FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - November 1, 2018 - 12:00am

Rightwing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro trashed his Leftwing rival from the Workers Party. The outcome of the runoff election was never in doubt.

All over the world, the general drift of political commentary regarding the victory of the rightwing candidate centered on the theme: democracy is in peril in the face of gains by rightwing candidates. That is probably misleading.

Bolsonaro’s triumph is less due to a coherent conservative program of government than it is due public loathing for the Left. The failure of the Left drove voters to Bolsonaro, a former army captain who spent 27 years in the Brazilian legislature. As a legislator, he did not exhibit a consistent voting record that might suggest some ideological depth.

Bolsonaro might have lost to the charismatic former president Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. But Lula was in jail for corruption and the electoral commission decided he was not qualified to contest the presidency.

A succession of Workers Party governments produced corruption scandals on a scale Brazil has never seen. They were failures in maintaining public order, with criminality spiking over the past few years. They were failures in managing the economy: Brazil just went through three years of painful recession.

Socialism in Brazil did not bring paradise on earth. It brought unmitigated corruption at the highest echelons of political power. It brought economic failure, erasing he gains of previous governments. It brought disillusionment to the social order.

Most Brazilians hated the Left with a passion. They feared their country would go the way of neighboring Venezuela, where socialism reduced what was once Latin America’s most prosperous country into its poorest. A large section of Venezuelan society has fled the country to escape poverty and malnutrition.

Similarly, Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua has fallen into a tragic condition where economic failure is matched only by political repression. The poorer the people, the more heavy-handed their government became.  

This was not the future Brazilians want.

Whatever Bolsonaro actually represented, a crazy quilt of social conservatism and broadly pro-market economic policies, he was the man least resembling the discredited socialist politicians. When the choice in the runoff elections fell to one between a leftist politician and Bolsonaro, the voters readily chose the latter.

Prior to the runoff elections, leftwing groups of all stripes mounted frantic demonstrations to discourage voters from choosing Bolsonaro. Joyless feminists warned he was a misogynist and a homophone. Environmentalists warned he would bring about the destruction of forests. The unions called him a capitalist tool. The human rights community called him a fascist.

But he won nevertheless. That is how the political Left has come to be so hated in Brazil. Bolsonaro needs to try very hard to mess things up for the Workers Party to be resurrected from their crushing defeat.

It is true that at the core of Bolsonaro’s political base is the Christian right. Outside of its social conservatism, such as criminalizing abortion, this section of Brazilian society does not have an economic ideology other than a seething hatred for socialism. They seem ready to accept free-market policies provided it does not disturb the conservative social norms they hold.

Like Donald Trump, who has been compared to him, Bolsonaro has made the obligatory sounds his base wants to hear. But as he forms his government, it is evident he is moving much closer to the mainstream that he used to sound.

Brazil’s new president has recruited top economists to man his new government. He indicated he would recruit to his Cabinet a well-respected anti-corruption judge. Since he emerged a serious contender for the presidency, Bolsonaro has moderated his utterances and refrained from many of the controversial off-the-cuff declarations that brought him to prominence.

His winning margin notwithstanding, Bolsonaro will lead a deeply divided society. What is left of the Left remains a strong influence in Brazilian society. But they have been decisively reduced to a vociferous minority.

For Bolsonaro’s supporters, what is important is that their new president represents an effort to repair the social order, reduce crime and corruption, and rebuild the economy even if that means rolling back some of the environmental regulations. They hope their new president will reverse the demoralization that set in on one of the most vibrant communities there is.

The Filipino Left has much to learn from what unfolded so dramatically in Brazilian politics.

They need to understand that the backward-looking economic nationalism that is a centrally held creed has become an anachronism. In Brazil, as in Venezuela and Nicaragua, it was a sure-fire formula for failure.

They need to understand there is a need for strong institutions, those that are capable of supporting a rule-based community. They cannot keep on undermining institutions that stand in the way of achieving their imagined proletarian utopia. Armed force is never the means to achieve a lasting consensus.

When wrong-headed policies cause the state to be frail and the community vulnerable, a Bolsonaro emerges: a man on horseback promising order in place of chaos, progress in place of economic mismanagement.

We saw a glimpse of that when a Rodrigo Duterte successfully marched on “imperial Manila” from his Davao base. Like Bolsonaro, he was foul-mouthed but practical.

Both men brought willfulness to center stage. That was appealing to voters who feel willfulness has become a scarce commodity.

That willfulness is never to be confused with fascism. It is certainly synonymous with competent and decisive leadership, one that holds things together when societies sense they are on the brink.

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