On Sunday, Brazilians face two radically different choices for the country’s political future. Mario Schenk spoke with Jorge Pereira Filho about the possible outcome of the presidential election, the risk of a coup, the role of right-wing militias and the military, and the challenges that a left-wing government would face if they won.
On 2 October, Brazilians will find out whether the country’s political climate is about to change with the election of the left-wing politician Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) or whether right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party, PL) will remain in office. Elections for office at municipal, state, and federal levels, as well as for the parliament, will take place at the same time.
Mario Schenk: Jair Bolsonaro’s term in office has been marked by the COVID-19 crisis and accompanied by images of the Amazon in flames, people starving, and mass rallies by his supporters. What are the biggest challenges facing an incoming government?
Jorge Pereira Filho: If we win the election against Bolsonaro and Lula becomes our new president — which I assume will be the case — it will be more difficult for Lula than it was during his first term in office (2003–2011). That’s because today’s Brazil has little in common with the Brazil of 2003 for three reasons.
First, Bolsonaro has destroyed the country, both ecologically and socially. The consequences of his neoliberal and authoritarian policies can be seen in the destruction of the Amazon, the constant threat to indigenous peoples and quilombolas (the descendants of escaped slaves), and the impoverishment of the general population.
He responded to the COVID pandemic and the economic crisis by dismantling workers’ rights and social welfare. As a result, some 33 million people suffer from hunger. Unemployment is widespread, with two-thirds of workers employed on an informal basis — mostly in part-time work or in false self-employment. They have virtually no rights, are not entitled to a pension, and have no accident or long-term nursing insurance.
The second challenge for a left-wing government emanates from armed right-wing groups. The third challenge is that a left-wing government would have to clamp down on the military’s influence over politics and society. Under Bolsonaro, both the right-wing militias and the military were able to expand their influence.
Never before has an election been so decisive. If Lula wins, he will have to invent new ways of governing Brazil. A new left-wing government would have to seek radical ways to fight for social equality and to rebuild institutions that work to enforce the rule of law. Lula will face more hostility than he did in 2003.
Recently the former trade unionist Lula named neo-liberal Geraldo Alckmin as his possible running mate. To what extent does this alliance with conservative forces obstruct the necessary “radicalism of the Left”?
Lula will encounter resistance within his governing coalition. The extent to which the alliance with conservative partners will serve its purpose will need to play itself out. A very broad alliance has formed around Lula in order to oppose the danger from the right and to defend what is left of the democratic, constitutional state. While ten parties belong to this alliance, the three leftist parties — the Workers’ Party (PT), the Communist Party (PCdoB), and the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) — form a minority. I consider the others to belong to the centre and centre-right of the political spectrum.
Such an alliance between the left and the centre was successful in the late 1980s during the transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy. As was also the case then, the Left today does not have the strength to overthrow its political opponent by itself. The extent to which this will compromise the work of a future government will also depend upon Lula’s political acumen.
Lula’s right-wing rival, Bolsonaro, has already shown that he can mobilize his supporters. Recently, well over 100,000 people attended his rallies. What explains his consistently high popularity?
Bolsonaro has succeeded in winning over reactionary to conservative voters, which make up a third of the electorate. While this demographic spectrum existed before Bolsonaro came to power, he was the one who awoke their passion for politics. He can mobilize these groups of voters en masse. He is very good at forging alliances with and between the reactionary actors in society, which include Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics. Bolsonaro’s support for their arch-conservative family model has been instrumental in forming his base, which now makes up 30 percent of the population. Among Evangelicals, he leads Lula by a wide margin in the polls.
He also relies on the support of capital. A significant number of entrepreneurs and agribusinesses transfer large donations to his cause, and provide or pay for loudspeaker trucks, flyers, buses, flights, or hotel accommodation. These actors actively take Bolsonaro’s side in the election campaign, and in return, he has dismantled workers’ rights. Bolsonaro also makes excessive use of government agencies for campaign purposes.
Nevertheless, Bolsonaro has a problem: while he can mobilize his supporters, he cannot increase them. The radicalization of his support base feeds his opposition, which is repelled by his anti-democratic program and his offensive rhetoric.
While opposition to Bolsonaro is growing, he won the last election in 2018 and received more votes than was forecast. How realistic is it that he will win this time as well?
It is very unlikely. The disapproval rating against him is 53 percent and more than half of the electorate would definitely not vote for him. His opponents include the poorer classes, the Black population, and women — those who have suffered the most through discrimination and lost rights during his time in power. He would need to reduce their opposition and win back their trust, but there is hardly enough time left to do so.
One complication is that, unlike in 2018, voters now know what to expect from him. Recent polls have also shown that many conservatives have turned away from Bolsonaro and are now voting for Lula.
