After the victory of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s left is shattered and divided

The new president’s opponents are distraught but they must dream a better country into reality.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Brazilian reality, even when grim, has a certain commitment to irony.

Sixteen years after the Brazilian Workers Party’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva celebrated his 2002 victory and made a bid for unity by forgiving those who jailed him during the country’s brutal dictatorship, Lula watches his anointed heir, Fernando Haddad, be defeated in a second round presidential run off by Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro became the country’s new ruler, despite, or maybe because of, his praise for the dictatorship and its bloody practices through most his career.

Bolsonaro’s victory came slowly; on Sunday it felt more like a surrender than a shock. Through the week since the first round of polls, life seemed to adjust to what was to come. Policemen had entered universities with flimsy mandates, demanding that anti-fascist banners were taken down. Gay men and women debated what life would be like in the future.

When the result was announced, fireworks, car horns and gunshots drowned screams from opposing sides. Some fighting broke out across the country, though most of it quickly subsided. In this way, the new Brazil was much like before: angry, petty and mean.

“We shall go through with our mission to rescue Brazil”, Bolsonaro declared. His followers, who had in the past 30 days terrorised anyone they deemed to be “on the left”, cheered their leader. Bolsonaro, in a Facebook livestream, just before the speech, criticised the press and talked about ending communism.

Others wept. Bolsonaro’s promises of respecting the constitution were mixed with words about god and other military leaders. Many Bolsonaro voters believed he would not follow through on his threats. Some feared the opposite. There was no reason to believe that an unchanged man would be transformed by power. There’s no worse feeling than knowing tomorrow belongs to someone else.

Bolsonaro draws a lot of comparisons to Donald Trump, but the closest comparisons may be Phillipines’ hardliner Rodrigo Duterte and Alberto Fujimori, the Peruvian president who shut down Congress and is accused of being complicit in the actions of death squads. This is not to say that Bolsonaro might follow their every lead exactly - the Brazilian political system grinds down most presidential ambitions - but helps set a standard of what could possibly await a disorganised opposition.

There are inconvenient questions that the Brazilian left must answer, questions that will leave it feeling uncomfortable. Why did leftism allowed itself to be represented by only one man, Lula, now in jail? How can it speak about the concerns on crime without pandering to the same horrifying sentiments behind Bolsonaro’s rise? Why did it hesitate in condemning the awful dictatorship in Venezuela, opening itself to criticism that it had no real care for democracy? Above all, there is one pressing concern: how long do they have to get it right?

The problem, however, is that the movement which now form the Brazilian opposition has become stunted. It is overtly academic in a country of millions of illiterate men and women; it is suspicious of religion in a Christian nation. It is passionate about political egos, forgetting what life is like for average Brazilians. Democracy is something worth dying for, but it’s a distant ideal for many living in fear of murder or economic collapse.

Politically, the Brazilian Workers Party is split over how to proceed. One strain is represented by failed candidate Haddad, a broad center-left representative, who in the past few days has acknowledged the need for new answers. The other strain, represented by party president Gleisi Hoffmann, represents a more traditional Brazilian left discourse. Hoffman often doubles down on the party’s own mythology and mistakes. Without Lula to instruct how to proceed and balance these factions, it is hard to see how they will learn to live with each other.

The party and its voters can ill afford these philosophical debates. It needs to choose between making the same mistakes again, or being part of a welcoming force for democracy, large enough to fit far left and democratic centrists; if it cannot do it, then something else must take its place urgently. About 55 per cent of Brazilians voted for a man opposed to the rights and even existence of their brothers and sisters, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. It is the left’s mission to turn monsters back into men.

If there is anything to be learned from Brazilian history, is that it tragedies do happen, that the strong can crush the weak, that there is no arc of justice. Yet the opposite is also true: throughout all its history, there have always been enough people willing to dream of a better future. Many people have become engaged in politics for the first time with this election. It is necessary to harness that. The Brazilian left must dream a better country into reality.