On the Saturday of 29th September 2018, a worldwide historical wave of protests against the Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro crowded the streets of 114 Brazilian cities, as well as of Paris, Lisbon, London, and New York. The movement named “#EleNão” (#NotHim) was considered the largest women-led protest in the country’s history. On October 7th, two candidates were chosen for the second round of elections that will happen on the 28th of the same month and determine who will run the executive for the next four years: Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain or Fernando Haddad, São Paulo’s former mayor.
Whenever the subject of the Brazilian upcoming elections come up around here, I get asked the same questions: “Why is Bolsonaro leading the polls?” or “Why would someone consider voting for him?”. These elections seem far from us here in Europe, not only in distance but also in concept. Although, they are much closer than we think.
When I say – us – I mean my “bubble”, which is composed of people with similar backgrounds to mine. Most of us were born after the end of the Cold War and during the beginning of widespread technology access. Since primary school, we were taught about global warming, the importance of protecting the environment, equality and Human Rights. Most of these concepts were never questioned by us. We understood why they were conceived and what could be the consequences in case we didn’t follow them.
In the last three years, Donald Trump was elected, as well as Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Salvini. The right-wing wave affected South America first with Mauricio Macri, in Argentina, now it’s Brazil’s turn with Bolsonaro. The presidential candidate who got 49 million votes in the first round of elections is openly in favor of the return of the military regime, torture, unequal wage between genders, he advocates that allowing access to firearms is the best way to fight crime and declared that once elected he will withdraw Brazil of the United Nations. Besides being known for controversial statements against women, ethnic minorities and the LGBT community.
When people started asking me about the Brazilian elections and Jair Bolsonaro – a name I have been hearing since high school and that I never took seriously until I started seeing friends and family supporting him – I started to wonder about what actually goes through the mind of someone who is aware of everything he stands for, who is aware of our country’s history and still, decides that this man is the best choice for President. How could they vote for a person who opposes years of critical thinking and efforts as a society to overcame prejudices to develop an egalitarian society?
I was not convinced by the widespread superficial argument posed by his opposition that “people endorse him because he stands for everything they secretly believe in”. Therefore, around August, I read an article on the Brazilian Le Monde Diplomatique, written by Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist from the University of Berkeley in California, summing up her metaphor of the “line-cutters”. In her book, she starts explaining her methodology with this sentence:
A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.
My proposal is to follow her example and stand back from my bubble, beyond judgment, to try to understand Bolsonaro’s supporters point of view. The exercise of distancing yourself from what you believe in, especially regarding a subject that affects you directly, is deeply challenging, but I will try my best to remain impartial while comparing her analysis of the Tea Partiers’ with Brazilian right-wing supporters. Hence, the purpose of this article is to try to understand why minorities, mainly women, knowing his government proposals and statements previously done, declare they will vote for him.
Jair Messias Bolsonaro is 63 years old and was born in Glicério, in the state of São Paulo. Graduated from the Academia Militar das Agulhas Negras (Black Needles Military Academy), serving as a paratrooper from 1971 to 1988 in the brazilian army. In 1989, started his political career as a Councilman, in the city of Rio de Janeiro and two years later was elected for the first time to the federal Chamber of Deputies. The former Captain is considered a “new” politician, even though he has been in Chamber for 26 years. During these years he proposed 171 bills, only 2 were accepted. Currently, he is the leading presidential candidate on polls for the upcoming two-person run-off that will happen on October 28th.
Contextualizing the scenario
The country is still recovering from the worst recession on record, which started in 2014 and is still not completely gone. Violence plagues the cities, mainly in impoverished areas (favelas). Police abuse contributes to the cycle. Prisons hold 97% more inmates than they were designed for. Unemployment is at 12,7%. In addition to the cringe-worthy corruption scandals that set place in the country the last few years, it isn’t hard to comprehend why the majority of society – not to say every single Brazilian – is unsatisfied with their homeland.
The far-right candidate is considered new because he represents an alternative to the battle between two of the most influential parties, PT (Workers’ Party) and PSDB (Social Democratic Party), as he belongs to PSL (Social Liberal Party). Both aforementioned parties were involved in the Car Wash scandal, responsible for arresting businessmen and part of the political elite, including former President Lula, from PT, who was convicted with corruption charges.
