Brazil at Political Crossroads Ahead of Election Day

In a situation when Brazil faces with a choice between two hardline radicals from the right and the left, the pendulum of national development may very well swing in the opposite direction. Will the election end the famous Left Turn in Brazil and Latin America in general? How will an eventual victory of the right affect Brazil’s foreign policy, and what will be the country’s position when it comes to BRICS and cooperation with Russia? It is for all these reasons that the outcome of the October 7 election will be closely followed not only within the country, but also across the world.

On October 7, 2018, Brazil will hold a presidential election. While always important, in this particular moment the vote can be decisive for the country’s future. Brazil is currently split into two parts. On one side, there are the supporters of the hard left Labor Party whose leaders Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff ran the country for almost 15 years, and are now prosecuted for corruption. On the other side is their far-right opponent from the Social Liberal Party. Candidates nominated by these two parties are leading in the polls. The social liberals have placed their bets on Jair Bolsonaro who openly sympathized with far-right regimes from Brazil’s not-so-distant past. He is expected to carry the first round of the election, while losing to the Labor Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, by just a few percentage points in the runoff. Candidates from the moderate parties have so far been lagging far behind the two radicals in the polls.

It is obvious that in a situation when the country is faced with a choice between two hardline radicals from the right and the left, the pendulum of national development may very well swing in the opposite direction. In any case, the country will pay quite a heavy price for the choice it makes. Will the election end the famous Left Turn in Brazil and Latin America in general? How will an eventual victory of the right affect Brazil’s foreign policy, and what will be the country’s position when it comes to BRICS and cooperation with Russia? It is for all these reasons that the outcome of the October 7 election will be closely followed not only within the country, but also across the world.

Brazil experienced a number of turning points of this kind in the 20th and 21st century. The Getulio Vargas’ far-right dictatorship lasted from 1930 until 1954, with interruptions. His policy consisted of building a corporatist, if not a quasi-fascist, “new state” or Estado Novo. It is during this period that many major Brazilian companies, including Petrobras and Vale, were established. Despite all of its populist bluster, Vargas’ social policy included initiatives for fighting poverty. It is not a coincidence that the dictator went down in history as The Father of the Poor. This explains, to some extent, the nostalgic sympathy that Vargas enjoys up to this very day in Brazil, an extremely polarized country. In 1986, a federal law was adopted to posthumously award him the title of the Defender of Brazil’s Poor, and in 2010 under the left-wing Lula government, his name was not only entered into the Book of National Heroes but it was carved in the stone of the Pantheon of the Fatherland, one of the country’s most important monuments.

This Vargas nostalgia explains, on the one hand, why far-right ideas are not taboo in Brazil, unlike other countries that went through a similar experience and were inoculated from fascism. On the other hand, this shows the relevance and possibility of a right-left synthesis in Brazil, when a politician who enjoys electoral success must represent values referring to opposing sides of the political spectrum.
 A recent report produced by the Valdai Club, The Global Leftist Revolt: Expectations and Realities, explores the global demand for the right-left synthesis in today’s politics.

The Vargas Era was followed by a decade of democratic rule, primarily marked by President Juscelino Kubitschek (1956−1961). Seeking to promote balanced regional development, he transferred the capital for the coastal city of Rio de Janeiro to a more centrally located Brasília that was specifically built to serve as the country’s capital. Kubitschek was a proactive champion of modernization and opened up the country to foreign investment, which earned him the nickname of the “father of modern Brazil.”

However, the days of military dictatorship were not over for Brazil. Between 1964 and 1985, the country saw massive human rights violations plus was dominated by a one-party rule and censorship amid a crackdown against political opponents. At the same time, the economy performed quite well, replicating to some extent the Pinochet regime in Chile. The military rule is referred to as the Brazilian Economic Miracle with double-digit growth. It was during this period that a propaganda slogan that remains relevant up to this very day was born: Brazil! Love it or Leave it!

In 1985, democracy was restored in the country, and the 1990s were marked by neo-liberal reforms by presidents Fernando Collor and Fernando Cardoso. A large-scale privatization campaign was launched, while social programs were curtailed amid rising inflation and pervasive corruption. Of course, this led to political protests, which started to break out with increased frequency. A new protest force emerged against this backdrop. It was the Labor Party led by Lula da Silva. He ran in every presidential election held after the restoration of democratic rule, gathering more and more votes with every attempt. In 1989, he won 17 percent of the vote in the first round and 47 percent in the second, followed by 27 percent in 1994 and 31 percent in 1998. The Labor Party was also improving its standing with every vote, although its advances were not as visible. Finally, Lula won the election in 2002 with 46 percent in the first round and 61 percent in the runoff. This marked the beginning of a new era in Brazil’s history.

Lula focused on social policy seeking to bridge the gaps dividing the country. He initiated the Fome Zero (zero hunger) campaign to provide food to the most vulnerable social groups. Another campaign he championed, called Bolsa Familia (Family Scholarship), was designed to help the poorest families send their children to school and get them vaccinated.

However, Lula’s legacy goes far beyond his domestic policy. From the outset of his presidency, he intentionally and proactively positioned himself as a leader in promoting an alternative to the neoliberal mainstream of the West. This quickly earned Lula the reputation of the forbearer of the anti-globalization movement. His success was presented as evidence that change was possible, and that the anti-globalist ideas were not simply a utopia or street slogans, but could actually be achieved. It is for this reason that Lula’s Brazil was viewed as a center of the victorious anti-globalism. In 2001, even before his election to the presidency, Lula launched the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, positioning it as an anti-Davos forum, also known as the World Economic Forum. These efforts helped draw a clear line between the neoliberal club of the powerful who come together in Davos and those who do not agree with their course, with a center in Brazil. Anti-globalist manifestos drew a clear dividing line between the forces of good and evil. As a result, Lula’s victory led to global euphoria of sorts among protest-leaning civilians across the world.

Lula’s alliance with the anti-globalists led to the emergence of a new global ideological concept of the Three Silver Billion. It was pitted against the infamous notion of a Golden Billion of the developed Western countries, representing the most advanced developing countries.
Since the Three Silver Billions account for almost half of the planet’s population, their representatives were better placed to be represented globally and to speak for the whole world compared to the Golden Billion. This silver billion concept later was used as a foundation for a new political framework, BRICS, with a clear mission to offer an alternative to the Western models. From an ideological standpoint, it was Lula who stands out the most among the founding fathers of BRICS.

However, the Labor Party failed to maintain this momentum and its results were often wide off the mark: persisting corruption, population disgruntled by costly sports infrastructure construction for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, plus harsh political infighting between Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, on the one hand, and their liberal and right-wing opponents, on the other hand, both domestically and internationally. As a result of this standoff Dilma was impeached in 2016, while Lula faced criminal charges. However, their core base of supporters remained intact.

Why Is the Right Winning in Latin America?
Despite growing national autonomy, Latin American governments still are heavily influenced by the U.S. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have shown little desire to encourage left governments. Indeed, Obama, like Kennedy half a century earlier, even gave tacit support to coups that drove leftists out of office.
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© 2018 Eduardo Verdugo/AP
With all this in mind, the October 7 general election in Brazil, which includes presidential, parliamentary and regional elections, is far from being just another vote. The largest Latin American country and a key participants in the BRICS is about to choose from three development vectors: a left-wing counter-system (from a Western perspective) alternative, a right-wing counter-system or a neoliberal one. It remains to be seen which path Brazil chooses to take.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.