By Sonia Corrêa
These notes on the end of the Bolsonaro government are brief and very preliminary. As I was writing I was just adjusting to the atmosphere that started to be installed in Brazil on Sunday. To be more precise, last night when it became clear that, despite a cowardly and deplorable statement and last-minute coup attempts, we began a new political cycle. I will start sharing my sentiments and not objective information. My feeling today November 2nd 2022 is very different from the one that seized me, in 2018, when, in the wake of the astonishing electoral process that elected Bolsonaro to the presidency, I was overtaken by a productive anger. It made me immediately sit down and write an essay that, inspired an article by Celso Rocha Barros published that same day, I have titled “Brazilian Elections: Perfect Catastrophe?“. Today my feeling is not of a reflexive compulsion, but rather of settling into a new state of things where it will no longer be necessary to wake up every morning prepared for a new crisis, a new catastrophe, a new absurdity.
This is how we have lived through the last four years. Immersed in personal and political conditions modulated by the rhythm of neo- Fascism: a constant and almost physical sensation that at any moment the worst can happen. A permanent state of political war as analyzed by the philosopher Marcos Nobre, in 2019, when the outgoing government had barely begun. Two days ago, therefore, I was beginning to get used again to the normality of not having to prepared for the worst. But, quite evidently, it would not be so simple. Almost 48 hours after the election result was confirmed by the Electoral Justice System, we were once again paralyzed, in front of the screens, waiting for another absurdity to happen. The pitiable figure who had just been defeated electorally made the country hostage for more than an hour waiting for a deplorable statement that did not acknowledged his defeat and, in a twisted way, legitimated the acts of his supporters – who, since the night before, were blocking more than 300 roads across the country. His speech was an act of outrage, but also of cowardice. Fortunately, since then the contours of the repudiation of autocracy became clearer, showing that this reject goes beyond the electorate that voted for Lula and the barriers imposed by the judiciary against Bolsonaro threats to the democratic regime. The persistent state of anguish and uncertainty installed in 2018 is coming to an end, even if Bolsonaro supporters continue to block roads and hold demonstrations across the country, calling for a military intervention.
Against this backdrop, I will share some striking elements of the election results that have brought us to this point. The first of them is that, as José Roberto de Toledo rightly pointed out two days ago, the 2022 numbers are not very different from what was seen in 2018. Bolsonaro had more or less the same 59 million votes and the distribution pattern of his electorate is more or less the same. Once again, the Northeast (70% of voters) and part of the Northern region (a bit less) voted massively for Lula (as they had done for Haddad four years ago). In the South and Southeast, the most industrialized and wealthiest regions of the country, as well as in the Center-West, where the agribusiness economy predominates, Bolsonaro won (with a bigger margin in some places like, for example, in Rio de Janeiro). Lula’s votes came mainly from women, black people, young people, indigenous people, LGBTTI+ people, most Catholics, and especially the poorest, that is, people who live on less than two minimum wages per month (around $500). And, all indicate that it was the higher number of votes of the poorest population in the Southeast that determined the final result, with a margin of advantage of 2.1 million votes for Lula. On the other hand, those who earn more than two minimum wages and, above all, the very rich, white people, men, and over 70% of evangelicals, voted predominantly for Bolsonaro. That said, the 2022 election also made flagrant the growing, adherence of women, blacks, and LGBTTI people to the politics of the ultra-right (even when they remain a minority within each of these groups).
This cartography significantly tells that the intersection between the aspirations of the poorest sectors and the demands of a politics of identity (often disqualified as identitarian) was what ensured the defeat of neo-Fascism, opening space for the reconstruction of Brazilian democracy (see Flávia Oliveira). From now on, an enormous challenge for those engaged in the struggles around gender, sexuality, and human rights in Brazil will be precisely to reflect on the implications of this intersection and to design ways for it to be increasingly organic and not simply electoral. An agenda that will mean better articulating the overcoming of precariousness and the politics of recognition and vice-versa.
If this is the bright side of the scene that emerges from the electoral dispute, there are also shadows.
The proximity between the 2018 and 2022 voting numbers is very troubling. If they are read crudely, without reference to the context, we may think that nothing bad has happened in the country over the past four years as it has indeed happened. The permanent political war, the continuous democratic erosion, the disastrous management of the economy, and the endless dismantling of public policies in the environmental area, in education, culture, human rights, foreign policy, and also health. It is worth mentioning that the national health policy has not been entirely destroyed because the Unified Health System is anchored in constitutional definitions and, since the 1990s, has seen its operating structure consolidated. Otherwise, the response to COVID-19 would have been even more catastrophic than it has been a result of the neo-Darwinian policy promoted by the federal government, which deliberately promoted a supposed herd immunity, leaving in its wake nearly 700,000 deaths, at least a quarter of which could have been prevented.
The 2022 results, sadly, report that there is no correlation between this tragedy and electoral behavior. Cities where the mortality from COVID-19 was colossal, such as Manaus – where the worst epidemic crisis in Brazil was experienced – or Boa Vista – where more than 50% of pregnant women infected by the viruses died – voted massively for Bolsonaro. This disturbing reality presents us with a second challenge: to investigate and reflect on what underlies these choices. Why hasn’t the loss of life and the mourning of the pandemic that paralyzed us for two years been converted into repulsion for the ruler who conducted this genocidal policy?