Bolsonaro started to gain popularity before the fall of PT’s government, in 2015. As he was not involved in the main corruption scandals of that time, he is seen by his voters as an opportunity for change, a politician “strong enough” to leave behind the fear of a new economic crisis and cease the problems caused by enrooted corruption in Brazilian institutions.
The Great Paradox and the line-cutters
The sociologist Arlie Hochschild, from the University of California, analyzed why minorities were seduced by Trump’s campaign in 2016. In her book “Strangers in Their Own Land”, which was nominated for a National Book Award, she proposes a look of empathy towards supporters of the elected President.
Through a series of interviews, visits and meetings in the state of Louisiana, with current American President’s supporters, the writer investigates the “Great Paradox” behind the objection to governmental help from people and places where it is necessary. The book comprises mainly the story of six characters. One of them lives in a polluted swamp, he and his wife have had cancer. However, he votes for candidates hostile to environmental regulation, because in his point of view, banning abortion is more important. Although most of the characters were part of the working class, they believed that more regulation would cost them jobs. Hence, she came up with the “line-cutters” metaphor:
“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.” Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.” The government wants you to feel sorry for them. And who runs the government? “The biracial son of a low-income single mother,” and he’s cheering on the line cutters. “The president and his wife are line cutters themselves.” The liberal media mocks you as racist or homophobic. Everywhere you look, “you feel betrayed.”
These feelings of strangers in their own land isn’t hard to relate to the Brazilian middle-class. After years of recession because of the “lost decade” in the 80s, where Latin American countries received loans from the World Bank and the supervision of the International Monetary Fund (with the purpose of industrialization and investment in infrastructure), Brazil suddenly found itself in a turmoil caused by the increase of oil prices, which led to higher interest rates, making it difficult to pay off the debt. With stagnated economic growth, high unemployment levels and inflation, the middle-class’ buying power was drastically reduced.
At the beginning of the 2000s, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso introduced the “Plano Real” (Real Plan), shaping the beginning of a new economy and a slow recovery from the previous years with a brand new stable currency. His successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was the second worldwide most voted candidate when he won the elections in 2002, behind of only Ronald Reagan. With almost 53 million votes, the former Union leader started his four-year mandate, followed by another four years of re-election. During his eight years in power, Brazil’s economy boosted and it was seen as “the country of the future”.
Lula oversaw robust economic growth, chipped away at the country’s massive social and economic inequality, and pushed forth Brazil’s emergence as a rising economic and geopolitical power. […] The PT promised to be a different kind of party, eschewing Brazil’s traditional clientelism, corruption, and corporatist interest-group politics. The PT called itself a class-based party, overtly committed to socialism and specifically to agrarian reform, participatory democracy, redistribution of wealth, independence from the North American superpower, and regional solidarity within Latin America. – North-American Congress on Latin America.
Thus, at the same moment that the international debt was paid off, middle class saw itself buying tickets to go to Disney World, while lower classes were included in social welfare programs: Bolsa Família and Fome Zero – financial aid to poor families. Everything was good, despite the beginning of corruption scandals involving the Workers’ Party, Brazil takes off – said the 14-page special report of The Economist in November 2009.
The problem was when these people in line, mainly coming from the southern and southern-east regions of the country, started to notice the “line-cutters”, who were receiving governmental aid, mostly in the northern and northern-east parts, until today is the main source of PT voters. Besides welfare programs, access to higher education was also provided through programs such as: ProUni (free access to private education), FIES (private education allowances) and affirmative actions to afro-descendants, indigenous and people who studied their whole life in public schools became law.
Suddenly, Venezuela. Brazilian government’s motto was then “Brazil: a country for everyone”. They facilitated access to resident permits for Venezuelans. As Hochschild wrote: “Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare. […] The government wants you to feel sorry for them”. This is too much, would say someone from São Paulo who had just lost their job. “Women who vote for Bolsonaro know that if the PT comes back, we’re headed to a fast Venezualization. This is exactly the left’s agenda” – Were the words of Janaína Paschoal, lawyer and professor at one of Brazil’s most renowned universities, São Paulo University (USP).
In October 3rd, just four days before the elections, Bolsonaro led the polls with 32% of intentions. The second leading candidate and possible adversary in the second terms was São Paulo’s former mayor, Fernando Haddad, from the Workers Party (PT), with 22%. Haddad wasn’t the Party’s first choice as Presidential candidate, but former President Lula, currently in jail.
The Party is associated with Lula, and Lula is associated with the Petrobrás scandal and that scandal has driven the country into the ground. – Forbes, October 3rd 2018.
