Students, faculty discuss upcoming presidential runoff election in Brazil

Brazilian presidential candidate and member of the Chamber of Deputies Jair Bolsonaro speaks at an event on May 5, 2010. Janine Moraes / Chamber of Deputies of Brazil

Brazilians will vote in a runoff election on Sunday to decide the 38th president in the country’s complex democratic history. The clear front-runner, who won in the first round of voting by 17 points, is Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and current member of the Chamber of Deputies who has been nicknamed the “Brazilian Trump.” Bolsonaro had, on separate instances, made misogynistic remarks against fellow lawmakers, incited violence against minorities and political opponents and expressed nostalgia for the use of torture in Brazil’s dictatorial past. He was also stabbed while campaigning early last month. On the eve of the runoff election, the Daily interviewed students from Brazil, faculty experts and political observers about Bolsonaro’s path to political success, the rise of populism and the effects of his potential presidency.

As inevitable as his presidency appears now, it was not too long ago that Bolsonaro was viewed in a different light.

“He was a total joke,” sophomore Gabriela Delela, president of the Tufts Brazilian Student Association, said. “No one thought he could take power.”

This sentiment was echoed by Vinicius Freitas, a first-year who lives in Recife, a city in the northeast of Brazil.

“There are many senators in the lower chamber of congress who do not fit a typical political profile,” Freitas said. “There is a clown that was elected; there are people from reality TV shows. I perceived [Bolsonaro] as a person like that — [one] who had extremist views but would never actually be in a position where he could be president.”

Ted Piccone, senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy and Latin America Initiative in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, agreed that Bolsonaro’s success was unpredicted.

“But at the same time the conditions were ripe either for a candidate from the left or the right,” he said. “You see in many surveys very high levels of reported dissatisfaction, frustration, anger toward the political system that it is not working, and you see very low levels of trust in political parties, political leaders even spilling over into the media.”

Brazil is currently weathering the aftereffects of a massive corruption scandal implicating the highest levels of the federal government. A 2015 investigation, codenamed “Car Wash,” uncovered a multi-billion-dollar money laundering scheme that led to the indictment of two former presidents from the ruling Workers’ Party: Lula and Dilma Rousseff. Bolsonaro has taken advantage of the fallout from this scandal by portraying himself as a political outsider who could clean up the government.

“Everyone was like, ‘OK, [the ruling party is] corrupt, we need to get them out of power,’” Delela said. “They think the only way to get them out of power is electing Bolsonaro.”

While shocking in many respects, Bolsonaro’s story is also a familiar one, echoing those of other right-wing politicians whose recent successes rested on populism.

When asked for a definition of populism, Ioannis Evrigenis, a professor of political science at Tufts, pointed to work by Princeton scholar Jan-Werner Müller.

“In a democracy, there are various people who claim to represent the truth, but if it’s reasonably well run, there’s a space in which there can be debate over different positions,” Evrigenis said. “What differentiates populists is that they make an ‘us and nobody else’ claim. The positions they represent are the genuine positions of the people … no one else has any claim to the truth.”

Evrigenis added that a populist’s claim to represent the true positions and interests of their citizens contains a darker assumption — that there are people in the country who are not “true citizens.”

“[Populists] make a claim even among citizens that there are people who understand and represent the genuine American, or the genuine Greek, or the genuine Brazilian,” Evrigenis said. “There are citizens who can produce their documents but who are not genuine Americans because they have ideas that don’t conform to their own. That’s why you see hints of nationalism and other isms. It implies that there is a truth to Americanism that is not pluralistic, that is possibly ethnic, possibly religious.”

Freitas said that Bolsonaro had made clear, through his various derogatory remarks, that he does not see “LGBT [individuals], women, black people [and] indigenous Brazilians” as true citizens of Brazil.

Anjuli Fahlberg, a Tufts sociology lecturer who researches violence and politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Cidade de Deus (“City of God”) neighborhood, also gave her interpretation of who Bolsonaro does not consider to be true Brazilians.

