Brazil’s Coalition Against Democracy

Brazil’s Coalition Against Democracy

Jair Bolsonaro’s electorate—a loose coalition brought together by the candidate’s appeal to “bullets, bibles, and bulls”—stands perilously close to dragging Brazil back into authoritarianism.

Supporters of Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro rally in São Paulo, September 9 (Mídia NINJA / Flickr)

Jair Bolsonaro gained 46 percent of the vote in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election by appealing to a loose coalition of voters known as the BBB, for Bullets, Bibles, and Bulls. The initials refer primarily to the organized blocs of members of congress joined in the coalition. But they can also be considered shorthand for the voters who elected them, and their preference for tough-on-crime policing, socially conservative policies, and preferential treatment for agribusiness. Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro’s social-democratic opponent in the second round on October 28, needs to peel away some of these voters while creating his own coalition if he is to have any chance of winning and saving Brazilian democracy.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this election. One candidate believes in democracy, the other does not: Bolsonaro has made it clear through his words and actions that he favors military and police action untrammeled by the rule of law. He does not believe that minorities, like indigenous groups or quilombolas (descendants of communities of runaway slaves), deserve to have their rights protected.

Haddad, in contrast, was a moderate and effective Workers Party (PT) mayor of São Paulo from 2013 through 2016 and has espoused a platform that emphasizes the continuation of the social spending the PT enacted over the course of roughly the decade it held power (2004–2016). (Some of these, like the conditional cash transfer program Bolsa Família, have already been diminished under the current administration. Haddad proposes to return them to prior levels.) But he faces a nearly insurmountable challenge. Many voters resent the PT for corruption during the presidential administrations of Lula da Silva (2004–2012) and his successor Dilma Rousseff, whose second term ended with her impeachment in mid-2016. PT supporters insist that the party has been no more corrupt than any of its competitors. This argument is broadly true but irrelevant in the short-term.

Who are Bolsonaro’s voters? The Bullets are those convinced that the only way to stem criminal violence is through aggressive repression by the army and police. The Bible voters are evangelical Protestants, who now number more than a fifth of Brazil’s population. The Bulls profit from the export-commodity agriculture of Brazil’s south and center-west.

Bullet voters are not about to change their preference for the second round. This is Bolsonaro’s base, and the sector to which he has pandered shamelessly. He began his political ascent some thirty years ago as a renegade army officer reluctant to see the dictatorship cede power to a fledgling democracy. Since then, he has continually promised to “clean up” the country by killing anyone suspected of being a criminal. This is the candidate who has said, “You won’t change anything in this country through voting. . . . Unfortunately, you’ll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military regime didn’t do. Killing 30,000, starting with FHC [former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso].”

Bullet voters are also the most terrifying ones. After Bolsonaro’s first-round triumph, his supporters took to the streets to attack his opponents. One notorious example came on the night of the the election, in the northeastern city of Salvador da Bahia. A Bolsonaro supporter stabbed to death Romualdo da Costa, better known by his adopted Yoruba name of Moa do Katendê. Katendê was sixty-three years old, an esteemed elder among practitioners of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, and leader of an afoxé (a group that wends through the streets of the city playing Afro-Bahian spiritual music). His offense was to try to persuade his eventual assailant, a young man in a Bolsonaro t-shirt, to change his political allegiance. Katendê’s death struck at the heart of the predominantly black city, signaling what a Bolsonaro victory would mean for those Afro-Brazilians who oppose him.

Another chilling case came from Brazil’s predominantly white south, where Bolsonaro’s appeal is far stronger. The day after the first round, knife-wielding assailants attacked a young woman with an LGBT+ sticker on her backpack, wearing a shirt reading Ele Não, or Not Him (the slogan of the opposition to Bolsonaro) and carved a swastika in her abdomen. Police have not caught the assailants and have expressed public doubt about whether the cuttings represent a swastika, despite widely circulated images. The young woman, fearing reprisals, has not revealed her identity to the public.

Bolsonaro himself was stabbed in the street at a political rally weeks before the first round, an incident that strengthened his emotional appeal to his followers. But there is no doubt that it is Bolsonaro’s supporters who are committing the vast majority of violent attacks in recent days. And their primary targets are anyone suspected of affiliation with black, LGBTQ, or feminist movements.

