"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

A Killer for President

I am an army captain, my speciality is killing.
Jair Bolsonaro, June 2017

Tom Hennigan writes from São Paulo: Stabbing is a violent act that all right-thinking people will condemn. The stabbing of a candidate on the campaign trail in an established democracy is an attack on all citizens and their right to decide freely who should govern them. And in Brazil the stabbing of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro at a rally on September 6th was widely and roundly condemned.

This was despite the fact that the former army captain is an advocate of mass murder and torture. Who expresses a deeply-felt and proudly expressed contempt for women, homosexuals and people of colour. Who jokes about executing his political opponents. Who proposes packing the supreme court with his own nominees. Who has spoken in the past of shuttering congress. The condemnation was despite the fact Bolsonaro is a far graver threat to Brazil’s democracy than the disturbed individual who stabbed him.

Trying to understand the motives of the psychologically fragile is a fraught affair but specialists have noted how some such people are left increasingly vulnerable in a climate of political and social polarisation, where hatred of the other is openly propagated, when violence in word and deed is exalted; left vulnerable, in other words, by the sort of climate Bolsonaro has worked tirelessly to create and which his supporters feverishly spread online via a campaign of hate, conspiracy and disinformation on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Though she was criticised even within her own Workers Party for saying so, impeached president Dilma Rousseff surely had grounds for seeing Bolsonaro’s stabbing as a consequence of the hatred and violence he preaches.

The condemnation of Rousseff’s observation is further evidence of the difficulties democrats face when confronted by actors who would use the rules of their own game against them. Following his stabbing, Bolsonaro was to be treated as if part of the democratic process when he is so clearly a threat to it. Did he reap what he had sown? It was considered tantamount to condoning the attack to suggest so. But just days before he was stabbed, using a camera stand to mimic a machine gun, he told a rally in the jungle state of Acre that he would execute Workers Party members. Less than a week later a former member of a small left-wing party apparently suffering from paranoid delusions about Masonic plots tried to kill him, believing he was obeying an order from God. Surely reasonable people can simultaneously believe the attack on Bolsonaro was deplorable and at the same time suggest his own actions helped create the context which prompted his assailant to act. Every word has consequences, Sartre warned, and from Bolsonaro’s mouth has come a foul torrent of violent invective.

Of course the best way to face down a threat like Bolsonaro is by using one’s vote. Well-designed democracies have always sought to insulate themselves from the risks posed by demagogues and would-be dictators and while in many particulars Brazil’s thirty-year old democracy could not be described as well-designed its mechanism for electing presidents is sound.

If no candidate wins an outright majority in a first round then a second run-off round between the two contenders with the most votes must be held. Winning a simple plurality is not enough. To be president of Brazil you must win a majority. A situation where a candidate can lose the popular vote and still be declared the winner by an antique electoral college is not just unthinkable but laughable. Bolsonaro leads the race ahead of the October 7th first round but is currently polling somewhere in the mid-twenties. While that would be more than enough to propel him into a second round on October 28th it is far from sufficient to guarantee him ultimate victory. The run-off remains Brazil’s best defence against the current flirtation with demagoguery by around a quarter of the population.

But given the disarray Brazilian politics currently finds itself in whether this democratic rampart will hold remains to be seen.


Bolsonaro is not a new phenomenon. He has been a marginal figure in the national congress for twenty-eight years, preaching his anti-democratic message from the fringes of the political spectrum. But two important developments in recent years have aided his transformation into the far-right’s first ever genuine contender in a presidential election. One is the rapid spread of social media and WhatsApp in Brazil. He was an early and skilful adopter of these new channels of communication which have allowed him to both bypass the mainstream media while contesting his own coverage in it.

He did this just as the country was beginning to undergo a crisis of faith in its institutions, especially its traditional political parties. The start of this current phase in Brazil’s political life is often dated to the ruinous recession provoked by Rousseff’s reckless economic experimentation. But even before the downturn started there were clear signs of public exhaustion with the political system put in place in the 1980s. The spontaneous nationwide protests that erupted in 2013 channelled anger at the lavish spending for the World Cup and Olympics when public services such as schools, hospitals and transport remained in many cases substandard, when not appalling. Brazil has improved many of its social metrics since the return of democracy but in another example of the Tocqueville effect this improvement has increased expectations, then stoked frustrations at a self-serving political class’s inability to meet them fast enough.

