Samuel Gonçalves: Bolsonaro offered change, the Left didn’t – this must be a wake up call

Ben Wray

Jair Bolsonaro is set to be the new President of Brazil, with polls showing a 55-45 margin of victory for the far-right candidate. Samuel Gonçalves (@SidlingBears), Scottish/Brazilian citizen, analyses the roots of the left’s historic defeat, and why it must be a wake up call

AS THE vote count in the Brazilian Presidential elections reaches an end, it is clear that far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro has won. Both national and international media are now scrambling to understand how a candidate far more extreme than Trump, supporting police brutality, privatisation of Amazon territory, re-installation of a military dictatorship as well as several policies openly aimed at removing rights from women, LGBTQ+ and non-white groups, has gathered so much support across demographics.

Looking at the first round of the elections, according to an Ibope poll, Bolsonaro’s base is mostly made up of educated and middle-class men. His support relies heavily in Southeast, South and Middle Brazil, which suggests that his base is a majority white background. In contrast, a poll amongst the least likely group to support Bolsonaro shows they are heavily made up of women living in poverty, often in the many favelas across the country.

However, what falls in between those key population markers is worth considering. Anyone who receives the Minimum Wage (which in Brazil is measured as a single month’s earning) is much more likely to vote for Bolsonaro’s defeated opponent, Workers Party’s (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) Fernando Haddad. The more you move up the scale in terms of wage, the more likely they are to do the opposite. So much so, that households across the country earning as little as two to five times the Minimum Wage, which have been historically more aligned with left-wing approaches, are more likely to vote for Bolsonaro.

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This is the key difference between this and previous elections. While a recent economic downturn coupled with years of national news organisations, evangelical mega-churches and opposition parties hammering PT as the national enemy (going as far as a flimsy presidential impeachment), would be expected to generate a public swing away from left-wing parties, the question remains as to how key demographics which previously aligned so strongly with Lula would now so openly embrace a return to military dictatorship, as Bolsonaro has promised. We can go some way to understanding why a more privileged class would identify with the promise of ‘law and order’ from Bolsonaro, and why the poorer working class would move away from him – but why would such a key part of lower income households vote so clearly against their own interests?

The recent wildfire spread of ‘fake news’ links in videos via WhatsApp groups could explain some of it, especially as they increasingly seem like a coordinated effort by Bolsonaro’s cohort. But plenty of people who have been added to these groups or gotten these messages, myself included, are still firmly against Bolsonaro – regardless of education level, as the Ibope poll showed. Fake News can help confirm or give weight to an existing opinion, but there is very little statistical evidence that it has been the tipping point for Bolsonaro voters.

The key to understanding ‘against-their-own-interest’ voters should be based on their life experience. For instance, a cursory look at wealth and quality of life in Brazil will show that 1 per cent of the country’s population holds 28.3 per cent of its wealth, which is the highest concentration of this kind in the World. Furthermore, 153 Brazilians die per day due to violence, 10 per cent of those being young men from ages to 15 to 19.

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I have been in touch with a few friends back in Brazil, mostly of lower income, non-white, households who are clearly not the Bolsonaro heartland and would be the most negatively impacted by his administration, but have decided to vote for him. Most of them justified their vote by a need for change. A common refrain was a variation on ‘things are hard in Brazil and we need to change’. Those statistical realities are only too real as they work, live and traverse the immense metropolis that is São Paulo.

Though PT has done a lot for Brazil, both in transforming some of the poorest communities and opening up doors to education, it hasn’t eradicated everything that makes things ‘hard’. Bolsonaro comes with a promise of change, proper change, as he criticises previous presidents on the right and left alike – declaring a coming transformation of the country. While all of this is happening, Haddad can offer little more than ‘what’s already been here’. Like the Democrats refrain in the 2016 US elections, the Brazilian left has been backed into the corner of ‘Brazil is already great’ – the most untrue and uninspiring stance, especially when the stakes are so high.

Brazil’s left needs to remember how to tell a resonant story. One that envisions a better reality while being aware of past failures. A recent poll shows that the main motivations of Bolsonaro’s voters are bringing about change and safety. Meanwhile, the biggest reasons for supporting Haddad have been to stop Bolsonaro’s rise. While one candidate describes a regeneration of historical proportions, the other simply says ‘what if we don’t do that?’.

As much as PT’s failure to tell this story can be blamed for not retaining those key voters who have turned away from them (and could have turned this election), it is important to remember that the key base for Bolsonaro is in parts activated by homophobia, racism, misogyny and a key drive to maintain the kind of privilege that feels threatened by equality. In four years, if we do have another presidential election, the left will need to get away from neutral and truly speak to the pain and struggle of lower income households like it once did.   

Until they do, Brazilians of most backgrounds will be dealing with the silencing oppression this new Government will surely bring. But as per usual, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who will bear the brunt of the promised ‘transformation’. After decades of dictatorship, extreme poverty and violence, this part of the population braces itself for the oppression they’ve known only too well, only this time, it will be worse.

Picture courtesy of Agência Brasil Fotografia