President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, from the same Party, suffered an impeachment and was removed from office for bypassing Congress to finance government spending, in 2016. Her Vice, current President Michel Temer, from PMDB, is mentioned on several corruption scandals as well. While voting in favor of the impeachment of Dilma, Bolsonaro dedicated his congressional vote:
“In memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, Dilma’s greatest fear”
This colonel was the head of Brazil’s torture unit DOI-CODI, during the dictatorship. Like other Latin-American former Presidents: Michelle Bachelet, in Chile and José Mujica, in Uruguay, Rousseff was part of a Marxist guerrilla and fought against the military regime. Captured in 1970, she was imprisoned and tortured by the unit. On a posterior comment, the candidate mentioned that the only mistake of the regime was torturing without killing.
The fear behind voting for the same Party involved in the Car Wash scandal and the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff is one of the main arguments used by many of his voters, who’s despise for the PT leads to vote in anyone else but a candidate of the party: “He can be racist and homophobic, but his leader is not arrested. Lula is. At this moment, I would rather a racist and homophobic President who is not a thief”, said a Public Server, during a pro-Bolsonaro campaign.
Women comprise 52% of the Brazilian electorate, while holding only 11% of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 13 out of 81 in the Senate. The far-right candidate who openly supports torture and praises the dictatorship that ruled Brazil for two decades, besides being famous for statements regarding misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia is currently leading the polls with 58% of the majority of votes, 16 points in advantage from his challenger, Fernando Haddad (PT), the majority of his voters is composed of men, according to the pollings. Although he is also supported by the majority of women voters.
During the second week of September, a Facebook group was created, named “Mulheres contra Bolsonaro” (Women against Bolsonaro), in two days it had 1 million members. From this group rose the movement #EleNão (#NotHim), which quickly gained notoriety on Twitter and Instagram, being also supported by Brazilian and international celebrities.
Moreover, to try to understand what generated these waves of protests around the world, below I will mention only five of Bolsonaro’s statements regarding women:
- In 2003, Bolsonaro told the deputy Maria do Rosário, inside the Congress, on live television: “I would never rape you, because you don’t deserve it”.
- Talking about his children he stated: “I have 5 children, four of them are sons, on the last one I was weak and it came out a woman”.
- During an interview on Jornal Nacional, the anchor Renata Vasconcellos asked the candidate if he had any plans to deal with the gender pay gap in the country, as data shows that Brazilian women have an average income 25% lower than men, to which he replied: “I can’t do anything about it, it’s already in the Constitution. If a woman receives a lower salary than a man, she needs to complain. There is nothing the executive can do about it”. Also, on a previous statement, he justifies women should receive less than a man because they “have more rights” [referring to maternity leave].
- He voted to reduce the maternity leave in 1993 and afterwards stated: “I would rather hire a man than a woman because she could get pregnant”.
- In 2013, he voted in favor of the bill PL 6055/13, revoking mandatory medical care for victims of sexual abuse on public health services.
Only five of the most controversial statements regarding Women Rights were chosen to be presented here, but when talking about Human Rights, we open the doors to a broader set of worries. In fact, Bolsonaro’s voters are known for the motto “Human Rights for humans who are right [in the sense of correct conduct]”, which was present on many campaigns favoring him.
The far-right candidate alleged about the danger posed by African, Haitian and Middle Eastern refugees, considering them “the scum of humanity”. When visiting a Quilombo (black community of descendants from runaway slaves) he accused Afro-Brazilians of being obese and lazy. Compared homosexuality to pedophilia and defended beating children when they “become a little gay”. Besides saying that he would rather his son to die in an accident than have a boyfriend. According to his point of view, NGOs and social movements steal the country’s resources and as stated previously, he threatened to remove Brazil from the United Nations.
However, even after all the previous statements, the former Captain still holds the majority of female voting intentions:
Percentage of female voting intentions until October 2nd.
Graph from G1.com.br.
In this graph we notice that until 28th of September, Haddad showed an increase in female intentions of vote, surpassing Bolsonaro with 22%. Whilst on October 2nd, after the protests, Haddad fell 2% and Bolsonaro increased 6%. Hence, what are the reasons behind women voters for this candidate?
