Sunday’s victory of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential election marks a major break with the country’s political traditions but its defeated political class cannot claim it was not warned that it risked such a rupture.
It is over five years since spontaneous demonstrations drew millions of angry citizens on to the streets to protest the appalling state of public services and the political corruption that was held to be responsible. Despite the movement lacking leaders and even demands, the message of bubbling public discontent with the shoddy performance of the country’s 25-year-old democracy was clear.
The initial demonstrations were sparked by anger at a violent police crackdown on a far-left collective demanding free public transport for all but quickly morphed into a generalised rage against the whole of the country’s political elite, with particular ire reserved for the ruling Workers Party. In power for a decade by the time the 2013 protests erupted, the former radicals had become arrogant and complacent, and for many of the students out protesting the party was now the establishment, many unable to remember a time when the comrades were not in charge of the country.
In response to the 2013 protests, politicians in Brasília did make a feint towards tackling long-overdue structural reforms, especially a desperately needed political one, that might have assuaged an angry populace. But they quickly abandoned the pretence which in retrospect appears to have been a colossal error.
The next year the Car Wash corruption investigation would detonate a landmine under the political class just as the country slipped into its longest-ever recession. It was a toxic combination that robbed the politicians of any poise, plunging Brasília into the crisis that ended with the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and the grim farce of the hapless administration of her replacement, Michel Temer.
By the time this year’s elections rolled around, none of Brazil’s traditional parties – neither the Workers Party nor its historic opponents – had much credit left with voters beyond their own militants. This is the background that explains the astonishing transformation of Bolsonaro from a crank on the far-right fringes of congress, where he was duly ignored by most of his colleagues during 28 undistinguished years of service in the chamber, into the country’s next president.
For commentators at home and abroad it has been beyond easy to deconstruct the myth that supporters have built up around the former army captain. He is possessed of a violent temperament and proudly holds prejudiced views on women, blacks, gays and refugees. He disdains democracy and is nostalgic for Brazil’s last military dictatorship and its torturers. His claims to be a clean broom are contradicted by his own examples of petty corruption and the nepotism that has seen him turn politics into a family business. Perhaps most relevantly now he is set to become president, he seems to have a very limited understanding of the complex challenges he will face in office and has only offered the vaguest outline of how he plans to tackle pressing issues such as the fiscal crisis.
But such analysis failed to gain enough traction during the campaign to prevent him winning. His rise to the presidency is in many respects less about what he represents than what he stands against. The Bolsonaro phenomenon is an ugly insurrection against politics-as-usual which obliged him by ignoring the threat he represented until it was too late. It was noticeable on Sunday night that Bolsonaro’s supporters seemed far more interested in gloating over the defeat of the Workers Party than celebrating their own man’s victory. And while the Workers Party lost on Sunday, it is important to remember that its traditional rivals to the centre-right emerge from this month’s election cycle in far worse shape, having being mauled by the new hard right.
Whether this new right, now that it has attained power, can solve Brazil’s myriad problems remains to be seen. Having peddled facile solutions to complex problems, disappointment seems almost inevitable.
Bolsonaro should therefore be worried that Senator Renan Calheiros, one of the most amoral but wiliest foxes in Brazilian politics, has predicted that by the second half of next year the new government will be taking on water.
As stunning and unlikely as it was, winning the presidency might have been the easy part.