Brazil Faces a Momentous Choice

This coming Sunday Brazilians will choose a new president. The two front-runners, likely to make it to the run-off, are the far-right Jair Bolsonaro and the center-left Fernando Haddad. CEPR’s Mark Weisbrot analyzes how Brazil got to this point

Brazil Faces a Momentous Choice

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

This Sunday, October 7, Brazilians will head to the polls in a first round of voting for a new president in the first presidential elections since the ouster, or impeachment, of Dilma Rousseff. Also up for election are all 27 governors, Brazil’s Congress and all state legislatures. There are 13 presidential candidates running, but only two are anywhere close to making the runoff, according to the opinion polls. That is extreme right-wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, and the center-left candidate, Fernando Haddad.

Bolsonaro is leading with as much as 35 percent of the vote to Haddad’s 25 percent, according to these polls. If neither gets over 50 percent on Sunday, there will be a runoff vote three weeks later on October 28. Joining me now to analyze what is at stake in this election is Mark Weisbrot. Mark is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C. and author of the book, Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong about the Global Economy. Thanks for joining us again, Mark.

MARK WEISBROT: Thank you Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So Mark, what is at stake in this election? It seems pretty much like a very momentous choice that Brazilians will be making this Sunday.

MARK WEISBROT: Yes, it’s quite big. Well, this is the first round. But yeah, by the second round, which is October 22nd, it is a huge choice in so many dimensions because you have this extremist right-winger you mentioned, Jair Bolsonaro, who we’ve already discussed on this show. But he’s really openly racist, misogynist, says all these horrible things that even Trump wouldn’t say. He told his fellow member of Congress, a woman, that he wouldn’t rape her because she didn’t deserve it, she didn’t merit it. He’s cast doubt on whether they would accept the results of the election if it happened. He’s an admirer of the dictatorship.

So for all of these reasons and a number of economic reasons which we can go into as well, this is a huge threat. Now, the media portrays it as kind of a choice between extreme left and extreme right. And you do have the extreme right. The candidate from the Workers’ Party is by no means extreme left. He’s kind of a moderate social democrat in his policies, a former mayor of Sao Paolo. But the traditional elite of Brazil is so intolerant that they really see the PT in this way. They never accepted their legitimacy, even after they won four consecutive presidential elections. And so that’s really what’s at stake, whether they can have democracy at all and even gradual social or economic progress.

GREG WILPERT: So what would you say has happened? I mean, how did we get there, or how the Brazilians get there? It went from important social economic progress under the Workers’ Party, first under Lula da Silva and then under Dilma Rousseff. Now, however, there’s this incredible high level of polarization, as you say, and discontent against the political class and the population. What happened?

MARK WEISBROT: Well first of all, Lula left office with over 80 percent approval. And even by 2014, you still had record low unemployment of four-point nine percent. And you had all these achievements that they had. They reduced poverty by 55 percent, extreme poverty by 65 percent and wages rose for the first time in a long time, real wages rose by 35 percent. And then they reduced inequality. And then you had a very deep recession hit in the beginning of 2015. So for two consecutive years, they had the deepest recession on record, lost over eight percent of output. Unemployment peaked around 13 percent and it’s still around 12 for 2018 because there was a very weak recovery last year.

So the right took advantage of this to first impeach Dilma without even a crime, the Workers’ Party president in 2016, they impeached her without a crime. And then they threw Lula in jail with no material evidence for his charges, a very flimsy case. And they’re even keeping him from talking to the press during the elections. It shows how completely political his imprisonment is, because he shouldn’t even be there, and even just because he has appeals pending, if nothing else. And so, it was really a coup. And I think part of the reason they got away with it is that the so-called center right and the parties that don’t really represent anything went along with it.

So I think that was part of it. And also, you have this deep class hatred of a certain sector of the population. That is, the upper classes, who really, again, they really want to get rid of the Workers’ Party. And you see things like, for instance, this really important right-wing magazine, Veja, in 2013 ran a cover of this white guy in a tie doing dishes and saying, “This could be you” or “You tomorrow.” Literally. And that was in response to the labor law reform under the Workers’ Party, which just gave some rights to full-time domestic servants, of which there were many millions and still are in Brazil because of the terrible economic inequality that you have there.