“Those would be anyone considered to be dangerous … either physically dangerous — so black men, people in favelas — or socially dangerous, which is where we get into homophobia or violence against transgender people, or socially in the sense of challenging traditional family institutions, so feminists and people who are trying to fight against tradition norms,” Fahlberg said.

While Bolsonaro embodies this populist message, he is far from unique in employing it. Evrigenis noted the parallel with President Trump’s rhetoric as a political outsider.

“In the case of Trump … he pitched himself as an outsider. And if you do that and it’s credible, then you can pick some examples of people [from the establishment] coming at you, you can use them to reinforce the fact that you are an outsider,” Evrigenis said.

Freitas said that Bolsonaro has, like Trump, received an disproportionate share of media coverage, much of it negative, but still seemed to gain support.

“He has been becoming well-known because of articles that are published about him,” Freitas said. “They are usually against him, but promoting hate or good things, I think it’s the same thing, because it’s promoting the candidate.”

Sophomore Carlos Irisarri, who lived in France until he was 11 and closely follows French politics, also sees a similar message in Europe, although he cautioned against identifying it only with right-wing candidates.

Marine Le Pen, a far-right candidate who made headlines for her anti-immigrant views, will tell you that people who are not Christian and white do not belong in France,” he said. “But [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon, a far-left French presidential candidate from [a] socialist party, has a big problem with eastern Europeans studying specialized fields in eastern Europe … and then migrating to France to take jobs and not contribute to the economy.”

Piccone said that the specific criteria employed by populists to determine people excluded from true citizenship depends from country to country.

“Populists can take advantage of cleavages in some places and not others,” Piccone said. “[In Latin America,] you don’t have the same dynamic around foreign terrorism or even migrants that you do in Europe or the United States. I see it as more of a traditionally class oriented division, with elites exploiting popular anger towards elites but benefiting from it at the same time.”

Piccone added that Bolsonaro generally fits the image of a typical Latin American populist but differs from left-wing populists in his law-and-order platform.

There is disagreement over what the effects would be if Bolsonaro were to be elected president on Sunday. Freitas and Delela both cited the extremely fragmented democratic system of Brazil as evidence that many of his proposed reforms would likely not pass. On the other hand, Piccone expressed concern, pointing out that parties with complementary agendas also were successful in the general election and might provide more votes for Bolsonaro’s agenda in the legislature.

Regardless, both Piccone and Fahlberg believe that Bolsonaro’s disregard for democratic norms could have a lasting effect. Piccone cited recent accusations that Bolsonaro’s backers took part in a multimillion dollar fake news campaign through messaging platform WhatsApp. Delela said those types of false messages have been effective.

“Brazilians love memes,” she said. “People don’t want to read the news. They have all the [renowned] sources, but they would rather just read WhatsApp.”

Piccone also believes Bolsonaro’s election could further legitimize racism in Brazil.

“These sentiments are always there, sometimes hidden, shunned, but when your top leader is using them every day, it gives an OK,” he said. 

Fahlberg agreed.

“It’s not even a slippery slope,” Fahlberg said. “It’s a slide that Brazil is already sliding down. I worry a lot about women, I worry about people of color, I worry about women of color, who are the majority of the people I work with in the City of God.”

Fahlberg nonetheless expressed optimism at the power of civil society and public action in resisting this harmful wave of populism in Brazil.

“They are still mobilizing, requesting more schools, hospitals, systems of support and care, educating about racism and structural violence [and] consciousness of inequality. They can make art, make poems, paint, sculpt, rap. It is not just about expression, it’s about creating communities with shared values, solidarity, and relationships to social movements,” she said.

Still, this year’s Brazilian election has been shocking and difficult for many, including Delela, who summed up her reaction to Bolsonaro’s candidacy as: “You know when you are joking, and you keep joking for a long time, and then it becomes the truth?”