ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ – that cemented his social support? Is this something that represents a specific trend in Brazilian history and society?

Bolsonaro has historically displayed very conservative, aggressive, male heteronormative rhetoric. He always defended Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) and “traditional values” such as the heterosexual family. He also opposed during his carrier as a Congressman to women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights. In addition, he has always advocated tough action against crime, and he and his sons have decorated police officers denounced for crimes such as torture and murder. Finally, he and his family have a well document relation with paramilitary groups such as the Rio de Janeiro militias that act blackmailing the population of favelas and precarious urban areas offering “protection” against drug dealers and organized crime, and also informally exploring services such as cable TV and public transportation.

In his government, he added to that rhetoric a strong neoliberal policy conducted by his Ministry of Economy Paulo Guedes. They weren’t able to approve everything they wanted due to resistance from Congress and society and also because Covid forced them to provide forms of social aid and increase the expenditures of the government just like everywhere in the world.

Even though he managed to approve a social security reform, reduce the restrictions for Brazilians to buy guns, and weak agencies and mechanisms that were responsible to protect workers and the environment. In addition, he privatized the Brazilian main energy company and allowed states and cities to privatize sew and water services. This agenda coincides with the interests of some small and big entrepreneurs, especially those who were looking for opportunities to explore new businesses or areas in the Brazilian agrarian frontier close to the Amazon rainforest.

The support he has in the army and state police, are important elements that give this authoritarian face to his political project. In addition to the ideological aspect that unites these groups with Bolsonaro (who is a former army captain) through his nationalist and conservative rhetoric, there is an economic and political interest in the informal regulation of illegal markets, especially drugs, and the exploitation of land, wood, and mining in areas of environmental protection. Around these illegal markets, we clearly see the conflict of interests between those who want to protect nature or precarious workers and those who want to exploit these resources without State intervention. With the weakening of State agencies that should protect nature and work the only branch of the State acting in these markets are armed forces that “sell” protection for those who act in these markets through blackmail and bribes.

Thus Bolsonaro is authoritarian and neoliberal. However, the concept of authoritarian neoliberalism I am trying to put forward goes beyond his personal features and could be used to understand a broader movement in different countries.

I think, just like Karl Polanyi, in his book “The Great Transformation”, that the market must be embedded in social practices and political institutions and the neoliberal market is clearly not embedded in most of our societies. The neoliberal project aims to commodify money, nature, and labor, three elements that are crucial to human society. Polanyi calls these three elements “fictitious commodities” since they are not commodities in the traditional way of the concept, that is, something produced for sale on the market. Thus different forces of society tend to pressure the State for some kind of regulation and protection. This dispute can be solved in a democratic arena like the social democracy managed to do in Europe after World War II or this embedment of the market can be forced into society by an authoritarian government like nazi-fascist regimes in Europe or even military dictatorships attempted to do in Latin America in the past.

Therefore, the authoritarianism displayed by Bolsonaro could be instrumental to some of his supporters that advocate an extremely neoliberal agenda to force the embedment of the neoliberal market into Brazilian society and repress any forms of resistance that could emerge.

I believe that the crisis of democracy and the emergency of right-wing populism we are watching in different countries all over the world in the last decade are part of the same problem, a terminal crisis of neoliberalism. Since 2008, governments of different political orientations have only managed this crisis without presenting a proper solution and this has weakened our democratic institutions as the population has lost hope that there will be a solution coming from the same traditional political elites.

How did Lula manage to attract the majority of votes? On what ideological and programmatic appeals? On what political coalitions did he base his success?

Lula is the most popular politician and the major political leader in Brazilian recent history. He left his second term in 2010 with over 80% of popular support and managed to elect his successor (Dilma Rousseff), an unknown bureaucrat. He lost a great part of this support due to the economic and political crisis Rousseff had to deal with and especially because of the corruption scandals that affected Workers’ Party’s (PT) and Lula personally, in the scope of the so-called “Car Wash Operation”. Despite the fact that the accusations against him were never proven and the “Car Wash Operation” was discredited as biased by the Supreme Court he was arrested for almost two years. So his task was to recover part of the support he once had.

When the campaign started he already had about 43% to 44% of support. However, he was strongly rejected by a similar portion of the electorate. Thus his challenge was to reduce this rejection and conquer around 5% to 10% of the votes to achieve the majority necessary to win. He had an extra challenge because most of his voters come from popular classes who tend to be absent in a higher proportion so he needed to convince them to go vote. And, of course, he needed to keep the support of his previous voters.

