When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva assumes his third term as president of Brazil in January 2023, it will be tempting to think (for those watching from the outside) that the government of Jair Bolsonaro, with its pro-military radicalism and questioning of democracy, pluralism and the autonomy of institutions, did not go beyond a brief detour.
The hypothesis of the “barbarian parenthesis” will clean consciences despite its tragedies, such as the return of famine for 33 million Brazilians or the almost 700 thousand deaths caused by COVID-19, partly the result of disinterest, if not denial by the Government. This hypothesis will serve to reason that society never abandoned its progressive pretensions, but only tried different means to the same end.
In short, instead of being reversed as Bolsonaro intended, the public consensus was strengthened by valuing gender equality and female empowerment, the defense of the environment and responsible business, and the independence of the judiciary and other professional state institutions such as the Unified Health System or Health Surveillance. Did Brazil recover its Camelot lived between 1994 and 2016 and then lost?
The social and cultural manifestations of these years and the electoral balance, given the recent elections, shatter the illusion that the Bolsonaro years were an abnormality from which it quickly exits. The crystallized political order reveals many legacies that will condition the way of doing politics and the political outcomes that will influence the course of society. One of them is the radical moralization of public life and political action. Another is the freezing of the renewal of current political leadership.
Radicalized moralization. The moralist credential is historically the lever of outsiders for their success in politics. Taking advantage of allegations of corruption, characters far from the traditional parties come to power promising cleanliness and dignity (this was the case of Bolsonaro, but also Quadros and Collor de Mello in Brazil in the past). But by reducing the public performance of leaders and their decisions to problems of a personal nature, this radicalized moralization exceeds issues of bribes and tips to include behavioral deviations such as social prejudice, political incorrectness, or verbal incontinence.
The simplification of authorities or leaderships into angels and demons from the influential evangelical reading, a product of its massive legislative presence and its cooptation of the media, reinforces this interpretative moralism. With exacerbated moralism, secularizing pretensions centered on projects and the palpable progress of their results die.
This perspective should shape the representation of the conflict: the right accusing Lula’s government of corruption and anti-Christianity; the left accusing the opposition of being misogynist, hateful or intolerant of minorities. The emotionalism underlying these readings is a real stumbling block to resuming the pattern and modernizing mentality that characterized post-dictatorship Brazil.
Rusty leaderships. Lula’s imprisonment for almost 600 days froze the renewal of leaderships in the center-left together with the obstinacy of the PT leader. Thus, the only party of weight, anchored in citizen militancy and the progression of political careers beyond state sponsorship, the Workers’ Party (PT), still depends on its founder of 40 years ago. Other parties in the leftist spectrum repeat this oxidation of their leaders (Ciro Gomes, today in the PDT, formerly in the PSB and the PPS, among other parties). Cases such as the PSOL expanded their sources of recruitment and renewal of elites from links with social movements and civil entities, but without advancing to the top echelons of power.
The former opposition to the PT, centered mainly in the PSDB, disintegrated its leadership as it lost connection with the demands of society and became engrossed in eternal internalism, pulverizing the projection of its leaders and stimulating the departure of others such as Gerardo Alckmin, four-time governor of São Paulo and current candidate for Lula’s vice-presidency. On the right of the political arc, the professional party vanguards, alien to the State, were not renewed either.
Bolsonaro himself (proposed as an outsider) is an example of this, with his 27 years as a federal deputy before being elected president. Tied, without a common modern narrative to lead Brazilians toward a promised land, Brazil will reach the year 2023 with less optimism and more disbelief compared to the first Worker’s Party government at the beginning of the century. The hypothesis of having overcome a brief “barbarian parenthesis”, followed by the resumption of Brazil’s modernizing promise and vocation, can be as comforting as it is wrong.
*This text was originally published in Clarín, Argentina.
Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva