Brazilians face a momentous decision on Sunday, between ‘neo-fascist’ frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro and the Workers Party’s Fernando Haddad. How did Brazil get to this point? We discuss the situation with Alex Hochuli
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.
This Sunday, Brazilians will hold their perhaps most important runoff election of their lifetime when they choose a new president. The choice is between an unrepentant far-right militarist- some would even say neofascist- Jair Bolsonaro, and the center-left candidate of the Worker’s Party, Fernando Haddad. So far Bolsonaro has been leading in all opinion polls. Major issues in this campaign have been the right-wing violence against Bolsonaro opponents, a What’sApp social media disinformation campaign, and what should be done about Brazil’s rampant corruption and crime.
Joining me now to discuss all of this is Alex ochuli. Alex is a researcher and communications consultant based in Sao Paulo. He blogs at AlexHochuli.xyz, and produces the Aufhebunga podcast. Thanks for joining us today, Alex.
ALEX HOCHULI: Thanks for having me.
GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with the latest opinion polls. What do they say, and what has been the trend? And does Fernando Haddad of the Workers Party have a chance of catching up?
ALEX HOCHULI: Look, I mean, since the first round vote, and especially since the first polls came out immediately after that first round vote two weeks ago, we were pretty despondent. Bolsonaro has been polling a nearly 20-point lead.
Now this week, and in fact just yesterday, the most respected polling institute Datafolha has come out with a poll which shows a definite tightening. The lead has gone from 18 points to 2012 points. And if you look at all votes, so not excluding those votes which are which are blank votes, null votes, abstentions, and so on, the poll has- the lead, Bolsonaro’s lead has shrunk from 15 points to 10 points. The rejection levels for both candidates are now level again, both at around 40 percent, which is- which tells you something. Brazil is incredibly polarized. And the tightening of the polls has been seen in pretty much all demographics in terms of age, religion, class, and so on. So that’s some positive news. But it’s still a long way to go to catch up, and there’s actually very little time.
So you know, it’s- the picture looks still very favorable, unfortunately, to Jair Bolsonaro.
GREG WILPERT: One of the most worrisome developments in this campaign has been the violence that Bolsonaro supporters have directed against their opponents; something like over 100 attacks have already taken place, and at least four people have been killed. Also, Bolsonaro has made statements saying that leftists should be exiled from Brazil, and that members of the Landless Workers Movement, the MST, should be thrown into prison.
Meanwhile, U.S. media outlets continue to call Bolsonaro the ‘Trump of the tropics.’ However, it seems that Bolsonaro is even more extreme than Trump. What do you think about this comparison, and would you call him a neofascist?
ALEX HOCHULI: Okay. Well, I mean, firstly, there’s a joke going around in Brazil that Bolsonaro is the first candidate whose supporters are actually hoping that he doesn’t do what he says, rather than he does do what he says. He’s been remarkably consistent in his statements over, you know, basically decades. He’s portrayed as an outsider despite the fact that he’s just finished his seventh term in Congress, and has only two bills to his name. So the idea that he can be this anti-corruption figure who might sweep clean Brazilian politics is completely fanciful. What he might do is sweep clean Brazil’s democratic institutions, or what remains of them, and that’s really concerning.
As to the comparison with Trump, as I’ve written and spoken about a number of times, that comparison is just really incorrect, and does not give a proper picture of who Bolsonaro is, who his supporters are, and how dangerous he actually is. The difference is- I mean, what’s often cited, right, is look at his racist statements, look at his homophobia, look at his sexism. Maybe if you go a little bit further, you say look at his authoritarianism. Positive words that he has to say about torture, about the military dictatorship, about his desire to bring back a military dictatorship.
Those are all very frightening things. And we can already distinguish it from Trump, because Trump- you know, there are those aspects to Trump’s politics. But Trump also does a sort of politics which I guess we can call post-politics. He presents himself as being above it all, and he’ll drain the swamp, and he’s kind of not partisan in the way that the old politics is. Bolsonaro is unequivocally on one side of things, and he’s on the side of authoritarianism and against the left. And I think here is where we can really talk about Bolsonaro being a neofascist.
Now I’m someone who is very reluctant to use that term. I wouldn’t use that appellation for any other, of the candidates who you wish to mention in terms of world politics today. So I don’t think Trump is a neofascist. I don’t think Marie Le Pen in France is. I don’t think Erdogan in Turkey is. I don’t think Duterte is, for that matter. Bolsonaro, I think, is. And what distinguishes him- and here we want to relate back to kind of classical studies of fascism- is a desire to smash the working class and to smash all of its organizations; to destroy, to annihilate the left. So it’s not a matter of clamping- not a matter of simply clamping down on democracy, on democratic institutions. But it is also a matter of annihilating the opposition.
And that’s what is particularly frightening. And you know, I think it’s not particularly fanciful to imagine that one of the, you know, maybe in his first year in office Bolsonaro will seek to ban PT, the Worker’s Party, as a political party, probably on supposed corruption charges. Even though basically all parties who are in Congress are corrupt, and PT is by no means the most corrupt. And he’ll also seek to ban social movement organizations; the Landless Movement, the Homeless Workers Movement. And you know, if we want to talk about, kind of, the levels of violence, there are already very significant preexisting levels of violence in Brazil, especially in the countryside. Landless Workers Movement activists are often killed, often massacred, indeed, in the countryside. That will only see an escalation. Even in the best case scenario of a Bolsonaro presidency, all those forces who wish to carry out that sort of violence in the countryside, they’ll be further empowered.
GREG WILPERT: Very worrisome, indeed. People who observe this election from afar have a hard time understanding why someone like Bolsonaro is so popular. And one of the things that seems to have helped him is an extensive media disinformation campaign. As I mentioned in the introduction, it’s interesting to note that Bolsonaro’s supporters rely on WhatsApp for political information far more than supporters of other political tendencies. We’re blending in, also, a graph that shows this. He was even taken to court over a WhatsApp campaign, a disinformation campaign recently. Tell us what happened with that court case, and what he was accused of exactly.
ALEX HOCHULI: Well, first I’d just like to make a note that the vast majority of Bolsonaro’s supporters are not fascists. We can maybe get on to talking about what the composition of his voters and his base are. As to the WhatsApp disinformation campaign, this is massive. I mean, Brazil has been flooded with a lot of fake news. And you know, Brazil is one of the countries which most uses WhatsApp. It has 120 million users. Everybody, practically a national institution is the WhatsApp family group, right. It’s your group with your aunts and uncles and grandmothers, grandparents, and cousins, and so on. And a lot of stuff gets forwarded and circulated around, and there’s just a lot of fake news that gets spread around.
The Bolsonaro campaign, of course, has done this in a very targeted and deliberate manner. What emerged with- the scandal that emerged, and this was revealed by the Folha de Sao Paolo, our newspaper, last week, was a deliberate campaign by lots of leading businesspeople, who paid a $3 million, U.S. dollars, each per campaign to spread a huge amount of fake news around defaming the PT candidate Haddad. Spreading things around like there’s a ‘gay kit,’ you know, which had been spread around in schools turning the kids gay. So a lot just kind of social and moral conservative messages, trying to paint Haddad and the Worker’s Party as moral reprobates in some form or another.
And this has- I think that the scandal is not just the spreading of fake news itself, but the fact that this constitutes illegal campaign donations; what is in Brazil called ‘[caxo dois],’ or ‘Box 2,’ or you know, ‘Register 2,’ which is unregistered or illegal campaign donations by corporate entities. And this has been banned in the past couple of years. And this is something which has been a major plank of the often right-wing anti-corruption movement which has targeted PT, above all. And they often were citing the fact that they made use of [caxo dois]. In fact, all across the political spectrum this is used.
Interestingly, last year Sergio Moro, who was the investigating judge behind the massive anti-corruption operation Lavage Auto, had said that [caxo dois] is more corrupt, more dangerous, more pernicious than ordinary corruption where a politician pockets money. So it’s interesting to see that now Bolsonaro has fallen foul of that.
There was petitions put in by the Worker’s Party and other left parties to have his candidacy barred, to have- which would basically lead to Bolsonaro and his vice president being taken out and the third place candidate in the first round of elections coming in to fight the second round against Haddad. This hasn’t happened. The top electoral court considered the issue, and a basically didn’t really pronounce significantly on it. It’s under investigation by the federal police. But you know, if you’re asking me, it’s Friday. The election’s on Sunday. Nothing’s going to happen about this. And if you’re, you know, my personal opinion is that the courts are going to keep this in their back pockets until next year if his presidency starts to go downhill. They might use this as a way of impeaching him.
But I think the, I think the interesting thing is that the electoral court didn’t do anything about this, but perhaps a sort of cowardly in not really doing anything. What it has done is defended itself against fraud allegations, because the Bolsonaro campaign has, since the day one, been talking about the fact that there will be fraud in this election. There will be fraud in this election, we will not be allowed to assume the presidency. And he then even said from his hospital bed after being stabbed, I will not accept any election result which doesn’t result in me being president.
So he’s already wound up his base on this. And the electoral court has been careful now to defend itself saying no, we have some of the most sophisticated voting machines in Brazil. There is a traceable record. We are not going to accept this. So any fake news that’s being spread around about fraud has now been put a stop to.
GREG WILPERT: Very interesting. So turning to Bolsonaro’s base, what is his base of support, and how is the country’s political and economic elite receiving him?
