The Brazilian Election and Latin America’s Democratic/Authoritarian Cycles

 Jair Bolsonaro and supporters

Jair Bolsonaro and supporters

When Latin America made the transition to electoral democracy in the mid-1980s, the process was hailed as marking the end to the region’s fluctuations between authoritarianism and democracy. Recent events, especially in Brazil, tell a different story.  Between 2006 and 2011, it seemed possible that the program of a moderate social democratic program could be reconciled with a neoliberal global orientation: Brazil dramatically reduced poverty, public spending was kept in check, while big businesses expanded both exports and investments abroad. Now we see a sharp turn to the political right in Brazil and the inevitability of policies that will contribute to social deterioration. With 99 percent of the votes in, right populist presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, leads with 46 percent of the vote. He is expected to win the second round of voting on October 28. 

The rise of the populist right is a widespread phenomenon, but its political importance in Brazil is especially troubling. Jair Bolsonaro draws support not only from the business community and middle classes, but also from among the poor, many of whose lives improved substantially under Labor Party (PT) rule. Moreover, the rise of this political right coincides with a sharp drop in Brazilian support for democracy as the best form of government and a rise in the public’s predisposition toward military intervention.  Bolsonaro himself has close ties to the Brazilian military, has declared the period of brutal military rule between 1964 and 1985 to have been a golden age of peace and stability, and is likely to appoint military personnel to top government positions should he assume power. While many have rejected out of hand the possibility of a military take-over, there are worrying signs that the military is losing patience with the country’s political turmoil. 

The Commodity Boom Papered over the lack of a Political Settlement

 Bolsonaro's investment banker economic advisor, Paulo Guedes

Bolsonaro's investment banker economic advisor, Paulo Guedes

It is not difficult to understand business support for Bolsonaro. While Bolsonaro is not the private sector’s first choice (that choice lacked the popular support necessary for any hope of success), he has won over business through his appointment of Brazilian investment banker, Paulo Guedes, as the head of his economic team. Despite the state generosity dispensed to business conglomerates while the PT was in power, the country’s private sector has remained intensely hostile to the PT and strongly committed to a much “purer” neoliberal agenda involving more privatization and labor flexibilization.  Business and landed interests never became reconciled to the social agenda of either Presidents Lula or Rousseff. Big landowners, where Bolsonaro draws an important base of support, remained particularly hostile. Middle classes were on board as long as there was economic growth and relative physical security. There is neither now. Moreover, as the PT’s social programs became increasingly directed toward the poor, support from middle classes arguably waned. 

Lula remains immensely popular--if he were not in jail, he could probably have won the election. This broader support, however, did not translate into support for his designated PT presidential candidate, Fernando Haddad. The enduring support for Lula arises from a combination of his commitment to social justice and the economic prosperity and real material improvements that occurred for the poor during the time he was in office. From 2011, the year his successor, Dilma Rousseff took power, the decline in commodity prices gave rise to mounting economic insecurity, particularly among those who had recently risen from poverty. Physical insecurity linked to increased crime rates exacerbated the situation. Hence, Lula, not the PT, is associated in the popular mind with good times and greater social justice.  Moreover, the hopes and expectations raised by the substantial improvements of the Lula years made the economic downturn that much more painful for those who feared the loss of recent improvements. 

 PT presidential candidate Fernando Haddad with former president Lula

PT presidential candidate Fernando Haddad with former president Lula

The end of the commodity boom and a growing sentiment of economic insecurity gave the PT’s detractors the opportunity to rally opposition against the regime. Much of this opposition revolved around the issue of corruption, which was widespread, including among PT politicians. However, corruption, as I point out in an earlier post, is, among other things, a symptom of the lack of a political settlement insofar as it secures the quiescence of an otherwise recalcitrant private sector. 

For the commodity boom/social democratic years to have had an enduring positive impact on social welfare, a cross-societal consensus on the regime’s social justice goals was necessary. Business and middle class groups, and more privileged sectors of the working class, would have to make redistributive concessions. A strategy for employment generation in (new) productive activities was also required—not something that a business class so closely attuned to neoliberalism was likely to give strong support to.  While it is certainly true that even had there been a redistributive settlement the commodity downturn would have created political difficulties for the regime, the consequences would not likely have been as dire as they currently are. 

The Commodity Boom made a Redistributive Settlement and Structural Transformation Unnecessary

The commodity boom insulated the PT regime from the necessity of a redistributive settlement and basic changes in productive structure. Indeed, Brazil and other Latin American countries became ever more dependent on commodity exports as a consequence of the recent boom. Tough discussions about tax reform and other redistributive measures could be avoided. Interventionist measures encouraging investment and export diversification could also be sidestepped, an almost necessary choice given the private sector’s aversion to state intervention in the economy. Meanwhile, the boom did make available the resources for expanded government spending on social programs—but this was only a viable strategy for social improvement while the commodity boom lasted. 

 Anti Bolsonaro protest

Anti Bolsonaro protest

A tilt to the political right and greater authoritarianism has occurred in other commodity-dependent South American countries (Argentina, Ecuador). Where the left has retained power (Bolivia), authoritarianism of the populist left has been seen as essential to protect social gains. The absence of redistributive settlements and the consequent lack of transformations in productive structure are an integral part of this fluctuation between left and right regimes and between democracy and increasingly authoritarian forms of electoral democracy. Political polarization is a predominant feature of the process. Generally, the more powerful, frightened, and internationally integrated the private sector (the Brazilian case), the more likely it will be to support extremist right candidates, particularly populist ones able to garner votes. Where the private sector is weaker, the populist left has had a better shot at survival but the situation is a deeply discouraging one. Given the integration of Latin American business elites with economic globalization, one might question whether the political settlements and structural transformations that are so desperately needed are possible—but this will be the topic of a later post.