Brazil’s Candidates Need to Stop the Violence

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It was a busy last week for Brazilian yahoos. In Salvador, a seaside town in Bahia state, a martial arts master was stabbed to death. His offense? Admitting he’d voted for the candidate from the left-wing Workers' Party. In Recife, a government employee wearing left-wing campaign buttons landed in the hospital after being set upon by sympathizers of right-wing presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro. An angry mob of his supporters in Rio de Janeiro also beat up a transgender singer; LGBT people have been among Bolsonaro’s choice targets for derision.

Yes, leftist militants have also waged politically motivated aggression, but most of the rage on record is down to Bolsonaristas, who have been tied to some 50 incidents in 18 different Brazilian states. And never mind the battle of fake news, ad hominem assaults, attacks on journalists, and gaslighting by social media before and after the October 7 election.

The overheated campaign has stoked concerns over the fate of Brazilian democracy. Yet the immediate danger is not to national institutions but to Brazilian civility.

Bolsonaro and his rival, left-wing Workers' Party candidate Fernando Haddad, need to call off the march of fury by partisan goons. They might take a cue from the country’s beloved sport. Brazil’s professional footballers know that clubs will be held liable for violence or uncivil behavior by their fans. (In 2014, one team was fined and tossed out of a national tournament after fans yelled racist epithets at a visiting club’s goalkeeper.) After all, mayhem in the stadium broadcast nationally is a stain on the team brand. Holding candidates to account for the excesses of their following is more difficult, but zero tolerance for political hooliganism ought to be a talking point in every stump speech.

Belatedly, the candidates have taken note: Both campaigns took a break from hurling mud this week to plump for calm. “I don’t want votes from those who commit violent acts against adversaries,” Bolsonaro said in a tweet Wednesday night. Haddad went further, calling for a national pact against political violence.

Campaign analysts can also do their part by tamping down the cries over creeping fascism, the return of the military and the imminent collapse of Brazil’s democratic order. Brazil is unlikely to slide back into dictatorship, as worried partisans, some international analysts and Roger Waters have fretted.

Brazil’s most democratic constitution since independence has just completed 30 years. For all its flaws and a few outrages, the charter is intact and strong. The armed forces returned to the barracks in 1985, their reputation singed by a record of torture, 21 years of authoritarianism and deficit spending that stoked growth but set up Brazil for hyperinflation and unsustainable debt. Beyond the clamor of a few misfits, they have no ambition or any credible demand to govern again.

Although Bolsonaro hypes his military years, he has been out of uniform since 1988. True, his running mate, hard-line former general Antonio Hamilton Mourao, talks tough but his bravado has routinely misfired among the Brazilian brass. In 2015, he was demoted for defending a “patriotic awakening” among the armed forces and earlier this year was remanded to the reserves for defending military intervention. Armed Forces Commander General Eduardo Villas Boas has spoken clearly: Only “crazy people” support military intervention, he said. Even Bolsonaro has told him to tone it down.

“Bolsonaro is not the armed forces candidate much less its spokesman,” a Brazilian lieutenant colonel I know told me. “To me someone who spent 12 years in the army and the next three decades in elected office is a politician not a soldier.”

Parsing Brazil’s politics takes discernment. “It’s important to remember that politics is not a Manichean game of good guys or bad, and progressives versus dictators,” Brazilian political scientist Bolivar Lamounier, head of the Augurium consultancy, told me. In this sense, Bolsonaro is not the cause but a right-wing reaction to an already acutely polarized society. “Dividing the world into them versus us was the playbook of the Workers’ Party,” said Lamounier. “Bolsonaro didn’t invent the culture wars and identity politics, he reacted to them, and found resonance.”

Which way the politicians fall ultimately will be down to Brazilian society, which is loathe to put up with a martial leader or a descent into the sort of chaos that has overwhelmed neighboring Venezuela. “Hugo Chavez neutralized the media, stacked the justice system, and dominated the legislature,” said Mailson da Nobrega, a former finance minister and investment consultant. “Brazil is not Venezuela.”

Nor is it still hostage to a bankrupt political establishment. In the October 7 balloting, Brazilian voters rejected 56 percent of incumbent legislators, including 24 of 32 senators up for re-election, provoking the biggest legislative upheaval since 1986.

For all its failings, the unpopular Brazilian congress is also a rein on executive overreach. Bolsonaro’s party surprised pundits by capturing 52 seats in the lower house, up from five, to become the second largest legislative delegation. Yet he will need five times that many congressional allies to pass ordinary legislation and 308 votes to reach the supermajority required to approve constitutional amendments (such as pension system  changes to fix the profligate economy).

That’s a daunting barrier to reform, but also to fiat and the illiberal social agenda that so many Brazil-watchers understandably fear. The good news is that both Haddad and Bolsonaro have vowed to respect the Brazilian constitution. Brazilians must now hold them to that pledge.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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