This anger intensified with the simultaneous onset of the recession in 2014 and the start of the epic corruption investigations that at first rocked the Workers Party to its core, helping pave the way for the impeachment of Rousseff and eventually the jailing of her predecessor and mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva this April. Initially the probes were cheered on by the Workers Party’s traditional political rivals in a gross act of cynicism that looks all the more foolish now that prosecutors have rounded on them. The probes, set against the backdrop of the country’s longest recession and the social pain it has caused, have led a significant proportion of the population to turn against the parties that traditionally dispute the presidency and consider solutions from the authoritarian fringe. This drift to the fringe has been accelerated by Bolsonaro’s pledge of a law-and-order crackdown in a country where violence terrifies a population furious at the indifference of politicians to a crisis that saw 64,000 people murdered last year.

But it is still a just a minority. The latest survey by the respected pollster Datafolha has Bolsonaro on twenty-six per cent while a plethora of candidates who to varying degrees could be called representatives of the traditional political order have between them forty-nine per ent; a fifth of voters remain undecided or plan to spoil their ballot (voting is obligatory in Brazil).

The poll also shows Bolsonaro losing to three of the other four candidates with realistic ambitions of reaching the run-off. In simulations of potential second round match-ups Bolsonaro would be comfortably defeated by former Lula ministers environmentalist Marina Silva and left-populist Ciro Gomes as well as Geraldo Alckmin, the candidate of the Workers Party’s traditional rival in presidential elections, the social democrats. All three are in the scrap of their political lives to get into the second round, driven by the tantalising prospect that should they face Bolsonaro in it the path to victory should be relatively clear given the former captain’s high rejection ratings.

The closest match-up, a dead heat according to the survey, would be a dispute between Bolsonaro and the Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo, whom the Workers Party drafted in to replace Lula after he was barred from running by the country’s top electoral court because of his corruption conviction. Haddad is the opponent Bolsonaro himself would choose for the run-off because it provides the best chance of further polarising the race and drawing to his side voters uncomfortable with his proposals and distrusting of his temperament but who are virulently opposed to a return to power for the Workers Party, whether because of Rousseff’s recession, Lula’s corruption or simple ideological antipathy to the left.

The Workers Party has further antagonised this section of the population by its own rhetoric and actions in recent years. It still claims Brazil is in a state of exception because of the “coup” which removed Rousseff from office in 2016. It has refused to carry out any genuine process of self-criticism following the economic ruin brought on by her economic experimentation or the revelation that corruption flourished during the party’s thirteen years in office. Instead it has sought to transform Lula into a political prisoner, portraying him as the victim of vast conspiracy hatched to deny the people the right to re-elect their champion ‑ rather than someone who has fallen foul of a law he himself signed.

A Bolsonaro-Haddad face-off would be likely to deliver Brazil’s most bitterly disputed election since the restoration of democracy, and possibly ever. But it should be a no contest. For all the criticisms one can make of the party and its leadership, the Workers Party’s failings pale alongside Bolsonaro’s. Bluntly put, it does not present a threat to democracy or basic civic norms as he does. Despite feeling a deep sense of injustice the party accepted the reality of impeachment and is already allied again with some of those leaders who helped orchestrate it, true to Lula’s long established strategy of seeking political advantage through conciliation. It might have sought to stretch them but ultimately the Workers Party has respected the rules of Brazil’s democratic game. There is little if any confidence that Bolsonaro ‑ a professed admirer of murderous dictatorships ‑ would do the same. His running mate, a former general who before leaving the army last year publicly discussed the possibility of a military takeover, recently proposed appointing a “council of notables” to rewrite the constitution, a favoured tactic of Latin American strongmen bent on subverting democracy.

The influential Workers Party chieftain Jaques Wagner has said that if Haddad falls short of making the second round he will vote for whoever faces off against Bolsonaro and one has to believe this would under such circumstances become party policy, though one that for obvious tactical reasons will only be unveiled after the first round is over.

Wagner’s intervention prompts the question of whether Alckmin and his social democrats, which might loosely be described as the party of Brazil’s establishment, at least when it comes to presidential politics, would back Haddad against Bolsonaro should his own bid fall short. Alckmin has managed to stitch together by far the biggest coalition for the contest. With this comes capillarity in the state contests, a large war chest and crucially the biggest block of time on the daily TV political broadcasts that are historically seen as crucial to winning elections in Brazil.

But this year it might not be enough. The risk is that the huge amount of television time will expose Alckmin’s lack of any charisma, once again underlining why his nickname is the chuchu lollipop, chuchu being a notoriously tasteless Brazilian vegetable. He also has a decidedly mixed record in campaigns. True he won the governorship of São Paulo state, Brazil’s richest and most populous, three times in his own right. But his bid for the presidency in 2006 was a debacle. Having passed with Lula to a run-off he then suffered the ignominy of seeing his vote drop after Brazilians were able to get a better look at him once the field was whittled down from eight to just two. He also faces various accusations of wrongdoing arising from his time in charge of São Paulo: several of the companies whose testimony did for Lula having admitted they also paid bribes disguised as campaign contributions to Alckmin’s brother-in-law, who jobbed as his bag-man.

Already politicians formally members of Alckmin’s coalition have looked at his candidacy and seen in its lack of energy a risk to their own prospects in downticket races for congress, governorships and state assemblies. At the national level his coalition is formidable. But at the state level it is already fraying. The spectre of disloyalty already stalks his chances.

Perhaps the best insight into Alckmin’s weaknesses comes from his home state, traditionally the deepest well of votes for the social democrats. Here, among those who know him best, he is struggling in the polls and being forced to try and stem the drift among his own base to Bolsonaro. Part of the problem that Alckmin and the social democrats face is that having drifted right in the last decade chasing the anti-PT vote they now find themselves outflanked by someone whose hatred for the left they will never be able to match.

Alckmin’s troubles in São Paulo are being exacerbated by the fact that he is somewhat estranged from his party’s candidate for its governorship, João Doria. A wealthy businessman, Doria was brought into politics by Alckmin who forced his party, against the better instincts of much of its historic leadership, to accept him as its candidate for mayor of São Paulo in 2016. The tactic seemed to work as Doria routed Haddad but once elected he repaid Alckmin by almost immediately plotting to politically knife him in the back and take the party’s presidential nomination for himself.

Alckmin managed to see off this effort, but at some political cost. Doria was compensated for his disloyalty by being named the party’s candidate for the governorship of São Paulo. This involved him resigning the mayoralty just fifteen months into a four-year term, breaking a public commitment given over two dozen times that he would serve his full mandate. This cynicism has resulted in a drop in support for the social democrats in the state capital ‑ more populous than twenty-three of the federation’s twenty-six states ‑ where there is considerable anger at Doria’s political adventurism.

And to compound the problem Doria, sensing Bolsonaro’s charge into the social democratic heartland, is now forging impromptu alliances with local candidates in the interior of São Paulo who are willing to back Doria for governor but in the presidential race are throwing their weight behind Bolsonaro rather than Alckmin. If Alckmin fails in his presidential bid it is not difficult to imagine him metaphorically throwing darts at a Doria campaign poster. But he will have been bitten by a snake he himself hatched.

If Alckmin falls short and Haddad advances to the run-off the social democrats would be faced by a defining moment. In the defence of democracy would the party call for an anti-Bolsonaro vote even if this meant helping pave the way for the return to power of its great rival? Would its base heed such a call given that this is now less defined by the party’s original social democratic ideals and instead by a generalised conservative hostility to the Workers Party? It is a poor reflection on the social democrats, Brazilian politics generally and wider society that these are open questions. Such a failure to confront Bolsonaro would leave the social democrats and Brazil’s elites more vulnerable than ever to the left’s historic charge that they are reactionary, racist and, in defence of privileges, irresponsible. This potential dilemma also points up the sad decline of a movement that did much right when in power in the 1990s but is now addicted to making political missteps, the chances of its presidential candidate at risk of being flattened by a hard man surfing a wave of hostility towards the left it itself stimulated for political gain.

Of course such scenarios are mere political speculation and in the three weeks before the first round much can change and much still needs to be resolved. Can the Workers Party succeed in transferring Lula’s support to the less charismatic Haddad? Or can Ciro or Marina grab some of it for themselves and elbow ahead in the race for a berth in the second round? Can the plodding Alckmin make his huge advantage on the airways count? Perhaps most importantly can Bolsonaro maintain his momentum from his hospital bed, where he remains seriously ill in intensive care? The highly personalised nature of his candidacy has been exposed by his hospitalisation. Without his dark crowd-pulling charisma his movement looks like what it is ‑ a ragbag of former military men and political cranks with no experience of climbing at this altitude, short on money and now floundering in the absence of their leader.

It is for voters in the world’s fourth largest democracy to decide all this. Polls show there is a majority against authoritarianism. The question is whether it can be fully deployed or whether sectarian rivalries within the traditional political class leave a breach in the country’s democratic defences for another would-be strongman to march through.

15/09/2018