Bolsonaro camp wants a coup

The question now is, how did we get to the stage where this proposition leads the polls

[What follows is my translation of a column by Celso Rocha de Barros, published today, 17 September, in Folha de S. Paulo. As the author commented on Twitter, “someone needed to say out lout what everyone already knows” – that is, that there is now a real risk of a military coup should Bolsonaro win, or should he lose…]

Well, this is it, friends. If you want to vote for Bolsonaro, enjoy it, because it will be your last. After the past week, there is no longer any doubt that the Bolsonaro plan is to mount a coup. And a real coup, a hard coup, not one of those soft coups that you get these days.

Let’s be honest, there was never any reason to suspect that Jair Bolsonaro was a democrat. I have never seen an interview in which Bolsonaro promises to honor the results of the election after defeat. What I have seen many times were disingenuous insinuations about electronic voting machines.

Bolsonaro argued for increasing the number of Supreme Court justices, which is on page 2 of the dictator’s manual. Chavez did it, the military dictatorship did it, every dictator does it. At the end of the day, the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. If you fill the Supreme Court with brown-nosers, the Constitution becomes whatever you want it to be. From there on in, you are a dictator.

Bolsonaro chose as his running-mate [retired army general] Hamilton Mourão. In a recent interview with GloboNews, Mourão argued that the president of the Republic (any president? An eventual president Boulos [of the radical-left Party of Socialism and Liberty]?) has the right to mount an ‘auto-coup’ if they think the situation is becoming anarchic.

In truth, no one has more capacity to create anarchy than the president themselves. For this reason, no sensible country lets the president become a dictator if they think there is too much anarchy.

The same Mourão now argues for a new Constitution to be written, without all the pussyfooting involvement of people actually elected by the population.

The Constitution would be written by a council of notables; “notables” is what a dictator calls his own brown-nosers.

According to Mourão’s plan, this Constitution would then have to be approved by referendum. Nothing against referenda, but if you follow the news about Venezuela, you can already see where this leads. When they come to hold the referendum, the opposition will already have been attacked and weakened, and the population will vote with fear. This is on page 3 of the dictator’s manual.

So, that’s it. If you are in favor of all of this, vote for Bolsonaro. If not, vote for someone else.

It just remains to be asked: how did we get to the stage where the proposal to kill democracy leads polls with nearly one-quarter of voting intentions?

Over the past years, public opinion in Brazil has gained a lot of power. Lava Jato [massive anti-corruption investigations] showed the population that corruption was generalized. Social media allowed for indignation to be expressed with ferocity.

The good side of this obvious. Politicians kind of have to live in fear of the population.

The bad side is that it has not been easy to govern the country, because the moment demands that many unpopular things be done.

The Bolsonaro plan is to use your rage against all and sundry and turn it against democracy. Without democracy, governing the country becomes easy once again, because the government no longer needs to care about you or your social media.

This trick is on page 1 of the dictator’s manual. And when you can’t complain anymore, can’t impeach anyone, can’t moan on Facebook or hold a protest, then Paulo Guedes [Bolsonaro economic advisor and the candidate’s pick for Finance Minster] enters the scene with his austerity program that is much more radical than any other candidate’s. And then you can be sure, you won’t have money to buy any guns at all, even if the shops are allowed to sell them.


Brazil’s Anti-Politics Election

My Brazil election preview in Jacobin:

The election – and general political conjuncture – is polarized, fragmented, and corrupt. Here’s an excerpt on polarization:

The election’s main polarization, then, is between the PT and Bolsonaro. To some it may look like a fight between two extremes. Bolsonaro poses as an authoritarian outsider who will wash the scum away — both politicians and criminals. Lula meanwhile would be a left-wing populist, standing for the poor against an illegitimate republic.