The Bible voters are less beholden to Bolsonaro. His disdain for LGBTQ rights and his rhetorical celebration of patriarchal authority has evidently resonated with many of them. But the disorderly violence of the Bullet partisans could alienate moderate evangelicals. And while most members of this group have opposed the PT in recent years, Haddad’s humane approach and his record as a popular mayor of São Paulo could persuade some to change their minds. As mayor, Haddad created over 300 kilometers of new bike lanes through the city, and would occasionally ride his own bike along the paths. On one occasion, an angry citizen grabbed Haddad’s handlebars and would not let him pass. The mayor dismounted, left his bicycle behind, and continued on foot. Where Bolsonaro looks for conflict, Haddad opts for deescalation.

The Bulls are the most recent group to get on Bolsonaro’s bandwagon: the agribusiness bloc in Congress only declared its support for him in the last weeks before the first round, a sign it does not have much faith in his leadership. But Bolsonaro and the army officers he has chosen as likely cabinet ministers have successfully wooed this sector with promises to restrain Brazil’s environmental protection agency and curtail the land claims of indigenous groups and quilombolas, or descendants of communities of runaway slaves. (The land rights of these groups are ostensibly enshrined in the 1988 Constitution, but, in practice, they require constant judicial and physical vigilance to uphold.)

While the agribusiness bloc in Congress is united behind Bolsonaro, its electorate is less predictable. In the run-up to the 2004 election, Lula reassured business elites he would not fundamentally undermine their interests, a reassurance that proved decisive in his victory. The current context is less favorable for any candidate to make a similar promise; in 2004, Brazil’s economy was growing steadily, whereas the nation has now endured five years of economic stagnation marked by wild policy swings. But the agribusiness sector depends on exports. And Haddad may be able to persuade many voters in this sector that any short-term gains under a Bolsonaro administration are not worth the international opprobrium his victory would produce.

Most of all, Haddad needs to persuade voters that he represents the hope of salvaging Brazilian democracy. He has already won the allegiance of many voters skeptical of the PT but convinced that Bolsonaro represents a greater danger. Several of his rivals in the first round, like Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labor Party and Marina Silva of REDE (the Sustainability Network), have given him their support in the second round.

He also has the support of Brazil’s most brilliant cultural icons, a factor that has proven influential in every election since the end of the military dictatorship. The popular composer, performer, and poet Arnaldo Antunes has galvanized opposition to Bolsonaro with a ten-minute spoken-word piece calling attention to the peril of Bolsonaro’s appeal. The piece, which begins with the words, “This is not a poem,” is circulating widely on social media.

It begins by linking the death of Moa do Katendê to the history of Afro-Brazilian suffering and the richness of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian cultural legacy. It then cites Bolsonaro’s inflammatory declarations, and sketches the broader, ravaged landscape of Brazilian politics—the fire that destroyed the National Museum in early September, for example, and the assassination of courageous black congresswoman Marielle Franco last March. Among its more plaintive lines are the observation that a Bolsonaro victory

will finish off forever
the dream of a nation
that has the chance
to give to the world
its original
now fated to repeat the worst that has happened
in history

The piece synthesizes the conflict Brazil faces and its enormous stakes. It also symbolizes the fragility of the hopes of all those who oppose Bolsonaro, and perhaps the power of that hope. A poem, a dream and the candidate of a tarnished party may not be much to pit against Bolsonaro and his appeal to bullets, bibles, and bulls. But they may be the best chance Brazil has to escape a Bolsonaro presidency, which would be a tragic step backwards for the country.

Since winning the first round, Bolsonaro has made a half-hearted attempt to shift towards the center, promising to govern with authority, not authoritarianism. But it strains credulity to believe that after whipping up the frenzy of the Bullets as a candidate, he will seek to restrain and punish them if he wins office. His contempt for environmental protections also promise disaster, particularly in the Amazon—not least because of the region’s importance to the global climate. Brazil has struggled for a generation to contain police violence, protect the rights of minorities, and eliminate enslavement in the agrarian sector. Its progress has been halting and setbacks have been demoralizing. But in every sphere, there have been improvements since the end of the dictatorship in 1985. A Bolsonaro presidency would put all these gains—and democracy itself—at risk.

Bryan McCann is former president of the Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) and Professor of Brazilian History at Georgetown University.