Elections in Brazil: sharp polarization (nd-aktuell.de)

Left-wing politician and social activist Guilherme Boulos is running for a seat in the national parliament.

Left-wing politician and social activist Guilherme Boulos is running for a seat in the national parliament.

Left-wing politician and social activist Guilherme Boulos is running for a seat in the national parliament.

Photo: IMAGO/Fotoarena

Since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1988, when the country emerged from 21 years of bloody civil-military dictatorship, no incumbent president of the republic has gone unelected. That could change this time. Lula da Silva from the PT workers’ party even has a chance of removing Jair Bolsonaro from office with an absolute majority in the first round this Sunday.

March 11, 2020 was a special turning point for Brazilian politics. On this day, the World Health Organization officially announced that the world was confronted with the Covid pandemic. Bolsonaro responded with a statement claiming the coronavirus was “a media invention.” His irresponsible policies and countless statements of this caliber have been instrumental in shattering his campaign for a second term at the Palácio do Planalto presidential palace in Brasília today. In addition, the former captain, who spent 27 years in the back seat of the House of Representatives and then sold himself as an anti-politician, is involved in a series of corruption scandals with his family.

In Brazil’s presidential system, which shows similarities to a two-party system due to the first-past-the-post system, two antagonistic political projects are facing each other in this year’s elections. Not only are the President and Vice President elected, but the 27 state governors, a third of the Senate and the composition of the 513-seat Chamber of Deputies are also decided. Bolsonaro’s extreme right will continue to play an important role here, as will the “big center”, whose parliamentarians are generally less oriented towards ideologies than towards lobby interests and their own advantage.

The political scientist Camila Rocha from the University of São Paulo, who researches Bolsonarism and the Brazilian right, does not attribute the fact that ex-president Lula could succeed in returning to power to the turn of voters to left-wing ideas. Rocha sees two main reasons for such a voting decision – “first, the rejection of Bolsonaro because of his handling of the pandemic, second, as a reaction to the economic misery”. In terms of the number of Covid deaths worldwide, only the USA was ahead of Brazil, where 886,000 cases have been counted so far.

“Bolsonaro is a murderous president who has actively opposed vaccination during the pandemic and is directly responsible for the deaths of almost 700,000 Brazilians from Covid-19,” said Guilherme Boulos of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL). Boulos is one of the leaders of the large homeless movement MTST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto). Four years ago, Boulos himself was on the ballot for the presidential election with the representative of the indigenous people Sônia Guajajara as runner-up. The proposal received just 0.6 percent of the vote, and for the runoff, Boulos and Guajajara called for a vote for Labor Party candidate PT Fernando Haddad, who lost to Bolsonaro.

In 2020, Boulos applied for the mayoral office of the metropolis of São Paulo, which together with its industrial belt is the largest economic and financial center in Latin America. The PSOL politician advocated an “anti-racist city”, wanted to ensure affordable housing, a strong public service and inexpensive local transport. It was only in the runoff that he was defeated by Bruno Covas from the conservative PSDB.

This year he is running as his party’s candidate for a seat in the national parliament for the state of São Paulo. PSOL is part of the electoral alliance that rallied behind Lula’s presidential candidacy. Boulos warns against a return to dictatorship and wants to help “that Brazil smiles again and that Bolsonaro ends up on the garbage heap of history,” he said in a message shortly before the election. Political analysts expect Boulos to win the mandate as the MP with the most votes nationwide. That record is currently held by the president’s son Eduardo Bolsonaro, who in 2018 rode the wave that propelled his father to the presidency and received 1.84 million votes.

The MTST leader’s allegations follow the findings of a committee of inquiry set up by the National Congress on April 27, 2021, which investigated government mismanagement during the pandemic and issued it a devastating testimony. Parliamentarians noted that the Bolsonaro government had refused to buy Covid-19 vaccines 11 times. Health experts estimated that many of the deaths could have been prevented.

“We have lost mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. We lost a lot of people who were the pillars of their families,” laments Cleide Alves. She is the president of UNAS, an association of grassroots groups of residents of Heliópolis, in the Sacomã neighborhood of São Paulo. After Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, it is considered the second largest favela in all of Latin America.

Around 220,000 people live here in the south of the city of São Paulo. In the meantime, the favela has developed into an urban area with schools, leisure facilities and public hospitals. It was settled in the late 1970s mainly by internal migrants from the economically underdeveloped north-east of Brazil. The population of Heliópolis is still disproportionately affected by poverty.

The wounds inflicted on Brazil over the past four years are particularly evident here. In the face of the pandemic and the impact of Bolsonaro’s disastrous economic policies, the Cleide Alves association distributed more than 60,000 packages of basic necessities to residents in need. Many here have lost jobs and income during this time.

Even on a large scale, the picture is bleak. More than 10 million people in Brazil are officially unemployed today, and the number of starving is estimated at around 33 million. And for more than half of the Brazilian population, around 125 million people, there is no guarantee that they can feed themselves adequately every day.

It is this demographic, whose income is equivalent to one to five federal minimum wages (the current minimum wage is equivalent to $250), and those on welfare that will provide a large share of the vote for former President Lula. Lula, during whose term of office between 2003 and 2010 around 36 million people were lifted out of extreme poverty, finally proclaimed that “everyone gets a piece of meat on their plate again – and a beer at the weekend with it”. In his election manifesto he promises the resumption of social programs and the fight against inflation. Taxing large fortunes and regulating the media oligopoly are also up for debate.

The greatest challenge will be governing with what is likely to remain a conservative-dominated National Congress, which will seek to obstruct the progressive agenda at every turn. Political scientist Camila Rocha estimates that the composition of the parliament will not see any major changes, especially compared to the 2018 chair change, when Congress experienced its biggest upheaval in three decades. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) “has a good chance that most of its ultra-conservative or far-right congressmen will be re-elected,” estimates Rocha.

PSOL politician Guilherme Boulos is also alarmed. It is necessary “to have the largest left-wing parliamentary bloc in our history so that Lula can govern effectively and bring Brazil back to order after four years of Bolsonarist destruction.” That is not an easy task. “Only if we get at least a third of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies will we be strong enough to block attempts at impeachment and push through progressive government projects in Congress.”

Boulus doesn’t set the bar that high by accident: in 2016, Congress, which was dominated by a conservative two-thirds majority, impeached Lula’s successor and fellow party member Dilma Rousseff, two years after her re-election as president, with politically motivated charges. The budget irregularities alleged at the time have now been officially refuted.

Lula also knows the depths of Brazilian politics and the maneuvers of the right very well. In April 2018, he ended up in the Curitiba police jail for alleged corruption, was barred from running as a candidate and was only released after a Supreme Court decision 580 days later. Sergio Moro, the judge who rigged the process and meanwhile served as justice minister under Bolsonaro, is now running for the Senate in the state of Paraná. An election victory for Lula would be an essential, but only the first step in Brazil’s urgent and difficult new beginning.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here