And this is part of the threat. These people are really scared of that. That provoked a backlash. You see this class hatred. There was another episode of it that went viral. This professor posted a picture of someone who looked poor, a Brazilian at an airport, because the economy had improved enough so that there were some poor people who actually got to travel. And it said, it was posted on Facebook and said, “is this an airport or a bus station?” And that went viral until she had to take down because there was protest. So you have this. I think this is part of what you’re seeing, this backlash. And this isn’t really enough to win an election.

You have this core group, just like you have in the United States, the 20 to 30 percent of the electorate that actually really likes Trump. It’s not enough to win an election. But then you have the media, which for 12 years has done everything they could to discredit the Workers’ Party and really supported the impeachment and the political persecution of Lula, and that’s had an enormous impact. So all of these things have combined to make it possible for a right-wing candidate like this to be able to be in the lead and has a chance of winning in the in the second round, and probably an even chance at this point from the polls.

GREG WILPERT: So give us a brief analysis of what happened under Brazil’s economy under the current president, Michel Temer. I mean, you said crisis the already started, actually, before and in 2015. But what happened exactly and how is this affecting the race?

MARK WEISBROT: Well they made things worse, of course. And so as I said, you had this deep recession in 2015 and 16, Dilma was impeached in 2016. And they introduced the austerity that you would predict, took a million and a half people by 2017 out of the Bolsa Familia program, which was the flagship antipoverty program. And other programs in the countryside they cut that were support for people to get food and drinkable water. And then they passed this amendment which is – this would be considered extreme by most economists in the world, which is a freeze on real inflation adjusted spending for the next 20 years.

And this is a coalition of the right, center right. This isn’t even Bolsonaro. And so this is kind of important too, politically as well. I mean, they’ve got other things. If the right is to win, there’s pension cuts will be next and privatization of the state electric company and other things like that. And so again, this is something that was only possible because of this coup that the main center party, the Social Democratic Party of Brazil as it’s called, went along with.

GREG WILPERT: Now, there have been a wave of right-wing and far-right extremist governments and elections favoring such parties all across Europe and in the U.S. Actually just a few weeks ago, a neo-Nazi inspired party won almost 18 percent of the vote in Sweden, for example. Other countries that are facing right-wing surges are in Poland, Hungary, Austria, France and Italy. So how would you compare this with what is happening in Brazil, and actually of course, we should add the U.S. to the list?

MARK WEISBROT: Yes. And there’s been a lot of comparisons to Trump. Well, I think there are some similarities in the sense that the discontent there is a result of failure of neoliberal policies. And I have to include, the policies in the last couple years of the Workers’ Party were mistaken as well. They had high interest rates as late as throughout the Workers’ Party period. Dilma did lower them at a couple points, but she got enormous pressure. You have a powerful financial sector there. And so, I think they realized that they made mistakes in terms of macroeconomic policy. They could have fought that recession. They had over 350 billion dollars in international reserves at the central bank, so they weren’t facing any balance of payments constraint.

So those were mistakes. So in any case, but more generally, the general explanation for a lot of these right-wing movements that you see are just the populist right-wingers taking advantage of whatever situation. But I think the smarter analysts see that the right-wing movements, including Trump, were a result of the failure of neoliberal policies. And that’s true in Brazil in the longer sense, especially, even though you had this real significant progress under the Workers’ Party until 2015, you did have this long period of economic failure that preceded them as well. So it is partly a response to that. But I think there are really important differences. And one of them is this role of the center politicians and the media, which is part of normally and is part of the centrist neoliberal consensus.

They really played a powerful role in setting up, in actually carrying out this coup, which was a means of reversing four consecutive presidential elections. You don’t see that in the other countries. You don’t see that in France or Spain or Italy or Greece or Poland or Hungary. You did see the collapse of the center parties, the Socialist Party in France or Greece or the Social Democratic Party in Spain. You see all of them did collapse because of the failure of their neoliberal policies, but you don’t see this active participation that brought the right to power. And some of the Social Democratic leaders in Brazil, the PSDB leaders have recognized – they’re not really social democratic, but some of the center politicians have recognized that this was a mistake. But that’s a fundamental difference, I think, in Brazil.

GREG WILPERT: Well, we’re going to leave it there for now and look very carefully at what’s going to happen on Sunday. I was speaking to Mark Weisbrot, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C. Thanks again Mark, for having joined us today.

MARK WEISBROT: Thanks, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.