On the other hand, we know that a good part of the votes obtained by Jair Bolsonaro in the first and second rounds of the 2022 elections can be explained by the efficiency of the clientelist and cronyism machinery set up by his allies in the so-called Centrão, with the aim of ensuring his reelection. A machine irrigated by a spurious constitutional amendment, which offered benefits of various kinds to the population at the “right time”: a population whose income and savings had been depleted by the pandemic. At the same time that the “secret budget” created by the current president of the Chamber was filling the pockets of mayors and councilmen. In other words, the clientelism and the structural political cronyism, which had not been debelled in four decades of democracy, since last year, began to serve the designs of de-democratization. This unfortunate reality makes Lula’s victory even more admirable and powerful. But the scale and electoral effects of this machinery also put on the table the urgency of debating and resolving this perennial distortion of the democratic system and of Brazilian political culture.
Moreover, once again, as was predictable, the ultra-right has deployed phantasmagoria in the social networks and submerged worlds of Whatsapp and Telegram to demonize Lula and Petismo. In 2022, this strategy was less centered on the scarecrow of “gender ideology” than on its reverse, that is, the threat of communism. And, in the runoff, when the “communist threat” did not have the expected effect beyond certain borders, the Bolsonaro campaign openly associated Lula with criminality, a more concrete and palpable threat in the voters’ daily lives. The ultra-right also made ample use of the sheer lie that Lula would close churches if he became president. Not that “gender ideology” was completely absent, it appeared in denunciations that the PT was going to install unisex bathrooms in every school in the country, and new reiterations about promoting “gender ideology in education.” But it was no longer the anti-gender cyclone that took over the 2018 electoral space, but rather new threads unfolding from it.
On the other hand, a major target, and a flagrant loss, of the harsh and conflicted 2022 election process was abortion rights. This “difficult” came up in the pre-election process, in April, when Lula said in a debate that abortion is a public health problem. The reaction in the media and social networks was not negative but, since then, the ghost of “Lula as an abortionist” began to flood the submerged networks of the election war. In response, when the campaign began, Lula declared countless times that he was against abortion, including in the letter of intentions addressed to Evangelicals and in the last electoral debate on TV, on Friday, October 28. Besides these peremptory statements, in the second round, the PT campaign accused Bolsonaro of having declared himself in favor of abortion in the past, generating an avalanche of positions at the left of the political spectrum that dragged more water to the mill of demonization of what, in truth, is nothing but a serious public health problem.
No doubt, in such a heated electoral context, Lula’s campaign needed to position itself in order to deflate the abortion phantasmagoria. But it could have done this in such a way that did not amplify, symbolically and ideologically, obstacles that will make it more difficult to resume this agenda from now on. It is worth reminding that, even so, illegal and unsafe abortions did not cease to be one obstacle in the lives of women, and especially girls, or a non-negotiable item of the democratic environment that we will start rebuilding.
Lastly, in the new cycle that now begins, it is also salutary to make a sober and firm assessment of what we were capable of, but also of where we failed in our efforts to resist the consolidation of neo-Fascism in Brazil. As Janio Freitas wrote in Folha a few days ago, what happened in the country in the last four years was humiliating and undignified. But it took too long for institutions and society to respond to the threats that have grown steadily since 2019. I think, for example, of the hundreds of impeachment requests stalled in Congress because its leadership operated out of a logic that reduces politics to calculation and minimizes the meaning of politics as resistance. Then, as of 2021, any contestation of the presidential malfeasance was buried by the collusion between the Planalto and the Centrão.
Nor were we timely and effectively capable of establishing a broad pro-democracy and anti-Fascist coalition. The broad and plural alliance that was formed in the last stage of the electoral cycle was crucial for Lula’s victory. This arc, however, could have been woven earlier. Had this happened we would have arrived in the harsh trenches of October 2022 with more energy and robustness to confront and contain the avalanche produced by the government’s electioneering machine and the new waves of phantasmagoria, falsehoods, and political violence. That said, the plural political fabric that emerges with Lula’s victory is, in my view, an asset that can help us rebuild the ruins left by the Bolsonaro misgovernment. It is also an opportunity for learning. As the ex-minister now Congresswoman Marina Silva wrote in a beautiful article for O Globo, the bricolage of this recent alliance should not be read as weakness or possibility of failure, but as:
“Something that will lead us, from now on, to non-destructive divergences and to political and programmatic convergences that generate progressive consensus and shared projects, the only way to ensure the maintenance and expansion of our democracy in a diverse political ecosystem, vaccinated against exclusive and exclusionary political power”.
This novel politics of intersectionality and alliance will be, among other things, crucial to contain and eventually mitigate the effects of the ultra-right forces that will not fade away with the defeat of their leader. In fact, they may become more aggressive and virulent.
 The Centrão is a bulky sector of the political and electoral system that operates on the basis of bargaining for resources and posts than by principles or ideologies. It originated mostly in Arena, the pro-military regime artificial party set up during the dictatorship. Since the 1980´s it has positioned itself as a key piece in the checkboard of governability.
Image: a fragment from the artwork Leading Races of Man de Malala Andrialavizana, Fundação Gulbenkian, Lisbon.
To better understand the election outcome and Brazil’s post-Bolsonaro paths, we offer our readers some analyses published in different online news-press.
Lula and the US haven’t always gotten along. It’s time for Biden to change that – The Guardian
What Lula’s victory means for the world – Washington Post
We Might Finally Be Free From the Madness of Bolsonaro – NY Times
Bolsonaro has conceded. What next for Lula and Brazil? – openDemocracy
Lula Is President! Democracy—and the Planet—Has Won! – The Nation
Biden’s Recognition of Lula’s Win Is a Rebuke to Trumpism – The Nation
What does Brazil’s election mean for the United States? – New York Times
What Lula’s Victory in Brazil Means for Climate – New York Times