Bolsonarism has already won in Brazil, even if Bolsonaro loses

Bolsonaro has gained seats in Congress amid a broader rightward shift that will keep him influential even if Lula wins.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, second right, who running for reelection, and Sao Paulo candidate for governor Tarcisio de Freitas, center left, attend a Mass at the National Sanctuary of Our Lady Aparecida on her feast day in Aparecida, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. Bolsonaro will face Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva in a presidential runoff on Oct. 30. (AP Photo/Marcelo Chello)
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, second right, who is running for re-election, and Sao Paulo candidate for governor Tarcisio de Freitas, second left, attend a Mass at the National Sanctuary of Our Lady Aparecida on her feast day in Aparecida, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, on Wednesday, October 12, 2022 [Marcelo Chello/AP Photo]

Three days after the first round of voting in Brazil’s election on October 1, David Nemer, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, noted that “Twitter is not Brazil. Brazil is not on Twitter.”

He was echoing the views of many experts who have cautioned that many on both the left and the right had been predicting the outcome of the vote based too much on Twitter trends and hashtags.

As it turned out, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro proved pollsters wrong. While he did come second behind former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party as expected, the five-percentage point gap between them was much smaller than the double-digit gulf that had been predicted. Bolsonaro managed to force an October 30 runoff that would not have been necessary if Lula had secured more than half of the vote.

Perhaps even more importantly, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party gave Brazil’s far right its best-ever election night outcome since the country’s return to democracy nearly four decades ago. It won 99 seats in the lower house of Brazil’s Congress, 23 more than in 2017. It is the single-largest party in the lower house, and with allies, effectively controls almost half of the legislative chamber.

The verdict is clear: Bolsonarism – the president’s far-right movement backed by political and social conservatives and evangelicals – has already won, irrespective of what happens in the runoff.

If Bolsonaro defeats Lula, experts fear he might use his numbers in Congress to impeach Supreme Court justices. He could even increase the number of seats on the Supreme Court to appoint ideologically aligned judges – similar to what the military dictatorship did many years ago. The Supreme Court has served as an important counterweight to the government, including investigating a fake news network controlled from the government’s headquarters. Bolsonaro, in addition to attacks against judges of the court, has already said that he might tweak the makeup of the judiciary if he returns to power.

But even if he loses on October 30, Bolsonaro’s supporters in Congress will have the clout to make governance very difficult for a Lula administration, including by blocking any progressive initiatives.

“The country that Lula da Silva governed just 20 years ago basically does not exist any more,” Felippe Ramos, a political analyst and doctoral candidate in sociology at the New School for Social Research told me.

Brazil has changed

That’s not to say that Brazilian society under the centre-left Lula – who was president from 2003 to 2010 – was progressive. However, the country has witnessed a dramatic political, economic and demographic shift that is underpinning the support for Bolsonarism. “The drivers are much deeper than politics,” Ramos said.

As Ramos explained, Brazil has undergone a process of deindustrialisation in recent years, with agribusinesses increasingly the engine of the economy. That has led to a growth in the economic influence of traditionally conservative states – a change reflected culturally too, with Sertanejo, Brazilian country music, going mainstream.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s evangelicals – a solid support base for Bolsonaro – have shot up from five percent to over 30 percent of the population in less than three decades, signalling a broader conservative shift. This has given them significant influence in national politics and on how the overall population views moral issues.

Evangelical denominations have even been accused of spreading fake news that, for instance, Lula might shut down churches if he returns to power or that the former president is a Satanist.

Tech, too, has played a role, though not Twitter. It is, in fact, WhatsApp that is the main tool that Bolsonaro and his allies use to spread propaganda and disinformation among poorer and more remote communities.

Rise of Bolsonarism

Still, the nature of Brazil’s rightward shift, too, has evolved.

For years, it was an imperfect fit between various far-right forces that managed to coalesce around Bolsonaro. Today there is greater ideological uniformity, with a central tenet at its heart: hard-core Bolsonarism, or extreme loyalty to the leader.

Bolsonaro has cannibalised the traditional right and centrist poles of Brazilian politics, while creating a movement that also overshadows other traditional strains of right-wing extremism.

For evidence, look no further than the fate of former allies who turned critics and have performed poorly in the election — such as Joice Hasselmann, a former journalist who was elected to Congress in 2018 from Bolsonaro’s party after winning more than a million votes, the most by a female candidate. She subsequently fell out with Bolsonaro. This time, she couldn’t win even 14,000 votes.

Ironically, Bolsonarism is also helped by the fact that its progressive opponents appear incapable of engaging with ideas outside their bubble even as they have abandoned the trade union struggle.

A divided nation

In effect, Brazilian politics today orbits around “two poles that are represented by Bolsonaro on the one hand, and by Lula and the Workers’ Party on the other,” Pablo Ortellado, professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo, told me.

The tension between them ends up exploding in the form of political violence. Supporters of the current president have killed several Workers’ Party voters, while in rare cases, Lula supporters, too, have engaged in violence against their counterparts in Bolsonaro’s camp.

A Bolsonaro victory could mean the deepening of fascism in Brazil. It would facilitate the further growth of evangelical fundamentalism and lead to the increased devastation of the Amazon. It would portend more violence against Indigenous and left-wing activists and herald greater international isolation for Brazil. Whether the country’s democratic institutions would survive intact is doubtful. It’s hard to know whether Brazilian democracy itself would continue to breathe.

A win for Lula, however, would still leave him facing a strong pro-Bolsonaro parliamentary opposition capable of stalling his plans, in a polarised and increasingly conservative society.

While Bolsonaro has repeatedly threatened to not respect the outcome of the elections if he loses, he won’t need a coup to retain significant influence. His faithful and strong base of supporters in Congress will ensure that — even if not as president — Bolsonaro will continue to cast a shadow over Brazilian politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.