Bolsonaro’s chance lies with the non-voters. His supporters are more willing to vote than the centrists; in the last election, a third of the population abstained. The polls could be deceptive, and a high number of non-voters could also help him win this time. However, I still think his victory is unlikely.
The PT and its partners emphasize the importance of a first-round victory for Lula. Why, when there is a second-round run-off? How does the electoral system explain this?
The presidential election is direct, with two possible rounds of voting. A candidate needs to win either 50 percent of the vote or receive more votes in the first round than all the other candidates combined, which is possible if many voters abstain.
This election is very polarized. According to the latest poll, Bolsonaro has 33 percent of the vote and Lula has 45 percent. By contrast, the remaining ten candidates each hold only one to six percent. This means that the election could be decided in Lula’s favour in the first round.
A challenger has never defeated an incumbent in the first round before, and should this happen, it would be a unique event in the country’s history. A Lula victory would send a clear message to conservative and reactionary circles in Brazil that the people want change. Furthermore, a victory in the first round of elections would provide our leftist program with a stronger mandate in future social confrontations as well as in the coalition.
Bolsonaro alleges that the electoral system is susceptible to fraud and threatens not to recognize an electoral defeat. At the same time, he is entertaining the thought of an armed uprising. How realistic is it that Bolsonaro will carry out these threats?
We must not fall into alarmism. Bolsonaro wants to win the election at the polls. To do so, he is resorting to devious practices, such as using his office and government agencies for his election campaign and spreading lies. At his insistence, the military will regulate the election results by conducting its own random surveys. However, he wants to retain power through democratic means. If he were to find a reason to undermine the election results, he would also need to be very politically persuasive and drum up enough support for his coup among the public, which I think is unrealistic at the moment.
Nevertheless, in the event of an electoral defeat Bolsonaro seems to be preparing a Plan B that involves critical support from armed groups. If he were to allege electoral fraud, right-wing militias and vigilante groups could attempt to destabilize public order through spontaneous acts of violence and decentralized rioting. This could lead to the impression of a power vacuum that would enable Bolsonaro, as acting president, to justify the intervention of the military. Together with the armed forces, he would continue to conduct official business for the time being.
While such a scenario is currently pure speculation, Bolsonaro is nonetheless fomenting an aggressive mood in the country and attempting to increase the violent tendencies of his most radical supporters. He incites violence in his speeches by promising to wipe out the Left or eliminate communism. The election campaign has already been marked by extreme political violence: Bolsonaro supporters recently shot dead two members of the Workers’ Party, and there have been attacks on left-wing demonstrations. 67.5 percent of Brazilians fear political violence in the wake of the elections.
The increase in violence was preceded by Bolsonaro’s relaxation of the rules governing gun ownership and his call for the population to arm itself. Every day, a new gun club is formed with supporters preparing for “Day X”. The number of imported firearms has quadrupled. It is estimated that 1 million citizens own weapons and there is no longer any effective government regulation.
Bolsonaro’s son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, has called on all gun owners to join his father. He says that anyone who owns a gun or belongs to a gun club should become a “Bolsonaro volunteer”. Bolsonaro uses this scenario as a time bomb, conjuring up a threat that he will then bring under control with the help of the military. But I see little support for such a break with the democratic system at present.
A clear victory for Lula in the first round of voting would help to curtail the rumours of electoral fraud stoked up by Bolsonaro and prevent him from contesting the elections. Moreover, if Bolsonaro were to raise doubts about the electoral system he would also need to challenge the election of many other politicians such as governors, senators, etc., and it would be difficult for him to get away with this.
The military has announced that it will conduct random surveys during the election and that it will challenge the results if there are any inconsistencies. Are they threatening a coup or is this an attempt to dispel doubts about the election?
The military currently has too much influence in helping to shape the country’s destiny. It wouldn’t take a coup to give them a foothold in power. The armed forces have managed to take a formative role in the country’s politics since the parliamentary coup against the then-President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and now do so again in these elections.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (STE) has bowed to pressure and allowed the armed forces to conduct an evaluation of the votes through random testing in order to compare them with the official election results. In this way, they might be able to help decide the election.
In addition, they pursue their own political agenda, preside over several ministries, and prepare strategy papers for foreign and domestic policy in think tanks. In other words, our democracy is not fully-fledged: we already live in a regime that is dependent on the interests of the military. Any future government will have to “educate” the military and relegate it to a more subordinate role.
In my opinion, a military coup in the conventional sense, as in 1964, is out of the question. The national and international balance of power would not tolerate it, and the broad movement of conservative to reactionary sections of the population that supported the military coup in 1964 no longer exists. Brazilians would be even less likely to approve a coup by Bolsonaro or defend the army’s involvement. The military is well aware of this. Even within the armed forces, there is only partial support for Bolsonaro’s criticism of the electronic voting system.
Originally published on the website of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.