Joanildo Burity is a lead researcher at the Social Research Institute at Fundação Joaquim Nabuco. He is near the east coast of Brazil. His work involves research projects and post-graduate teaching in the areas of Brazilian and Latin American politics and religion and politics.
During this week’s “Unauthorized Disclosure” episode, Burity provides his initial analysis of why the far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, won the election. He provides a brief rundown of what led up to the election, which includes mention of the police forces that were deployed to universities to investigate election materials that teacher unions were sharing.
He talks about the issue of how Brazil’s democracy is young and faces a particular threat to its institutions, as well as the threats posed to the Amazon rain forest and other natural lands that Bolsonaro is intent to sell off to mining or logging corporations.
Finally, Burity shares his views on whether or not Brazil could return to military dictatorship (whether the threat is real) and notes the role the American right, including Steve Bannon, played in Bolsonaro’s rise to power.
Listen to the interview by clicking on the above player or go here.
“It’s been a very tough time with lots of fights, heated debates, loads of fake news informing most of the debate. Bolsonaro did not accept any invitation to be part of debates with his opponent, Fernando Haddad,” Burity recounted.
According to Burity, a little more than a week before the election there were court orders which led to raids against public universities. Police forces were searching for electoral publicity materials that teacher union offices and teachers in classrooms were disseminating.
“Although some of these court orders were implemented by the police, nothing was found, which would be illegally making any kind of case for one or the other of the candidates,” Burity said.
“There were a number of statements about the need to both protect democracy and free expression and free organization and association of people, which some of these leaflets and statements were about.
“There’s nothing in the Brazilian law that would prevent these things from happening or that would qualify these kinds of statements as legal or improper. So, that creates the real sense that freedoms could be at stake if this kind of situation carries on.”
In the charged climate, there were scattered cases of people who were physically assaulted. A few people were even killed during the first and second round of the elections.
Burity suggested, “That is really worrying for many of us who would like to see a process of public debate not really growing and driving toward this kind of physical intimidation and even death.”
A key reason why Bolsonaro was able to win was because there is a “very real disconnect and feeling of uneasiness and even rejection by many Brazilians” of the “political system, the way in which politics has been played in the country over the last few years and indeed decades.”
The largest left-wing party in Brazil, the Workers’ Party, has disappointed many Brazilians. The allegations of corruption and indictments and cases against leaders of the party alienated voters. This includes the major case against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was barred from running in the election after he was convicted in a political prosecution.
“What Bolsonaro tried to do was try to take the most advantage he could from the situation and identify the Workers’ Party, all of its representatives, [as] responsible for this sense that politics have gone wrong in Brazil,” Burity said.
Right-wing politicians in Brazil harnessed emotional content and exploited fear about the future to “create a kind of language quite distinctive from those of politicians normally speaking formal Portuguese or lots of technical jargon.” It involved a “lot of vulgar expressions, aggressive addresses of others and so on.” It could resonate with a part of the population that remains unsettled by Brazil’s return to democracy a little more than 30 years ago.
As Burity discussed, Bolsonaro is a former Army captain who served in the military when Brazil was a dictatorship. He speaks favorably of his service and has an affinity for authoritarian regimes and the use of force to achieve political goals.
“I don’t think it’s only about his rhetoric. He has for instance rallied a number of high-ranking Army officials. Some of them are retired. Some of them are within the armed forces and will probably be drawn into governmental positions,” Burity said, when asked how Bolsonaro may transform Brazil’s government.
“His main advisors are Army generals, are high-rank officials, as I said, who agree with him on his attempt to re-describe the legacy of the military rule in Brazil between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s.”
“In his ideas for a radical change to the pension law, the military will be saved from the most important of those changes,” Burity added. “They will be exempted from paying the price that Brazilian workers both in the private and public sectors will be asked to pay for.”
Burity said Bolsonaro stood before an American flag at one point during his campaign to express his fondness for the rise of President Donald Trump and his brand of politics in the United States.
As Burity noted, right-wing strategist Steve Bannon was courted by the Bolsonaro campaign. It is evident the Brazilian political and religious right is forming ties with the Republican Party and the religious right in America.
Teachers, journalists, immigrants, labor organizers, and various activists were some of the earliest groups to be targeted by Bolsonaro and his supporters because they understand these groups will pose an obstacle to their agenda. This has led to fear because Brazilians recognize state institutions may be turned against them in dangerous manners to thwart their opposition.
“The last few years the anti-corruption rhetoric, the very concerted assault on the Workers Party-led government created a kind of new coalition,” which was based on a different way of dealing with the law, Burity argued. The judiciary engaged in “very free interpretations of the law” and applied the law in “very lax” ways that bred insecurity.
Brazil’s democracy is very young. Politicians throughout Brazil have spent a lot of energy “demonizing politics, as though almost everyone involved in institutional politics [are] corrupt or incompetent.” That has resulted in much lower support for institutions.
“Unless you have institutions which people can respect,” Burity concluded, “it’s very unlikely that they will be able to prevent or protect the democracy as it is against adventures, against attacks from people who are not clearly committed to democracy but are taking advantage of it to gain power.”