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Values, affect, and feminism in the Brazilian elections

By Thiago Pinto Barbosa. 156 million Brazilians were called to vote on the last Sunday of October. It was the second round of the presidential elections: Brazilians had to decide between the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and the labour party ex-president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, probably the most important protagonists of Brazil’s politics of the past decades. In the end, the election result was extremely close: Lula got 50.9 percent of the votes, Bolsonaro 49.1 percent. Just over 2 million votes separated the two candidates.

For the first time in Brazil’s (short) post-dictatorship democratic history, a president was not re-elected. Bolsonaro’s rejection had many causes: economic crisis and poverty increase, corruption scandals, Covid denialism and health mismanagement (leading to one of the world’s worst Covid-related death rates), a growing collection of misogynistic and homophobic statements, a disastrous environmental policy, etc. These were some of the factors that caused Bolsonaro’s loss, even though he actively mobilized national funds for this strongly social media-based campaign.

This turn to an extreme right-wing president has been the object of attention by many anthropologists in Brazil. The emergence of Bolsonarianism has been studied by anthropologist Rosana Pinheiro-Machado. In her book “Tomorrow will be greater” (“Amanhã vai ser maior”, 2020), the Brazilian anthropologist laid out different phenomena that have shaken Brazil’s politics since the unprecedented protests of 2014. A lot happened in Brazil’s politics since: labour party president Dilma Rousseff was impeached, different protest movements have emerged, and the right-wing extremist Bolsonaro—then a parliament member known for his scandalously controversial TV declarations—emerged with a morally charged rhetoric that promised to get Brazil back on track. His campaign with the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” fired up a cultural war against what his allies called gender ideology, the gay agenda, and communism. This mobilized fear and stirred up conservative groups in Brazil, most notably neo-Pentecostal church members, which today account for a considerable parcel of Brazil’s electorate. What was also decisive for the mainstreaming for Bolsonaro was his allyship with the liberal elite groups and the promise of neoliberal reforms, some of which, like the flexibilization of labour rights, he was able to carry through in his mandate.

Through her ethnography of a slum community in the south of Brazil, Rosana Pinheiro-Machado observed that the rise of a precarious entrepreneurship class also meant a political allying with the conservative and liberal values defended by Bolsonaro, even among the urban poor. In addition, the anthropologist studied why men tend to vote for Bolsonaro while women tend to reject him: The on-going mainstreaming of feminism in Brazil has caused women to reject Bolsonaro’s misogyny, while men who are anxious about the emancipation of women tend to like Bolsonaro’s masculinist appeal. This conjuncture has put progressive cultural politics in Brazil in a complicated position.

The polarization between the two candidates reflected this observation. While Bolsonaro’s campaign mobilized affects connected to fear and order, Lula’s campaign was rhetorically based on hope and love. Lula’s second, improvised victory speech in Sao Paulo was also emblematic: to a cheering crowd, he shouted that his government won’t allow that women are treated like objects, because women are “subjects in history”. He also mentioned the importance of anti-racism and talked about environmental and indigenous rights—a national ministry for indigenous peoples will be created for the first time in Brazil.

But the government that will occupy Bolsonaro’s seat on January 1st will have great practical and political difficulties. Budgetary constraints might limit the labour party’s social welfare and pro-poor policy promises. In addition, with over 58 million votes, Bolsonaro still delivered a strong election result. With Bolsonarianism, the incumbent president has a very active movement behind him: this movement has been protesting the election results (which they—including Bolsonaro’s party—consider a fraud), calling for a military coup, blocking roads all over Brazil, and attacking the headquarters of the federal police. In addition, many candidates close to Bolsonaro made it into parliament. This election also selected the governors of the states: the three most populated states in Brazil—São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais—will be governed by Bolsonaro allies from January 1st.

Anthropologists studying politics in Brazil will still have a lot of important questions to decipher in the upcoming years. Some of these doubts include where will Bolsonarism’s loaded affects go and what (or who) will emerge in the void of Bolsonaro’s presidency.  Yet to be seen is how the next government will deal with the solidifying resistance against questions dear to liberatory feminism and pro-diversity movements. Ethnographic attention to how these issues unfold will be decisive to accompany the next steps in Brazil’s shaken democracy.

Thiago Pinto Barbosa is teaching at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the VU and a PhD candidate at the University of Bayreuth.

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