Illinois history professor Jerry Davila specializes in the study of 20th-century Brazil. He also directs the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies at the U. of I.
Brazil took a dramatic turn Sunday with the election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro as its new president. This has many of his opponents concerned about the future of Brazil’s democracy, just three decades old. Historian Jerry Davila specializes in the history of Brazil in the 20th century and also directs the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies at the University of Illinois. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Many election campaigns are labeled “dramatic,” but this one seemed to fit the bill. How did it play out and produce this result?
Bolsonaro is an unlikely president. He had been an uninfluential member of Congress who sustained his notoriety making inflammatory comments about women, as well as racial, ethnic and gender minorities. These often-violent comments spread like brushfires through social media and empowered hateful speech and violent acts by others. He also expresses nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship, even praising its renowned torturers.
Paradoxically, though Bolsonaro won, the most popular politician in Brazil is past president Lula da Silva, a leftist, who led all of the public opinion polls in which he was included.
So how did voters who favored Lula elect the far-right candidate? Lula could not run for office because he is in jail. He was convicted as part of a corruption investigation that has touched all of the major political parties.
The judge who convicted Lula, Sergio Moro, is now in talks with Bolsonaro about becoming minister of justice. For Bolsonaro’s supporters, it is a sign of his commitment to fight corruption. For others, it confirms fears that Lula’s conviction was part of an undemocratic power grab that also included the impeachment of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, in 2016.
What was the backdrop to this campaign? And how did that feed into Bolsonaro’s appeal?
As in the United States, Brazilian voters make choices on a range of issues. The most significant issue has been Brazil’s economic stagnation since 2014, which is more acutely felt given the economic boom which preceded it. Corruption investigations that seem to endlessly implicate figures in all levels of government have fueled distrust in traditional political parties. And in many cities, crime was a major concern.
Bolsonaro tapped this disenchantment. As a fringe political figure, he was far from the opportunities for corruption that involved the governing coalition. He made himself the “law and order” candidate, promising to legalize gun ownership and campaigning on nostalgia for the dictatorship – remembered by some as a “clean government,” but only because the regime controlled the judiciary and censored the press.
Beyond those issues, how do you explain Bolsonaro’s support?
Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world but has made remarkable social changes in recent years. Poverty and malnutrition have been dramatically reduced by welfare programs that are conditioned on families keeping their children in school. Domestic workers – a large labor sector – have gained legal protections, including the right to salary withholding for pensions. Same-sex marriage is legal. Working women have paid parental leave rights. Brazil’s public health system is held up as one of the achievements of the democratization process. The public university system has been dramatically expanded and access to college has been democratized through quota and affirmative action programs.
These changes make Brazil a radically different place. But they have also produced a backlash, particularly among parts of the middle and upper classes who saw their relative social privilege diminished. These class tensions mapped vividly into voting patterns. Bolsonaro got a majority of the vote in all of Brazil’s wealthiest cities. He lost in all of Brazil’s poorest cities.
Bolsonaro won an electoral majority because of public frustrations with the economy, political corruption and urban violence. But he built a political identity through harsh rhetoric that has had distressing consequences even in the few days since the election. It has empowered others to carry out acts of violence or intimidation against Brazilians who are gay or black or part of the political opposition.
How do you see the future in the wake of this election?
Brazil had Latin America’s longest military dictatorship, lasting from 1964 to 1985, but the past three decades were the most democratic period in Brazilian history. Bolsonaro, his family and his political team have all expressed contempt for democratic institutions, including threats to shut down the Supreme Court.
They have also praised that dictatorship and argued that it was not repressive enough, because the dictators mainly tortured opponents rather than killing them – though many also were killed. The general likely to be named the minister of education has said that students should stop being taught that Brazil’s military regime was a dictatorship at all.
Moments of political openness and democracy in Brazil have been hard-earned. Ending military rule came at a high cost for people who campaigned for democratization in the 1970s and 1980s. The right of all Brazilians to vote does not have deep historical roots. In modern times, a democratically elected president has ceded the presidency to an elected successor only four times. And only once, in 2003, has that successor left office at the end of an elected term. The soonest this might happen again is 2026.
Brazil’s history gives the chances of this long odds, and Bolsonaro’s nostalgia for dictatorship does not improve them. The question is: How much are the odds of a democratic Brazil improved by the institution-building that has taken place over the last three decades? And how will social movements – many with roots in the old campaign against military rule – find new ways to advance human rights even in this harsh context?
To contact Jerry Davila, the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor of Brazilian History at Illinois, call 217-300-0390; email email@example.com.
Davila is pronounced DAH-vih-lah.
Published by Craig Chamberlain on 11/1/2018 on the Illinois News Bureau Website