This would be a serious mischaracterization. Bolsonaro represents merely the most reactionary face of a backwards elite. A former economic nationalist, he is a recent convert to rabid free-market liberalism, favoring privatizations, lower taxes, and central bank autonomy. His kill-the-poor law and order proposals are merely an extension of existing repressive relations between the state and poorer Brazilians.


Lula, for his part, is a centrist, whatever his hysterical right-wing critics might say. This is not so much a question of policy: fundamentally, his program is the realization of the rights promised by Brazil’s 1988 constitution, his modus operandi in government one of accommodation and moderation. Only Brazil’s rightward drift has made him appear in any way radical. His dauphin’s victory represents a hope to arrest the horrific turn in Brazil, at least in the immediate term.


Social media accentuates this dynamic. One analysis of online economic discussion shows that 58 percent of activity circles around these poles, a greater polar concentration than in 2014, around Rousseff and the center-right Aécio Neves. What we have, then, is a radicalization of the Right. While the Left highlights the decline in Brazil since the coup — in terms of rights, inequality, social investment — the Right denounces the political elite and state bureaucracy as corrupt. The solution: privatization, a smaller role for the state in the economy, and a focus on public security.


Here is the denouement of the wave of right-wing “anticorruption” protests: a deep skepticism of the capacity of the state to do anything, and consequent demands for authoritarian solutions. The irony of this form of anti-politics is believing the state can successfully police or exterminate people, but not develop society.


While some media will therefore finger Bolsonaro as Brazil’s Trump, this is misleading. Bolsonaro is a far more traditional authoritarian conservative of the semi-periphery, more akin to the Philippines’ Duterte, than the postmodern Trump. It is only in Bolsonaro’s social media popularity among white, upper-middle class youth (dubbed “Bolsominions”) that he resembles Trump. Instead, the new Brazilian right is infused with a latter-day anticommunist hysteria. These forces fixate on the idea that the PT somehow illegitimately inserted itself in, or took over, the state. The reactionary demand is to take back what is “rightfully” theirs through strong neoliberal stances.

Not Socrates’ Brazil

So I forgot to post this, from back in early July: a piece by me on Brazil in the World Cup. It’s sort of a companion piece to some brilliant stuff on Africa Is A Country about Brazil-fandom in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean. I argue that whatever Brazil/A Seleção represents for them,  in Brazil it “may no longer bring the same gleam to national eyes. The country’s organic crisis has served to dull the glow of that iconic yellow jersey. A national symbol, the shirt has become an object of dispute in an intensely polarized Brazil.”

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The Meaning of Lula’s Imprisonment

I have an article in Jacobin, discussing the narrow straits of Brazilian democracy (as per usual). The first part is my notes on the matter, reproduced below. The rest is a translation of a sharp and beautifully written analysis by Felipe Demier, originally published at Esquerda Online.

This week, both sides of a polarized Brazil were on tenterhooks, awaiting the Supreme Court’s judgement on former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva‘s appeal for habeas corpus — his right to remain free until all his appeals have been exhausted. Having already been convicted in the second instance — and having had his nine-year sentence increased to twelve — his prospects looked dim. This, in spite of two appeals processes still remaining, which could take months or years.

Into this context sauntered the military top brass. One the eve of the judgement, the commander of the Army Reserves wrote in the Estado de São Paulo newspaper that if Lula were left free to run and won the presidency, there would be no option but military intervention. His comments were shortly followed by those of the commander of the Brazilian army, Eduardo Villas Boas, who took to Twitter to ask the public — rhetorically, of course — who it thought had the good of the country in mind, and who was only looking after their own. The Brazilian military, he continued, “shares the longing of all good citizens to repudiate impunity” and is “attentive to its institutional missions.”

As left-wing economist Laura Carvalho commented, “the revolution won’t be televised, but the coup will be tweeted.”

Lula’s habeas corpus was duly denied the following day. Whether Lula gives himself up is still to be seen; noises from his camp suggest he may resist arrest. On the night of the judgement, supporters rallied to the headquarters of the metalworkers’ union in suburban São Paulo, with more resistance promised from across the Left.

What has made events come to such a head now is the decision by investigating judge Sergio Moro to depart from the constitutional norm and mandate Lula’s imprisonment before his appeals process is exhausted. For Moro, this is his triumphal moment, the capture of the trophy beast he’s been hunting for years. According to his logic, sending Lula down would signal the end of political impunity. For Moro’s supporters — more anti–Workers’ Party (PT) than genuinely anti-corruption — this one imprisonment is the final nail in the coffin of corruption.

One is reminded of George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt aboard an aircraft carrier in 2003: an astoundingly premature declaration of victory, a conclusion to an illegitimate campaign announced by a vain man, whose results have been nothing but institutional chaos and an even more corrupt state. Tarnishing a perfect analogy, in Brazil the levels of violence sadly predate the campaign.


Whatever happens next — and last week’s shooting at Lula’s traveling pre-election roadshow seems a very grim foreshadowing of growing political violence — this feels like a decisive moment.

So argues political scientist Felipe Demier in the article presented in translation below. Originally published on Esquerda Online, Demier’s essay reflects on Lula’s imprisonment, staking out a position between a reflexive defense of Lula’s politics and an ultra-left celebration of his arraignment. It also discusses the highly contingent nature of bourgeois acceptance of democracy — a reconciliation that now must be abandoned through the imprisonment of a former political ally, in the name of preserving “democracy” and the constitution.


Here’s the link again: 

Will this be the last election of Brazil’s New Republic?

The first 2018 presidential election poll has been released today (31 January). It is also the first since Lula’s conviction was upheld by a regional court on 24 January. Despite his likely banning from the contest, Lula maintains a strong lead in all scenarios in which his name appears (34-37% of voting intentions).

Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro is in clear second (15-18%), albeit not having increased his lead over the past month, despite Lula’s legal troubles and Bolsonaro’s positioning as the anti-Lula candidate. Indeed, in first round scenarios with Lula exempt, polling shows Bolsonaro in first, but only increasing his lead by two percentage points (up to of 20%) versus scenarios with Lula included. We may have found Bolsonaro’s ceiling.

The lesser noted story here though is the significant degree to which rejection of all candidates manifests itself. In a historically fragmented presidential contest (Datafolha prompted voters with lists of over ten candidates, most showing no higher than low single figures), around 16% of voters intend to abstain or vote blank. But when Lula is excluded, this rises as high as 32%. It goes even higher (35%) if one takes into account only those earning up two times the minimum wage – or, broadly speaking, the bottom half of Brazilian society.  If Lula doesn’t run, a full third of the electorate will throw away their vote.

What Lula signifies

So, firstly, we must note that Lula’s exclusion from the contest represents a de facto disenfranchisement of millions of Brazilians. For the bottom half of earners in Brazil, hardly any candidate would win more than 15% of the vote. Only, in one single scenario, does Marina Silva make it to a measly 18%.

At the same time, one might argue, Lula is just an individual candidate; he is supposedly the representative of his party. Lula’s voters could just migrate to another PT candidate. Polls though hardly suggest this will happen. In the Lula-less first round scenarios, the PT governor of Bahia, Jacques Wagner, receives 2-3%, while academic and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad doesn’t even register. Intended votes for Lula are just that – intended votes for Lula. So can PT really argue that their voters are being disenfranchised if they aren’t – at least according to polling – willing to vote for another PT candidate?


Well, presidential politics in a mediatised age encourages personalisation. And whatever else one may say about him, Lula is a towering political figure, both for his personal biography and charisma, as well as political achievements in founding and building one of the most innovative Left parties of recent decades, anywhere. So given the rules of this personalised game, banning one (exceptionally popular) individual from running does seem like disenfranchisement.

