The hard right of Brazilian politics took a big step forward this month.
Following the congressional and presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro and his Social Liberal Party (PSL) moved from the fringes of politics to the front tier.
Bolsonaro stood on a programme of unleashing the police for a “law and order” campaign—in a country where the police killed 5,000 people last year.
In August he said police should be rewarded if they “kill 10, 15 or 20 at a time”.
He has also played on racism and sexism.
Brazilian socialist Valerio Arcary told Socialist Worker, “The most reactionary sectors of his base saw the vote as an opportunity to fight back against the women’s movement, the anti-racist movement, and so on."
These forces are emboldened by his victory.
“We have seen a violent wave of attacks in the last few days. There have been at least 50 separate attacks, three of which were particularly serious,” said Valerio.
“In Salvador an artist was attacked and killed. He said publicly in a bar, ‘I voted for the PT [the Workers’ Party].’
“On Wednesday a young woman was attacked and marked with the swastika.
“And at a university in south Sao Paulo one young student was attacked and seriously beaten because he was wearing a red cap. We have also seen localised right wing mobilisations.”
Racism played a key part in Bolsonaro’s campaign. He called black people “animals” who should “go back to the zoo”.
Bolsonaro said his sons would not marry black women. This tapped into the deep racism that exists in Brazil, where there is a clear hierarchy based on skin colour.
“In response to the racism which came from Bolsonaro and his support base, the Psol (Socialism and Liberty Party) stood several black women in the congressional elections,” said Valerio. “There are now ten Psol MPs as a result of 3 percent of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies election.”
Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote in the presidential election and his PSL party grabbed 52 seats in the Brazilian congress—they had just eight previously.
The second round of the presidential election will take place on 28 October. Current polling has Bolsonaro at 58 percent.
His campaign received a boost after he was stabbed on the campaign trail in September—allowing him to present himself as a martyr.
But the stabbing does not explain the result—Bolsonaro’s success does not come from one single event, but a long history of disillusionment with mainstream politics.
“The election shows the sharp divide between the richest and the poorest in Brazil,” said Valerio.
That divide has been widened by almost ten years of neoliberal restructuring of the economy and attacks on working class people.
Brazil’s former president and Workers Party (PT) leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, introduced pro-worker reforms after the party took office in 2002. But he was also able to keep bosses happy because of a boom in the price of commodities.
Lula’s approval rating at the time he stood down in 2012 was 90 percent. Politics are now far more contested.
Lula could not stand in the recent elections because he remains in jail for bribery. The PT instead ran Fernando Haddad. “Among those with a monthly salary above £400 Bolsonaro won. Under this wage threshold he lost. The minimum wage in Brazil is £200 a month,” said Valerio.
“There are other, more indirect, indicators of the class composition of Bolsonaro’s vote.
“Education is a key example of this. There are three main levels of education in Brazil— fundamental, secondary and higher. Bolsonaro won among people with a secondary and higher level of education. The educated, new middle classes were a key part of the shift.
“There was also the geographical component. People in the north east of the country generally voted against him.
“People in the richer southern districts of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro voted overwhelmingly for Bolsonaro.”
The international financial crisis of 2007 and a later collapse in the price of commodities created the economic basis for the unravelling of the PT support.
“Between 2004 and 2012 the Brazilian economy benefited from the commodities boom.
“It was one of three times in history that conditions of world trade favoured countries with export economies such as Brazil,” said Valerio.
“The growing international market for commodities was driven by China.
“It went from being a marginal trading partner for Brazil to being its primary trading partner in the space of just over a decade. Previously the US had been Brazil’s major trading partner, China took its place.
“These huge global shifts took place over a short period.
The next step is a big mobilisation on 20 October. It’s impossible to turn this around without the activism of millions. We are putting up a fight. We need to say to everybody—gain one extra vote against Bolsonaro.Valerio Arcary
“During these years it was possible to have a government based on sustaining the profits of capitalists while also delivering high employment and wages which rose faster than inflation.
“The material conditions of tens of millions of people were changed for the better. There was a feeling of social relief after a decade of neoliberal restructuring of the economy and attacks on the popular classes.
“This all changed when commodity prices melted. Brazil had become extremely dependent on this new relationship and as the Chinese economy began to slow down, the impact was felt across the world.
“Now we’re in the grip of the biggest recession of the last 50 years. The economy has contracted by 7 percent.
“In Brazil the past ten years have seen a brutal assault. Some 13 million people are now unemployed out of 105 million economically active people.
“That’s resulted in a tragedy of historical proportions. We’ve seen a fall in wages of between 15 and 20 percent.”
The middle classes, which formed one of the key sources of Bolsonaro’s success, were not immune from this crisis.
The sharp economic slowdown was combined with a corruption scandal involving the PT and the state oil company Petrobras.
“The ruling class took advantage of the scandal to impeach Lula’s successor as president, Dilma Rousseff.
“The corruption was real, but the bourgeoisie seized upon it in a demagogic fashion as a means of attacking the PT and rolling back the gains that were made,” said Valerio.
“The majority of the bourgeoisie was unified in their attack on the PT and the move to impeach the president Dilma Rousseff as part of the corruption scandal.
“But with this election they have a sour taste in their mouths. If they had not campaigned to impeach Rousseff they would more than likely have their preferred candidate from the PSB party in office now.
“If Bolsonaro wins on 28 October the ruling class will have an extreme right winger to deal with, a man who is much more unpredictable.
“They have a serious problem now—one which is at least partly of their own making.
“Corruption is one of the ideological issues that Bolsonaro has taken advantage of to mobilise his middle class base.
“Behind this, the main issue that mobilised for it is class interest. People didn’t simply vote on the basis of his speeches.
“They saw in him, rightly or wrongly, as someone who would fight for their interests.”
Out of all the reactionary ideas Bolsonaro represents, Valerio said it was his misogyny that provoked the strongest response.
“In Psol we fought for a united front against Bolsonaro through the women’s movement.
“This started as a Facebook group called Ele Nao! (Not Him)! That’s the basic programme of the united front.
It was set up a month ago and the response was inspirational. Within two days it had 3 million members.
“It resulted in a demonstration on 29 September which saw a million people come on the streets demonstrating in a very militant fashion.
“In the face of this, a large movement is being organised by the trade unions and student organisations.
On Wednesday of last week 5,000 people protested on the streets of Sao Paulo against Bolsonaro.
“The next step is a big mobilisation on 20 October,” said Valerio. “It’s impossible to turn this around without the activism of millions. We are putting up a fight.
“We need to say to everybody—gain one extra vote against Bolsonaro.
“The biggest change is that everyone is talking about politics.
“The layer of the population that is politically active was relatively small—now everyone is engaged.
“This gives us an important opportunity. We have a chance and we must grasp it.”