Victory of right-wing populism in Brazil

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Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as the 38th president of Brazil on 1 January. In his inauguration speech, he pledged to put “Brazil above everything, and God above everyone”, in a similar manner to Donald Trump’s “make America great again”. He also made a commitment to “free” Brazil from socialism.

A retired army captain, Bolsonaro is a far-right politician who was a senator from 1991 but presented himself as an outsider who would change the corrupt system, during his campaigns. This is becoming part of the pattern of right-wing populists’ rise to power. Donald Trump claimed to have been an outsider to Washington which was only half true considering his long-standing relations with governments (both democrats and republicans) as part of the American capitalist establishment. Duterte in the Philippines also did same even though he had served as a mayor.

Another element of the pattern of a rising wave of global populism is that these so-called outsiders feed on the masses’ fear and sense of economic and physical insecurity since the Great Recession. The long drawn global capitalist crisis has resulted in rising unemployment and poverty. Driven by these, crime and xenophobic sentiments have become rife.

Right-wing populists then present themselves as the strong men (and in a few instances women), who can ensure “law and order” as well as turn the economy around to make life better for everybody. But, those whom they are most interested in making life better for are the bosses, owners of big property and captains of corporations.

In the specific case of Bolsonaro, he rose to national prominence in the wake of mass protests against increases in bus fares, in 2014. Shortly after that, there was a series of investigations into corruption by public officials, which is called the “car wash” inquiries. 150 politicians across party lines were indicted. Prominent amongst this was Lula Ignacio da Silva, former trade union leader, and president on the platform of the Workers Party.

Lula who still enjoys immense popularity amongst the working people and intended to run for the president again has maintained his innocence. But he was jailed and denied opportunity to contest. The bosses’ class was not going to allow the initiative slip out of their hand after Djilma Roussef, who succeeded Lula was removed, supposedly for corruption as well, in 2016.

Bolsonaro’s first few days

Within the first week of his presidency, Jair Bolsonaro passed presidential decrees which; reduced the upward review of the minimum wage, introduced close monitoring of NGOs and other Civil Society Organisations, removed the powers of the national indigenous agency (FUNAI) to delineate the territories of indigenous people and removed considerations of LGBTQ rights from the scope of the human rights ministry’s work.

Within 48 hours of taking power, the new regime began purging the civil service of people who don’t share its ideology. Left-wing contractors and workers were summarily sacked. A new pension scheme was as well unveiled. It will cut the age of retirement from 65 to 62 for men and from 60 to 57 for women by 2022.

He has also come up with proposals which would make owning a gun easier, and for breaking up Mercusor, the Latin American trading bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay (and formerly Venezuela) – with the aim of establishing free trade agreements with the United States.

All these point at the new government’s intent to strip off democratic gains made by poor working-class people over the last two decades. With such actions by the government, renewed onslaughts against progressive mass democratic organisations like the movement of rural landless workers (MST) is envisaged. Two members of the MST were killed last year in the wake of the elections.

Ending the pink tide?

Donald Trump described Bolsonora as “a great new leader”. No doubt they share a lot in common, including the desire to snuff out the influence of socialism in the working-class movement, globally. Bolsonaro confirmed that he was looking beyond just Brazil when he talked of freedom from socialist perspectives at his inauguration. At the bosses’ club called World Economic Forum held in Davos recently, he claimed that his victory represents the end of the pink tide in Latin America.

What is often described as the Pink Tide was the wave of electoral victories for radical-reformist parties in South America, which implemented socially progressive policies that led to improved health, education and housing for working-class people from the late 1990s. From Venezuela, to Brazil, Argentina to Bolivia, Honduras to Ecuador, millions of people were lifted out of poverty through pro-poor policies and programmes of governments.

A limitation of this tide however is that it did not go beyond the logic of capitalism. Despite stated commitment to a 21st century socialism by the more radical of the parties (such as in Venezuela and Bolivia), the project was tied into capitalist development. The global economic crisis contributed to unravelling the economic viability of those regimes’ social programmes, with adverse impact on their political legitimacy.

This was particularly worse in Brazil. The Workers’ Party was probably the most accommodative of the capitalist logic of development within the Pink Tide, on one hand. And on the other, it was weak in parliament, particularly at its inception. Getting involved in the practice of buying votes of other parties to pass some of its executive bills in parliament was the first step to getting sucked into the murky waters of corruption, which is integral to the dynamics of capitalism.

In power, Bolsonaro will equally reveal himself as being no less corrupt, just as we came to see with APC politicians who were calling PDP corrupt. Already, his son Flavio Bolsonaro who was recently elected into the senate pulled strings to get a supreme court judge to stop investigations involving corrupt payments of $305,000 that he and the first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro benefited from two years ago.

Michelle is not a new person to corruption. She is the president’s third wife, but before then, in 2007 she was his employee in the national assembly and her salary was doubled in barely a year. Bolsonaro fired her (and then married her) after people spoke out.

There will be fightback

It is obvious that the rash of anti-poor policies that the regime has rolled out in so short a time are just the tip of the iceberg of its right-wing programme. With the influence of Paulo Guedes, a neoliberal ideologue as finance minister, more of such is to be expected, including cuts in public spending to bring down budget deficit.

But such steps will help undermine the support he got from a significant proportion of working-class people who voted for him mainly to stem crime and stamp out corruption. And the mas organisations of working-class people, including the MST, trade unions, left parties and a broad array of civil society organisations will be the backbone of a new era of resistance.

What Jair Bolsonaro fails to see is that the pink tide, limited as it was, was not something just about leaders and governments. The oceans from which that tide rose are the mass movements of working-class people and their organisations. And again, they will rise.

by Baba AYE

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