According to the journalist Joice Hasselmann, candidate for federal deputy from the same Party as the former Captain “the media is selling him as something he is not”, affirmed regarding the #EleNão movement. She also denied that the phrase “I would rather a dead son than a gay son” incites violence: “he was giving an opinion regarding his child. Anyone can give any declaration about anything”. A female medicine student stated: “I will vote for Bolsonaro because feminism is blablabla, it doesn’t fight rape, it doesn’t do anything, different than him, who defends chemical castration and gun licensing for personal defense”. These comments summarize the main thoughts of women who endorse the candidate: denial he is sexist, loathe of the Worker’s Party and the perception that gender issues are not a priority.
When a friend told me “it’s really sad to see fascist ideas rise again, while people are not doing anything about it”, I could not agree, because they are. People are voting in their favor. The majority, indeed, supports these thoughts and ideas. Therefore, when someone says: I will vote for Bolsonaro, and justify it with whichever of the aforementioned arguments, it says a great deal about their lack of empathy. Fascism is democratically winning, the only thing we can do now is hope for the best. I am sorry Mrs. Hochschild, I cannot be impartial when my homeland would rather see me dead.
- Hochschild, A. R. (2018). Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. The New Press.
- Phillips, T. (2018, April, 19). Trump of the tropics: the dangerous candidate leading Brazil’s presidential race. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/19/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-presidential-candidate-trump-parallels
- Lindner, J. (2017, July, 23). Bolsonaro aprova dois projetos em 26 anos de Congresso. Retrieved from https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,bolsonaro-aprova-dois-projetos-em-26-anos-de-congresso,70001900653
- Datafolha (2018, October, 03). Bolsonaro atinge 32%. Retrieved from http://datafolha.folha.uol.com.br/eleicoes/2018/10/1982865-bolsonaro-cresce-e-atinge-32.shtml
- Rapoza, K. (2018, October, 03). In Brazil, Bolsonaro Fever Rises. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2018/10/03/in-brazil-bolsonaro-fever-rises/#78c8731933a6
- Marques, H. (2018, July, 01). Bolsonaro defendeu redução da licença maternidade. Retrieved from https://veja.abril.com.br/politica/bolsonaro-defendeu-reducao-da-licenca-maternidade/
- Biller. D. (2018, October, 05). Brazil’s Highs and Lows. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/brazils-highs-lows
- Romero. S. (2012, August, 04). Leader’s Torture in the ‘70s Stirs Ghosts in Brazil. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/world/americas/president-rousseffs-decades-old-torture-detailed.html
- Datafolha para presidente, votos válidos: Bolsonaro, 58%; Haddad, 42%. (2018, October, 10). Retrieved from https://g1.globo.com/politica/eleicoes/2018/noticia/2018/10/10/datafolha-para-presidente-votos-validos-bolsonaro-58-haddad-42.ghtml
- Leal. P. H. (2017, April, 24). Bolsonaro and the Brazilian far right. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/democraciaabierta/pedro-henrique-leal/bolsonaro-and-brazilian-far-right
- NACLA. (2011, May, 12). Introduction: Lula’s Legacy in Brazil. Retrieved from https://nacla.org/article/introduction-lula%E2%80%99s-legacy-brazil
- Hochschild. A. (2016, September, 07). How the ‘Great Paradox’ of American politics holds the secret to Trump’s success. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/07/how-great-paradox-american-politics-holds-secret-trumps-success
- Balloussier. A. V. (2018, August, 18). Brasil sairá da ‘ONU comunista’ se eu for eleito, diz Bolsonaro. Retrieved from https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2018/08/brasil-saira-da-onu-comunista-se-for-eleito-diz-bolsonaro.shtml
- Human Rights Watch report. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/brazil
- Reuters. (2018, June, 29). Brasil tem desemprego de 12,7% no trimestre até maio, diz IBGE. Retrieved from https://exame.abril.com.br/economia/brasil-tem-desemprego-de-127-no-trimestre-ate-maio-diz-ibge/
- Martinelli, A.; Fernandes, M. (2018, September, 29). Quem são as mulheres que apoiam Bolsonaro e pedem o Movimento #EleSim. Retrieved from https://www.huffpostbrasil.com/2018/09/28/quem-sao-as-mulheres-que-apoiam-bolsonaro-e-pedem-o-movimento-elesim_a_23545310/
- Jair Bolsonaro to Maria do Rosário: “I would never rape you because you don’t deserve it”. 2003. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD8-b4wvIjc
- Why poor voters are voting on the right (in Portuguese). Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil. 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUQnPTQTCac