In the Brazilian capital, one finds an atmosphere of confusion and concern. The large square housing the monumental buildings that are home to the President of the Republic, the National Congress and the Supreme Federal Court does not seem to have enough room to contain all the contradictions and tensions that have accumulated in the country.
The “soft coup” which led to the dismissal of Dilma and the swearing in of Temer was finalized by Lula’s arrest. The anti-corruption Operation “Lava Jato,” launched by law enforcement in 2014, has involved a large part of the Brazilian political class and has had a profound effect on the political balance, causing fractures and restructuring, with a repositioning of all political and social forces. Within Congress, a conservative front has formed, similar, in its features and dimensions, to what was there in 1964, the year that launched 20 years of military dictatorship.
The agribusiness wing (bancada ruralista), the religious fundamentalists (bancada evangelica), and the reserve military have all coalesced around Temer to approve a series of highly unpopular reforms.
His labor reform, with its package of provisions that are fueling insecurity and removing protections for workers, was approved in 2017. The pension reform, which raises the retirement age and cuts pension benefits, is in the process of being approved.
These are reforms wanted by the economic and financial sectors, to which the president owes a debt of gratitude for their support. Temer is not a contender in the presidential race.
He is extraordinarily disliked, with an approval rating so low that the most generous polls give him 3 percent approval.
But he is working to bring to bear, against any candidate more viable than himself, the wrath of the conservative forces which have been supporting him in recent months. In this political climate, questions are being raised about the state of democracy in Brazil.
There is a new element in play, which is arousing great concern in pro-democracy circles: the entrance of the military on the political stage. They have regained their voice and visibility, and some sectors of society hold them in high regard and are calling on them to intervene “to put a stop mismanagement and corruption.” The Constitution of 1988 had reduced the military’s role exclusively to tasks related to national defense. Temer’s decision to deploy the military in the favelas of Rio shows a willingness to make use of soldiers again in activities of social control, like in the days of the military dictatorship.
Marielle Franco, an activist involved in the defense of human rights, had denounced in every possible way this decision to use the military to solve the problems of the favelas.
She forcefully argued that the use of armored vehicles in the poorest districts of the country would only lead to more social devastation. The brave voice of this black woman from the favelas was snuffed out on March 14. All the while, the military have already expressed their willingness to take on an active role in the current political situation.
In September 2017, General Antonio Mourao, the Army’s Economic and Financial Secretary and a former head of the Southern Military Command, the most important in the country, argued that it was time to suspend the constitutional order as a solution to the current political crisis. Then in April, the head of the armed forces himself, General Edoardo Vilas Boas, broke onto the political scene, in the days when the Federal Supreme Court was making its decision regarding the call for Lula’s arrest. Vilas Boas wrote on Twitter: “In this situation that has taken hold in Brazil, what needs to be done is to ask the institutions and the people: who is really thinking about the good of the country and future generations, and who is concerned only with personal interests?” In a second tweet, he wished to “reassure the country that the Brazilian Army shares the desire of law-abiding citizens concerning the rejection of impunity and respect for the Constitution.” This was an obvious form of pressure being exerted on the Court, aiming to influence its decision.
Once the dam burst, a large number of high-level military officials took explicit political positions and turned to social media for direct channels of communication with the population.
In this way, the positions that members of the military express online are being picked up and amplified by the national media. Furthermore, the federal deputy Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a member of the reserve forces, is polling at 20 percent ahead of the presidential elections in October. A representative of the extreme nationalist right, he is the candidate of reference for those who favor forms of religious fundamentalism.
His slogan is “Brazil above everything, God above all.” He styles himself as an outsider, even as he has been a member of Congress since 1990. For his ideas on the economy and society, he has earned the nickname “the Brazilian Trump.”
He denies that there has ever been a military dictatorship in the country. He is currently on trial for racism, for having compared some communities in Brazil (the Quilombolas) to animals. During the impeachment vote that decided the fate of President Dilma, he declared that he dedicated his vote to the army colonel who had authorized the torture of the same Dilma and other left-wing militants during the dictatorship.
The media loyal to him claim he is the only politician capable of arousing enthusiasm among the people, and every time he appears in public people chat the slogan “mito” — “the myth.”
In a situation in which the electorate has had its fill of scandals and corruption and is manifesting its disgust toward the political class as a whole, a character like Bolsonaro, with his appeal to law and order, might be able to obtain a large number of votes and get into the runoff.
Only Lula, who was at 36 percent in the polls before his arrest, seemed able to bar him from this goal. Lula continues to enjoy the support of the Workers’ Party, the trade unions and social movements. The most prominent May Day event this year took place at Curitiba, where he is being held. But remaining imprisoned may affect his standing in the polls. The latest, carried out these days by Istituto Datafolha, has him at 31 percent.
Registrations for presidential candidates can still be filed until Aug. 30 and then have to pass the scrutiny of the Electoral Tribunal, which can exclude those who have been convicted by an appeals court, as is the case for Lula, although he has filed an appeal against his sentence. But few in Brazil think the former president will be freed before the elections, which would only happen in case of a ruling of unconstitutionality regarding his detention, or of a mistrial because of some procedural error.
If it is true that a concerted effort has been organized to prevent him from running, it simply cannot be the case that they will release him, on their watch, so he can be elected triumphantly. At that point, only the military could still stop him, which would open up devastating scenarios for the country. The opinion polls at the moment are asking voters about two distinct scenarios: with Lula participating or without him.
The climate of uncertainty has led to a thorough fragmentation in terms of support for candidates. Apart from Jair Bolsonaro, none of the other candidates are able to crack 10 percent. Voting is compulsory in Brazil, and the 30 percent support that Lula still enjoys will have to go somewhere. In a scenario without Lula running, this could bolster the candidacy of Marina Silva (of the REDE – Sustainability Network Party), which has just been made official.
Silva is a former environmentalist leader and environment minister in Lula’s government, with a long history of militancy in the Workers Party, which she left due to conflicts with Dilma. She finished third in the 2014 presidential elections. She has expressed support for Operation “Lava Jato,” denouncing the climate of corruption that reigns in the country.
As regards Lula’s situation, she expressed solidarity on a human level and regret regarding his arrest, but did not defend him politically, saying that the former president “is paying for his mistakes.”
Meanwhile, across Brazil, the protest initiatives by indigenous communities, trade unions and social movements are continuing, aimed at stopping Temer’s policies. But there is also great concern about what will come after he is gone.
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