Brazilians have elected Jair Bolsonaro as their new president.
Bolsonaro (63 years), a populist politician who is not ashamed of anything that would embarrass the post-Latin American dictatorships, entered the last day of the election campaign leading his moderate Left-wing opponent Fernando Haddad (55 years). Indeed, he was only 4% short of winning the first election round outright on October 7. In that round Bolsonaro led Haddad by no less than 17%, and then maintained a healthy lead in the polls, all the way to his resounding win in Sunday's run-off.
Sure enough, classes and groups who have been targeted by Bolsonaro’s extremist policies, are quite worried by his victory. However, thus far, the popular disappointment after the lengthy rule of the Left (between 2003 and 2016) marred by chaos and widespread crime, seems to outweigh the fear felt by many of allowing the genie of racism out of the bottle, the return of the strong arm of military dictatorship, and the ever increasing role of extremist Evangelists who have supported and financed the Rightist candidate’s campaign.
Among the lessons of history many hesitate to comprehend, is that populist extremism, or sectarian fanaticism, are usually doomed.
Of course this does not apply to what Samuel Huntington calls the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, when one major ‘civilization’ defeats another, and by this, rewrites history. For example, during the 15th century the world witnessed two such events; the first, was the success of the Castile-Aragon’s Christian ‘neo-crusaders’ in destroying and eventually wiping out the Moorish-Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula; the second, was the success of the Ottoman Muslims in conquering Constantinople, turning the great Byzantine capital into a capital of the Ottoman’s ‘Caliphate’.
With the above-mentioned exceptions, the world has witnessed the eventual demise of extremism and populism in many places. In Spain, ‘The Inquisition’ ended after it had outlived its usefulness; a few centuries later, Franco’s military dictatorship ended after ruling Spain for almost four decades.
Italy and Germany, the two entities created by the unification and re-formation of several feudal ingredients within Europe’s realms, paid a heavy price for the extremism of the Fascists and the Nazis. The outcome of WW2 was tragic for both countries as well as to their ally, Japan.
In fact, in the ideologically-opposed camp, Russia’s Soviet experiment did not fare much better, although it managed to re-define political concepts, shake many parts of the globe, and help in bringing down European colonialism in Asia, Africa and parts of Latin America.
When they supported Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the Germans and Italians were running away from complicated fateful questions to what they convinced themselves were simple and ideal answers. In principle, one could define ‘populism’ as being the act of presenting easy and simple answers to difficult questions. Furthermore, there would always be a certain group of people, or a particular community who would be demonized and made a scapegoat for all problems.
Italy’s Fascists demonized the Leftists, Germany’s Nazis demonized the Jews as did the ultra-nationalist Russians during the ‘Pogroms’; and today, Europe’s extremist Right is demonizing Muslims, immigrants and refugees, while its American counterpart is targeting the Hispanics and Afro-Americans, and Brazil’s extremists are rising against homosexuals, Leftists and shantytowns’ (favellas’) poor!
When Brazil’s voters cast their votes, they expressed anger and disappointment at a popular experiment that had promised social justice, tolerance, job opportunities, and improvement in living conditions; which is absolutely their right. Without doubt there are no excuses for corruption. However, corruption in Brazil is not limited to one party or political current, as it exists within both sides of the political divide.
Young Brazilians, who have never lived under military dictatorship, also have every right to aspire for a clean and promising future, far away from the political camp that they had tried for more than a decade, but at least some of its leaders let them down. Thus, the young men and women are entitled now to give the other camp a chance, given its promises of a better life; because experimenting and providing the chances to correct previous mistakes, policies or choices, are democracy’s most important principles.
Having said this, however, trust brings with it heavy responsibility, and anger caused by disappointment may be huge in a country where everything is, truly, huge!
Brazil is a giant of a country, in terms of its population (with more than 200 million inhabitants), area (more than 8 million square km), resources (GDP exceeding 3.370 trillion US dollar – ranking it 8th globally), capabilities, problems, contradictions as well as aspirations.
Brazil is almost a unique case; indeed, it is ‘Latin America’s India’, just as Nigeria would be ‘Africa’s India’.
Moreover, economic and political problems may become ever more dangerous when fault lines of poverty and wealth intersect ethnic divisions (mainly between whites and non-whites), confessional identities (particularly, Catholicism vs Evangelical Protestantism) and regional economic and developmental disparity. In fact, the poor Northwest Brazil gave the Leftist candidate a big majority!
In addition, if some believe that waving the military’s ‘thick stick’ may be enough to stifle the bitterness of the disappointed, the dismay of the deprived, and the worry of the opponents, jumping from one ideological extreme to another – even through the ballot box – provides no guarantee of easy co-existence, much needed social cohesion, or promised wealth.
Brazilians suffered under military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. Then, they lived through the reign of the Left’s hero Luis Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, which was accompanied by a healthy economic boom for 8 years (between 2003 and 2011) before accusations of corruption dominated the scene, and led ‘Lula’ to be tried, convicted and imprisoned.
Last Sunday, around 150 million Brazilian faced a straightforward choice between vestiges of a corruption-blemished Leftist era and a pretty dangerous Rightist adventure, which they opted.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949