Brazil’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Election

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Family used to be a safe space for Mauro Palermo. The Rio de Janeiro publishing executive and father of two girls fondly recalled Sundays at his grandparent’s home, where no matter who was running Brazil, siblings and cousins gathered to joke, gossip and settle the world’s problems over ham-and-cheese and cashew juice.

That domestic idyll vanished with the 2018 election. Mind you, family elders did their best to keep the peace earlier this month when Palermo’s aunt celebrated her 70th birthday on the eve of the first round of voting. But with splenetic right-wing army captain Jair Bolsonaro leading the race and now favored in a runoff with former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, an eleventh hour stand-in for the scandal-soaked leftist Workers’ Party, the truce couldn’t last.

No sooner did the celebration end than Palermo’s cousin took to Facebook to “disown” the family for its support of Bolsonaro. A Workers’ Party sympathizer, he claimed to speak for his sister, a lesbian, who although never ostracized among kin would be easy prey to the coming “fascists.” “Politics has contaminated our family,” Palermo told me. “What’s worse, with social media, isolated conversations are now public and permanent. There’s no escape.”

And so it’s become in Latin America’s biggest democracy, as 147 million voters brace for this Sunday’s runoff in the most divisive, embittered and stupidly rancorous contest since the ruling generals returned to the barracks 33 years ago.

Some of this may sound overwrought, like the online buzz about an underground railroad to spirit LGBT people to safe havens abroad, or worried colleagues who tell me they’re switching from WhatsApp, the popular messaging app, to Signal.“Better encryption,” a reporter friend confided.

And some Brazilians seem to be absorbing the turmoil with characteristic good cheer. Some gays in Rio are talking of repurposing the popular security app for commuters Where’s The Gunfire (Onde tem tiroteio) to Where’s the Goon (Onde tem troglodita) to monitor homophobic violence. Then there’s the meme making the rounds: “Anyone who still hasn’t fought with friends or family over politics, this is the last week.”

Yet in a political culture I’ve tracked through seven presidencies, and long admired for its uncanny ability to smooth over differences with levity and grace, lately there’s a nasty edge to the zeitgeist. Social media reverberates with reports of distrust, resentment, borderline paranoia and outright loathing. Tales abound of party hooligans patrolling the streets for adversaries to bash or bully.

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism has logged 141 cases of threats of violence just against reporters covering the elections, most of them tied to Bolsonaro supporters.

Therapists are often the first responders in the fallout. “The positions of one candidate bring the worst out in people, while the other side reacts with total intolerance,” said Bianca Hermanny, a transpersonal therapist, who counsels many younger patients in Rio. “This is totally new and disturbing.”

Psychotherapist Eliane Seldin agrees. “I’ve never seen Brazil like this, and I lived through the dictatorship and a prison sentence,” said Seldin, who spent three month in jail for student politics under military rule. She told me of gay clients afraid to hold their lover’s hands in public or to go out at night, a black Brazilian thinking of ironing her Afro straight, and young patients afraid of gun violence or voicing “fantasies of coming to harm.”

It’s difficult to say when exactly Brazilian politics turned from a passionate political contest between adversaries into a “biblical battle between angels and demons,” as anthropologist Roberto DaMatta recently wrote.

It’s harder still to assuage friends and colleagues convinced that Brazil is about to pitch into obscurity, circa 1964, when the military took power in a coup d’etat and didn’t let go for the next 21 years. Or that Bolsonaro is not a Brazilian avatar for Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte, and that his likely victory on Sunday puts Latin America’s biggest country a quickstep away from a Bolivarian-style electoral autocracy. It could be worse in Argentina, with its imperial presidency: “If Bolsonaro won in Argentina he could rapidly destroy democracy,” historian Federico Finchestein commented on Twitter.

Not that Bolsonaro is reassuring. Again and again, he’s flaunted his contempt for the civility and temperance that cement democratic sensibility. The internet rings with his insults to women and gays, and contempt for left-wing activists. His latest pearl: “These marginal reds will be banned from the country.”

None of this should be dismissed or regarded lightly. Yet as the campaign has advanced, public scrutiny and rebuke have forced Bolsonaro to back away from some of his most odious and reckless proposals, and to muzzle his lieutenants when they vent their more alarming points of view.

In recent weeks alone he has reversed or modified his hardline campaign positions on seven different policies, such as recreating an unpopular financial transaction tax, privatizing all major state companies (he’s since exempted Petrobras, Eletrobras and big state banks), dismantling the popular cash transfer payment to the poor (now he wants to add a Christmas bonus), and trying 16-year-olds as adults (his new threshold reportedly is 17).

Tellingly, Bolsonaro immediately addressed the blowback after his son Eduardo, an elected lawmaker, archly described how to shut down the Supreme Court (“You don’t even need a jeep, just a soldier and a corporal,” he told a klatch of police officers). Bolsonaro promptly scolded his son and wrote to senior Supreme Court justice Celso de Mello, vowing to abide by the high court as the “guardian of the constitution.”

That gesture indicates not so much contrition as a recognition that power carries consequences, and that setting the tone at the top matters. It might be folly to assert, as some Brazilian political analysts have, that democracy runs “zero risk” in this election. Yet since the generals stepped down, Brazil’s political system has survived the death of a civilian president, crushing foreign debt and hyperinflation, two impeachments, and the worst recession on record. Brasilia is not Manila, where a rogue strongman can trample the judiciary, prosecutors, and congress, and the 1988 constitution is still law.

It’s not just formal institutions that bolster stability, but what political scientist Fernando Schuler, of the business school Insper, has called informal arrangements — public opinion, which since the massive protests of 2013 and every year since, has summoned crooked officials to account and kept politics honest and responsive.

That may not be enough to stop the family feuds, but it bodes well for Brazil’s vexed democracy.

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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