The term "fascism" has not been bantered about seriously in Brazil since the military dictatorship that held state power from 1964 to 1985.
However, with the 46% victory of former army captain and congressman Jair Bolsonaro in the first round of the country’s presidential elections last Sunday, his opponents are warning that Brazil is on the verge of seeing a far-right movement take over the government, and the implementation of a radically conservative political and social agenda.
Bolsonaro, who leads in the polls for the second round, which will be held on October 28, seems to represent yet another example of the reactionary populist-nationalist wave that has swept over Europe and the United States and might soon hit Latin America’s largest country.
Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, a university professor, former Minister of Education, and mayor of São Paulo, who trailed Bolsanaro with 29% of the valid votes cast in the first round, now faces the challenge of forging a center-left coalition to close a 4% gap.
In part, Bolsonaro has come to prominence because of his systematic attack of the corruption associated with the traditional parties, especially the leftwing Workers’ Party. Charismatic labor leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came to power in 2003 after three unsuccessful presidential bids, and carried out a broad program that addressed the long-term socio-economic exclusion of the lower classes in the midst of a booming economy.
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His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, faced an economic recession and social protests that weakened her government and led to her 2016 impeachment based on dubious charges of budgetary malfeasance.
At the same time, revelations that executives of Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, and other enterprises, had siphoned off millions of dollars in contract manipulations further weakened the Workers’ Party’s image among broad sectors of the middle classes, who, in the current elections, have mostly moved to the far-right.
On-going urban violence, in part linked to the drug trade, but also a result of the worsening economic situation, has also fueled support for Bolsonaro’s law and order discourse. His proposals to arm all citizens, offer impunity for police involved in shootings, and crudely racist language against people of color have alarmed human rights advocates.
The former captain’s defense of the military regime and his boisterous praise of torturers in the congressional vote to impeach Rousseff are merely part of a much broader program that questions the democratic gains achieved in the last t0 years since the end of the dictatorship.
Bolsonaro calls for the retraction of legislation that protects battered women. He criticizes affirmative action programs that have allowed tens of thousands of Afro-descendants and indigenous people to enter the country’s universities, diversifying higher education for the first time in the country’s history.
In televised comments he has condemned interracial marriages, defended the rape of women, and called for violence against LGBT people. His opposes teaching the concept of gender in public schools, and decries the influence of the ideas of the late world-renowned and anti-authoritarian Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.
Supported by evangelical Christians and conservative sectors of the Catholic Church, he has explicitly condemned minority religions, although Brazil’s constitutions have separated the church and state for the last 140 years.
As a near majority of the country turns to the right, a massive movement of women mobilized before the recent elections with the slogan "Ele não" or "Not him."
Among those who joined the campaign have been "Jews against Bolsonaro," which organized a petition which garnered 10,000 signatures of people from South America's second largest Jewish community against the congressman, and a coalition of Muslim and Jewish groups, which issued a statement condemning the far-right candidate’s statements of religious intolerance and hatred to social minorities.
During the election campaign, Hamilton Mourao, Bolsonaro’s running mate and a retired general, called for the return to military rule should the country’s political situation polarize. He has also defended the idea of a new, more conservative constitution written by a select few appointed personalities.
In the process of fueling fears and frustrations of the middle classes, Bolsonaro has also won over sectors of the working classes who are attracted by solutions presented as instinctual and simple to complex problems. Criticisms of the Workers’ Party 14-year rule, the imprisonment of former President Lula da Silva for alleged corruption, and a fake news campaign successful implemented by the far-right have garnered significant backing for Bolsonaro. Moreover, many entrepreneurs, pleased with his pro-market economic advisors, have thrown their support to Bolsonaro.
His proposal to move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem has won the praise of evangelical Christians and sectors of the Jewish community. However, at an invited lecture in 2017 at the Hebraica Club of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro spewed out a tirade of racist comments, and polarized the community. Brazil’s largest Jewish community social club in São Paulo declined to allow him to speak on their premises.
The issue for many is whether Bolsonaro will actually implement his political program, which he has consistently defended in Congress over the last two decades. With a large group of supporters in the lower house, second only to the Workers’ Party congressional representatives, and alliances with other sectors of the right, he will likely do so, should he be elected later this month.
Should the left respond with protests and mobilizations to counter his reactionary program, the polarization could easily justify repressive measures - or even a military intervention and the (re)establishment of a dictatorial regime.
James N. Green is Professor of Brazilian History and Culture at Brown University, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the author or co-editor of ten books on Brazil.