Brazil’s media, legal, judicial and corporate factions have insisted for the last three years that systemic political corruption is the nation’s gravest problem. They were so upset about it that in 2016, ignoring dissent, they united to support the most drastic step a democracy can take — removing the elected president, Dilma Rousseff, before the end of her term.
But indignation over corruption and criminality was only a pretext for her impeachment. By removing Rousseff, they knowingly empowered people whose behaviour makes the budgetary manipulations used to justify Rousseff’s removal seem as petty as jaywalking. How did her political opponents, and Globo television journalists, manage to keep a straight face while they trumpeted their indignation about them?
The man they replaced Rousseff with — Michel Temer — was caught on tape ordering the payment of bribes to silence Eduardo Cunha; Cunha, as House Speaker, led the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, but is now a convicted criminal serving a 15-year prison term for corruption, money laundering and tax evasion. Congress members who removed Rousseff, and made noisy speeches of disgust about her alleged embezzlement, have been taking bribes from Temer for the last two years, in return for suppressing accusations of malfeasance against him (1).
In the course of the presidential election campaign, both the media stars and the elite families who own the television channels have lost the last vestiges of credibility. The Brazilian media’s actions are now so corrupt and so clearly deceitful that they are evident to even the least suspicious observers.
Guardian of the status quo
Brazil’s press is openly backing São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, an establishment figure from the conservative Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB); he’s a South American version of Hillary Clinton, and so uncharismatic that his nickname is ‘Cucumber’. He’s been in politics for decades, funded by the corporate interests he serves; he never rejects the favours requested and granted within Brazil’s political class, so, for the powerful, he’s the perfect guardian of the status quo.
For good reason, Alckmin’s main political tactic is to hide. He doesn’t hold rallies (only insomniacs would attend), and his bid for the presidency relies on backroom deals between powerbrokers, with massive amounts of money from the elite interests he serves. This is exactly the kind of legalised corruption that is undermining Brazilian politics and that the media pretends to loathe.
Alckmin, despite being loved by Brazil’s media, has yet to score even 10% in voting intention polls. As in other countries, voters are more and more contemptuous of the political elite, and turning away from them.
Former president Lula da Silva, until recently the runaway poll leader, is in prison after a hasty conviction on charges of corruption and has been barred from standing in this election. Until the last minute, the Workers’ Party (PT) was hoping that popular pressure would force the courts to overturn his conviction. When that didn’t happen, the party announced on 11 September that his former running mate Fernando Haddad would stand in his place, and launched a campaign it hoped would enable him to capitalise on Lula’s popularity, an approach that worked for Rousseff in 2011. However, Haddad remains little known, especially in Lula’s old strongholds in Brazil’s northeast.
The three leading candidates are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as outsiders. There is the far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro (2), who has led in polls since Lula’s withdrawal; he wants a return to military rule, as during the dictatorship of 1964-85. There is Marina Silva, a black, evangelical (3), socially conservative, environmentalist. And there is Ciro Gomes, who is a shrewd and experienced leftwing politician, but has no allies or coalition partners, owing to the many divisions among the progressive parties, and is seen as a rebel and a disrupter.
As the elite began to panic, Alckmin launched a broad new coalition, which the media is calling a ‘centrist bloc’, meaning that it includes everyone but Lula and Bolsonaro. He also announced his vice-presidential running mate, Ana Amélia Lemos of the far-right Progressive Party (PP).
Read also Lamia Oualalou, “Evangelicals conquer Brazil”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2014.
There is little that is centrist about any of this. The PP was Bolsonaro’s political home until 2015, and its origins go back to those who supported the rightwing military dictatorship that took power after a US-backed coup in 1964. Lemos was at the time a journalist who wrote in favour of the dictatorship, and the wife of a senator whom the dictatorship had appointed. Her current political views would place her on the far right of the political spectrum in the US or Europe. After PT president Gleisi Hoffmanngave an interview to Al Jazeera this summer, Lemos, addressing the Senate, accused her of consorting with terrorists. Lemos, mixing xenophobia with ignorance, had confused the Qatari broadcaster with Al-Qaida.
Taking a distance from the PP
Alckmin’s coalition is designed to ensure that he controls the largest share of public funding and television airtime during the presidential campaign, in the hope that the amount of propaganda this will secure will make voters less reticent. The media is backing the PP, which has unfortunately turned out to be the party most implicated in the corruption scandals sweeping Brazil (4). Of 56 elected federal lawmakers affiliated with the party, 31 have criminal corruption charges pending against them. Even Bolsonaro felt it was necessary to distance himself from the political sewer that is the PP in order to stand for president. While Lemos is not among the indicted, she hardly represents ethical leadership since her political career began when her husband secured her appointment to a full-time but no-show job.
The elite's gamble, coming together behind a corrupt coalition in an attempt to protect the old order, is doomed to failure
These are the clans now poised to return to political power in Brazil. Two of the most corrupt political parties in Latin America, both backed by privately owned media groups that condemn corruption, are competing for control of the region’s biggest country, with a population of more than 200 million. They may still have a hard time in the election: despite all the media support, Alckmin is still trailing in the polls.
The unpredictable first ballot is on 7 October, the second round, if necessary, on 28 October, and Bolsonaro is the focus of attention. He is the favourite, yet he also scores highest on voter rejection. No polls predict that he will win a second round against Silva, Alckmin, Gomes or Haddad, but it is not entirely impossible that he will gain enough sympathy to prevail, after being stabbed at a rally on 6 September.
US, British and European elites, traumatised by the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit, still do not understand that there is nothing random about the rise of authoritarianism. Demagogues cannot thrive when political institutions are healthy, just and equitable; democracy and political liberties can only be threatened when people lose faith in those institutions.
That is why the Brazilian elite’s gamble, on coming together behind a corrupt coalition in an attempt to protect the old order, is doomed to failure, and could mean that someone who is a real threat will gain power. To understand why Brazilian democracy is in danger of collapsing, you need to examine the real causes of Brazil’s social and institutional dysfunction, not just denounce Bolsonaro.