To do that, as I said before, he was especially looking for centrist and more conservative voters from the middle classes and evangelical groups. His main appeal was his previous terms promising he would bring back “good old times”. In ideological terms, he presented a platform that pointed to the strength of social programs, the recovering the State’s capacity for investment, and the protection of the environment and indigenous groups. He also tried to oppose and denounce Bolsonaro’s negligence during Covid-19 pandemic, his misogynistic and racist position, his policy that made it easier to have access to guns and ammunition, and the increase in deforestation rates in the Amazon forest.

In the second round, his speech was strongly based on the defense of democracy. From that point, he managed to build a broad coalition that included former adversaries such as Geraldo Alckmin, his vice president (who had run against Lula in 2006) the former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who defeated Lula in 1994 and 1998) and Simone Tebet a centrist who had 5% in the first round this year, among other important leaders from the center and center-right. With that, he was able to expand his political base from the left to the center-right, leaving Bolsonaro isolated on the extreme right.

What αre the new correlations of power in the National Congress? How will this condition affect Lula’s new term?

Lula is going to face a much more conservative Congress than the one in the past when he was first elected in 2002. In a first analysis, it can be said that the left parties won between 20 and 25% of each of the legislative houses, while the right won about 50% of the seats. Therefore, to achieve the majority, in addition to negotiating with the centrist parties, Lula will also have to form a coalition with some right-wing parties or politicians who supported Bolsonaro’s government but are not his most radical supporters. Constitutional reforms, which demand 60% of the votes, will be even more difficult.

The question that now arises is: based on what kind of agreements will he be able to negotiate this support in Congress? Certainly, part of these center-right and right-wing parties would be willing to participate in the government in exchange for appointing ministers, and directors of public companies – as happened in PT governments in the past – or by controlling part of the public budget – as happened in the Bolsonaro’s government. However, these traditional forms of negotiation with parliamentarians were at the origin of several corruption scandals in the past, which Lula must want to avoid. On the other hand, if Lula opts for a government formed by a more ideologically cohesive minority in Congress he will limit his chances to promote more structural reforms, especially in the fiscal and tax areas.

How do you assess the future of democracy in Brazil? What kind of lessons can a European country learn from the recent Brazilian experience?

I have no doubt that democracy in Brazil would be seriously threatened if Bolsonaro were re-elected. Even now, a month after the elections, some of his supporters continue to occupy streets and roads in protest against the results asking for military intervention. Bolsonaro himself did not concede the defeat and his party filed a lawsuit in the Electoral Court contesting part of the electronic voting machines with a totally unreasonable argument.

Now, the future of Brazilian democracy will depend on Lula’s capacity to fulfill his promises and pacify the country. It was a very polarized election with episodes of aggression and fatalities due to politically motivated fights. In addition, Brazil is experiencing a serious social crisis with more than 30 million people going hungry and a high rate of unemployment and informality in the labor market. Finding lasting solutions to these problems is crucial for democracy to be stabilized in the country.

In terms of lessons for other countries, I believe that the economic and political crisis that the world is experiencing has clearly demonstrated the limits of neoliberal policies of fiscal austerity, precarization of work, and environment destruction.

Several countries like Hungary, Italy, the USA, and Poland have elected extremist governments in recent years. And in others like France, United Kingdom, and Germany, the extreme right has gained progressive support. The national context varies, but it is possible to notice that in most cases increasing portions of the electorate has turned to the defense of national or conservative values that tend to blame minorities such as black, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ among others for social and economic problems.

Similarly, representative democracy has been criticized and sometimes rejected in many of these countries. This could lead us down a dangerous path similar to what we saw in the first half of the last century when Nazi-fascist regimes rose in several European countries.

In this context, leftist groups and parties need to find ways to dialogue with those who feel excluded from the globalization process and offer protection to workers who became increasingly precarious in recent decades.

In the ideal scenario, there would need to be a new agreement between nations to recover the ability of States to face economic crises effectively and to protect workers and the environment from the destruction we are perpetrating, something like a Bretton-Woods Agreement 2.0. However, we know that this is far from possible. Until something like that happens, we will continue to manage the terminal crisis of neoliberalism that has been dragging on since 2008 and democracy will remain in danger.