ALEX HOCHULI: Let me just add one more point about the disinformation campaign, because the tightening of the polls can be seen down- can be down to one of three things One, the fact that this fake news news scandal happened last week and this saw a fall in his polling numbers; or the fact that fake news hasn’t been spread around to the same degree, and therefore Bolsonaro fell in the polls. Or it might be due to his speech, which you referred to last Sunday, at a rally in which he talked about, you know, imprisoning or sending into exile all leftists. So we don’t know what the case is, but it’s very possible that the fake news stuff does have an impact.
As to your question about who votes for Bolsonaro, I think we can break this down into three or four categories. His hard core is the sort of middle class of small business owners, plus members of the police and the armed forces. This would be, I guess, your classic fascist constituency, if you want to call it that. But you know, that’s a very small proportion. And certainly in terms of his voters, in terms of his voter base, that’s a small proportion. What you have, then, is the rich, amongst whom he has a very significant lead. He polls 60-65 percent amongst the rich. And these people are motivated by what is called [inaudible]machismo, which is anti-Worker’s Party sentiment, which is really a sort form of barely-disguised class loathing which targets the Worker’s Party, rails against corruption, but of course turns a blind eye to corruption amongst more traditional right-wing politicians.
These are the people who, at the end of the day, are quite influential, and have probably proved decisive for Bolsonaro. But that isn’t to say that he doesn’t have support amongst the poor, and this is the real issue. Bolsonaro would not win an election with just the support of the reactionary middle class and the rich. He needs the support amongst the broad masses, and he does have that to a significant degree, unfortunately.
What are they motivated by? They’re motivated by a sense that politics has failed them, that their situation is pretty hopeless. The security situation is very grave. And Bolsonaro seems to be someone who might do something different, might change things. It’s a bit of a rolling of the dice kind of situation. And you know, here the Worker’s Party does bear some blame. They’ve lost a large section of the working class. A large section of the poor feel like they were betrayed by the Worker’s Party, who didn’t stay true to its promises. The Worker’s Party implemented the austerity in its last government under Dilma, which led to a ballooning of unemployment. And you know, there’s a sense that- well, what have you done for us? A lot of people don’t want to return to the path. They want something better, and kind of roll the dice hoping that maybe Bolsonaro does something, even though all evidence points to the fact that he’ll be a government for the rich, and the very rich, and for the forces of repression.
GREG WILPERT: So finally, in the little time that we have remaining, what is happening to Brazil’s left? Is it supporting the Haddad campaign wholeheartedly?
ALEX HOCHULI: Yes, absolutely. It’s pretty much uniform amongst the left. Certainly in terms of, you know, in terms of individuals, in terms of groups, in terms of movements. Everyone, from even the kind of far-left Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party who hate PT have told its members that they should vote for Fernando Haddad who, it should be noted, is a figure to the right of that of PT, I guess, within the party. He’s a much more centrist figure. So that’s kind of notable.
What hasn’t happened is a broad front against fascism. That hasn’t really materialized, because the Brazilian center has failed to defend its democratic institutions against the very obvious threat that Bolsonaro represents. You know, just to highlight one thing, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who is Jair Bolsonar’s son and a congressman, has threatened the Supreme Court, saying that you could close down the Supreme Court. All you have to do is send one soldier and one corporal, and they’ll shut down the Supreme Court. I mean, this is a pretty brave threat against Brazilian institutions. And a lot of the center has failed to really manifest itself, really failed to take a stand. Marina Silva, who was at one point polling quite high about six months ago, who is a kind of an environmentalist and an evangelical and a centrist, and who is known for always in her speeches talking about doing things democratically, even she- it took her until this week to finally endorse Haddad, lending Haddad critical support.
The center right, which should be the, you know, the Brazilian establishment, the ones upholding the institutions, have broadly failed to endorse Haddad as the democratic candidate. Which is really, really striking. I mean, just to give you one example, probably the best known figure for your viewers outside of Brazil who might not know the ins and outs and all the players involved, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is a former academic sociologist who was exiled during the military dictatorship and was president of Brazil in the late ’90s. He has yet to endorse Haddad, despite the fact that Bolsonaro previously said something about 10 years ago that Fernando Henrique Cardoso should have been killed by the military dictatorship. This is a real, in my opinion, a real failure of character, a real cowardice from the Brazilian supposedly-centrist elite to defend democracy against the very obvious threat that Bolsonaro poses.
GREG WILPERT: Wow. Amazing. We’ll definitely keep our eyes peeled for what happens on Sunday. We’ll probably have you back soon. I’m speaking to Alex Hochuli, researcher and communication consultant based in Sao Paulo. Thanks again, Alex, for having joined us today.
ALEX HOCHULI: Thank you very much.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.