At the same time, for all that PT has been the target of elite machinations against it, over the past 15 years it has also, partly, been the architect of its own downfall. It is the party itself who have gone all-in on Lula, encouraging the cult of personality, demobilising its base, and not sufficiently cultivating new talents amongst its cadre. For all that Lula is a historically unique figure, there is no one even remotely close to him in the next rank below.

‘There is no Plan B’, PT has asserted over and over. This has been a clever short-term strategy, because it allows the party to continue to build Lula’s candidature at a time when no one else on the political scene has any charisma or credibility. It means that if – at the last moment, twenty days from election – Lula has to handpick a stand-in, PT can hope that a large portion of Lula’s voters will transfer to the dauphin. Without a long campaigning period for the stand-in, this ‘successor’ could avoid closer scrutiny. He would benefit from PT voters’ sense of persecution. But any longer term perspective has to recognise the road to ruin this strategy represents.

Even if Lula is somehow allowed to run, he has no real programme. A vote for him is a vote for his personal authenticity – the only major credible politician in the country – and for memories of a better time. A vote for him is a vote for the status quo ante. A return to the pre-2013 period. For all the rhetoric against the brutal counter-reforms of Temer’s government – as well as the persecution claims about the parliamentary coup that deposed Dilma and has sought to imprison Lula – there’s little indication that a PT government wouldn’t pursue the same sort of conciliation it has over the past two decades. It would likely maintain similar alliances with the supposedly patriotic national bourgeoisie and its representatives (PT maintained, for example, state and local alliances with the golpista PMDB in 2016’s municipal elections), and it would still pursue some moderate reforms, for example of pensions. In doing so, it would be of a piece with Social Democracy’s historic role over the past half-century: selling workers moderate, pro-market reforms that the centre-right lacks the authority to do.

The vital centre?

So Lula and the PT represent very much a centrist proposal. But it is a centrist proposal in a much more fundamental way than specific policies or electoral alliances. PT has come to represent the 1988 settlement, more than any other party. It is they who are the defenders of the Constitution. In the 1990s, it was PSDB who perhaps best occupied this role – itself an offshoot of the (old) MDB, the in-house opposition of the military dictatorship. The PSDB’s rightward, neoliberal drift, and a fortiori its support for the institutional coup, has extinguished that role as guarantor of the Constitution, of the ‘New Republic’ itself. PT, meanwhile, embodies the 1988 settlement in all its contradictions. It is the most prominent guarantor of the social rights provided for in the Constitution. It also, in an ironic way, embodies the old corruption that the Constitution inscribed. Despite PT having been the ‘ethical party’, it allowed itself to be corrupted by the structures of Brazilian politics. So its alliances with regional coronéis and dependence on dodgy funding as much exemplifies its role as standard-bearer of 1988 as does its defence of spending on health, education, housing, and welfare.

But in 2018’s Brazil, what does it mean to defend that settlement? What is it to be the vital centre, which nearly all others have abandoned? (Most have abandoned it to the right, though the genuinely left-wing parties can’t be said to play this role either). The changed global and national conjuncture means standing on a ‘default’, unenunciated programme of status quo ante is an absurdity. Post-2013 Brazil demands an answer. The institutional rupture of the parliamentary coup begs for a more convincing response. The commodities boom is long gone and parties of the centre-right mounted an institutional coup against a moderate centre-left party. What now? Merely rolling back the worst of the neoliberal counter-reform programme, desirable and urgent as that is, is not enough.

What has happened in this interim is not just the spectacular occupation of the streets from June 2013 onwards, but – from as of 2014/15 – a steady chipping away at majoritarian rule, at democracy, by the elite. Lawfare has been most evident means, via the Lava Jato investigations. This has fed a deep mistrust of politics, as the growing rate of abstention/blank votes indicates. The parties of the centre-right no doubt feel this consequent lack of legitimacy themselves – and this is compounded by the patent unpopularity of the counter-reforms they have advanced.

