Why you should care
Because this tussle could shape the future of the second-largest economy in the Americas.
When Brazil’s then-president Dilma Rousseff was impeached in August 2016 on corruption charges, an end to the decade-plus rule of the left in the country, under her Workers’ Party, appeared imminent. Rousseff was in her second term, and her mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had served two terms as president before her.
But a slew of unpopular reform measures by Michel Temer, Rousseff’s centrist vice president who took over from her, his lack of a mandate of his own and his brazen attempts to extricate himself from corruption charges are combining to open up Brazil’s political landscape in a manner unimaginable a couple of years ago. On Oct. 25, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies voted against putting Temer, now the president, on trial on corruption charges. It was the second such vote in two months, and the cost of saving Temer was estimated by one newspaper at $9.8 billion in government spending sought by dealmaking congressmen.
We are seeing a fight between the new Brazil and the old, corrupt Brazil, which exists in all the political parties.
Sylvio Costa, political analyst
Now, with Temer not standing for president in the 2018 elections, this volatile moment has seen the revival of populist forces from both the left and right. Lula — once called “the most popular politician on earth” by Barack Obama — is seeking election on a newly radical left-wing platform. On the right, the misogynistic and homophobic firebrand Jair Bolsonaro — who mythologizes the 1964–85 dictatorship — is running second behind him in polls. Neither the left nor the right enjoys a clean reputation. But the vote against Temer last month — and the near universality of corruption allegations — may have clouded their sins in comparison, enabling them to re-emerge as contenders in what was the world’s sixth-largest economy before it tanked over the past two years. Temer’s own popularity rating stands at 3 percent.
“We are seeing a fight between the new Brazil and the old, corrupt Brazil, which exists in all the political parties,” says Sylvio Costa, founder of politics website Congresso em Foco. “Today we lower the bar for Temer. Soon it could be an undeclared amnesty for politicians. It would be an immense regression.”
Temer stands accused of obstruction of justice and being part of a conspiracy to conceal a bribery scheme. Previously, Temer was also accused of accepting a bribe from meatpacking giant JBS, an executive of which secretly recorded him at the presidential palace. These allegations are just a drop in the ocean of revelations out of the multibillion-dollar Operation Car Wash, which has ensnared dozens of leading politicians in a web of corruption charges.
Although Temer succeeded in avoiding a Supreme Court trial thanks to Congress, that has also fed the public impression that such corruption is endemic in Brasília. And that’s only one of Temer’s problems. Despite being elected as Rousseff’s vice president on a center-left platform, since taking charge Temer has attempted to reshape the economy. He has reformed labor laws, constitutionally limited spending on health and education and sought to make Brazil’s public pension system substantially less generous. “Those policies contributed to his unpopularity,” says Marcos Troyjo, co-director of the BRICLab at Columbia University. “But most people simply associate the very bad situation at present — a recession, 13 million unemployed — with the figurehead, the president.”
In other cases, a desire to placate powerful interests such as Big Agriculture and the evangelical lobby have led to unpopular decisions. Temer’s government announced plans to open a Switzerland-size slice of the Amazon to mining before backtracking; Congress sought to roll back anti-slavery protections; and Temer sought to take back the constitutional right held by indigenous tribes to claim their ancestral lands.
Into the fray have marched two old warriors of Brazilian politics.
Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2011, is comfortably leading polls with 35 percent of the vote. “He is driving to the left as compensation for what he sees as the coup against [his chosen successor] Dilma,” says David Fleischer, professor emeritus at the University of Brasília. “If elected, you could see populist economic policies like in Venezuela.”
Still seen by many in Brazil as a working-class hero, Lula may yet be barred from running if a criminal conviction for corruption and a 10-year jail sentence stemming from Operation Car Wash are upheld by an appeals court. But his rhetoric has hardened since the days he was celebrated by Western economic elites, which followed a spell in the wilderness. Lula had started out as a radical, but lost as a presidential candidate thrice before remodeling himself, recalls Costa. “He went to the center and won,” says Costa. “In this atmosphere of fragmentation, of anger, he has returned to the left.”
That atmosphere dominates the far right too, where Bolsonaro — who describes himself as “very proudly prejudiced” — is running second, with 17 percent of the vote. Long seen as beyond the pale, his militaristic, dictatorial and bigoted stances have traditionally appealed to a base of police and military officers. Now, though, his support is strong among those under 35, who do not remember the dictatorship and are dispirited with the state of the country. “Everyone else is part of the traditional political elite,” says Fleischer. “He is seen as an outsider.”
With less than a year to go to Brazil’s October 2018 elections, the country is bracing for a “change agenda,” says Costa. “There is a global cauldron we have seen in various countries that has led to very conservative positions in the mainstream,” he says. For the time being though, the left and the right can also thank Temer.