Running on the ticket of the little-known Social Liberal Party (PSL) in Brazil’s general election last October, the virtually unknown Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and marginal congressperson representing a Rio de Janeiro riding since the early 1990s, promised to be tough on crime and corruption. Cultivating an outsider persona, he won the second round with 55 percent of the popular vote, while Fernando Haddad, a progressive political scientist, former mayor of São Paulo, and Lula’s hand-picked successor as leader the Workers’ Party (PT), captured 45 percent. Haddad’s showing in the second round nonetheless exceeded expectations, given the fact that he entered the race so late in the day. The PT took a very long time to come to grips with the fact that Lula would remain in prison and could not ultimately sustain his candidacy. Partially as a result of this overdue embarkation, Haddad secured only 29 percent of the vote in the first round.
In an unexpected boon to Bolsonaro’s campaign, he was stabbed in early September at a campaign rally by a mentally disturbed man. The notably inarticulate candidate for the PSL was thereafter able to avoid all scheduled debates with opponents. Instead, he tweeted directly to his followers over an extended convalescence. Meanwhile, Haddad raced around the country, speaking at endless events, in an attempt to make up for lost time. Following Bolsonaro’s late surge in the polls and surprisingly robust finish in the first round, the representative bodies of domestic and international capital, as well as their mouthpieces in the mainstream media, abandoned their traditional parties and rallied behind him to thwart any chance of the PT resuming office.
Bolsonaro, as Perry Anderson notes, ‘took every state outside the north-eastern redoubt of the PT; every major city in the country; every social class with the exception of the very worst off, living on incomes of less than two minimum wages; every age group; and both sexes – only among the cohort between 18 and 24 did he fail to win a majority of women’s votes.’ And yet, while the enthusiastic right-wing core of his support base celebrated with frenzy in the streets at the results, ‘there had been no great rush to the polls. Voting is compulsory in Brazil, but close to a third of the electorate – 42 million voters – opted out, the highest proportion in twenty years. The number of spoiled ballots was 60 percent higher than in 2014. A few days earlier, an opinion poll asked voters their state of mind: 72 percent replied “despondent,” 74 percent “sad,” 81 percent “insecure”.’ Boundless disillusion in the PT was one important factor in the forlorn societal condition which ultimately sanctioned the rise of a grotesque to the presidency.
Part of a wider implosion of the political centre in many of the world’s ailing liberal democracies since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the Brazilian elections witnessed the utter routing of capital’s preferred candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, who ran for the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), the traditional representative of international capital and the party most associated with neoliberal restructuring. Likewise, the other long-established party of the centre-right, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), under the leadership of Henrique Meirelles, was annihilated. On the centre-left, the PT accelerated its decline, which began as early as 2014, although it retained its position as biggest party in the lower house of congress, and won four state governorships. The Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) didn’t even receive a sufficient number of votes to allow access to public resources and television air time, and the same was true of the campaign by environmentalist Marina Silva of the Sustainability Network (REDE).
Brazil’s open-list proportional representation system has long been characterized by hyper-fragmentation in the two houses of congress, and a form of rule commonly known as ‘coalition-presidentialism’, whereby the centralized power of the executive must be coordinated with a decentralized and fragmented legislature. The consequent methods of rule typically involve the president gifting cabinet positions and other benefits to an array of small parties in congress in order to ensure a governable coalition. The congressional results in the October 2018 contest, which ran parallel to the presidential ballot, heightened the traditional centrifugal scattering of micro-parties, and made visceral the collapse of the political centre. In the most splintered congress in Brazilian history, with over 30 parties finding representation, Bolsonaro’s PSL rose from 8 to 52 seats in the 513-seat chamber of deputies, while, as noted, the PT remained the biggest party in this domain, with 56, but was still down 13 from its previous position. As a whole, centre-right and right parties loosely aligned with Bolsonaro’s PSL dominate the lower house, and by one credible measure right-wing representatives in the lower house rose from 190 in 2010 to 301 in 2018. In another reflection of the pervasive sentiment of anti-politics in the country, voters rallied to perceived outsiders, with the traditional PSDB and PMDB’s congressional representation halved, and more than 53 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies seized by newcomers. Likewise, in the Senate, while 32 incumbents ran for re-election, only eight were successful.
How to assess the new Brazilian regime? Early as it is in Bolsonaro’s rule, some broad stroke preliminaries are possible. In what follows I trace the political paralysis of the first five months, the popular social base of Bolsonarismo, its relationship to capital, and the role of evangelical Pentecostalism. I offer a biographical profile of Bolsonaro himself, map the three pivotal factions constituting the new government, and assess the economic outlook of the country. To anticipate the basic conclusions: the Bolsonaro regime is a weak and internally divided far-right regime, with declining popular support; capital backed Bolsonaro as a way out of crisis, but thus far the regime has not delivered, and the markets are losing faith.