The centre-right tactic thus appears to be, (a) to position themselves as the ‘responsible centre’, as against ‘populists’ of Left and Right. This is an attempt to cast both Lula/PT and Bolsonaro in the same nhuck_aecioet – a pathetic political manoeuvre only credible in the eyes of bow tie-wearing 17 year old Hayek fans. And (b), to hope to find a young, shiny, reforming face, in the mould of a Macron. This latter attempt has only surfaced TV personality Luciano Huck (who has no party as of yet, and is polling at 5-8%; the same level as more traditional centre-right candidates). Both aspects of this strategy are clear imports from contemporary European and American discourse: responsible centrism against an amalgamated left/right ‘populist’ threat and a young energetic ‘non-politician’ to carry through ‘necessary reforms’. Needless to say, in today’s polarised and increasingly disillusioned atmosphere, few are buying what they’re selling. Good.

Legitimacy, who needs it?

All this brings us back to the fact that anti-politics is what has dominated the Brazilian political scene for the past three years. The municipal elections of 2016 attested to this fact very clearly. As I wrote here at the time, the degree of abstention and blank votes is is accompanied by a fall in support for democracy and democratic institutions as attested to in values surveys, such as Latinobarómetro’s. (I’ll be doing a deeper dive on Latinobarómetro data as soon as the full 2017 data is out).

This grave absence of legitimacy is hardly being counteracted by any section of the political or business elite. It is they after all who pushed the institutional coup, and the highly questionable judicial manoeuvres against Lula. The Left is too weak and fragmented right now to hold up the house, and its questionable whether they would seek to hold up such a rotten structure anyway. It – and especially PT – does so only as a defensive measure, because it feels worse could be on the way. Defend limited gains, and all that.

But it’s not enough on its own. And anyway, as everywhere, democratic rights were only achieved because the Left demanded them, and more. Liberal democracy is a compromise. The Right has decided to give up its end of the bargain. If the Brazilian elite had any care for even the appearance of legitimacy, it would support Lula and allow him to run. He is, after all, the best embodiment of the New Republic, and anyway is someone they can work with – as his conciliation has shown time and again.


L-R: Not elected; Corrupt, resigned to avoid impeachment; Left office with negative approval ratings; Most popular ever president, now convicted; Impeached; Not elected

But they blindly, moronically, refuse to do so. To flip around the Latin American Right’s favourite jibe, if they care so little for democracy, they should f*** off to Cuba. Consequently, I fear the game is up for the Brazilian Sixth Republic. The beginning of the end may actually have been something that I don’t believe has been fully reckoned with, internalised: the June 2013 protests.

But in itself this was not a sufficient condition. However, add in the deep economic crisis (which Brazil has not recovered from, whatever the historically high stock market says; look at the job numbers, the degree of flexibilisation that make the job numbers look better than they are, the number of people discouraged from formal employment altogether, and on and on), the rancorous polarisation of the 2014 election campaign, the even more acrimonious attitude of 2015-now, and the blatant, flaunted mediocrity and corruption of the political class… and yeah. I’m not certain how much longer this institutional arrangement lasts.

The most gloomy conspiracy theorists are likely wrong, and October’s elections will go ahead. It would be an unimaginable outrage were they not to. But the teetering structure won’t hold for much longer; just think through the outcome scenarios… Bolsonaro would create a much more authoritarian society and state. Lula – or AN Other Petista – would face a governability crisis and might be pushed out once again. Any candidate of the centre-right would govern having failed to win 70% of the Brazilian electorate over in the second round, and – even without further neoliberal reforms – would face a serious questions over their legitimacy. And this is all before we factor in (a) the worsening public security situation, a serious breakdown of which would usher in authoritarian responses; and (b) whether the Brazilian masses take to the streets again, which they’ve threatened to do, but have largely been absent since the March 2017 general strike. In any scenario, I struggle to see how this Republic lasts, and makes it much beyond the next election.