IN THE world’s most celebrated footballing nation — where ‘the beautiful game’ is akin to religion — it’s almost no surprise that this week’s general elections have looked more like a football match than a democratic process that will shape the future of Latin America’s largest country.
A sizeable number of Brazilians are behaving more like football fans, following the polls as if they were league scoreboards and supporting or opposing candidates out of passion rather than reasoned analysis of policy positions. One important distinction, however, stands out: while football and politics are both male-dominated games in Brazil — only two out of the thirteen presidential candidates are female — the outcome of this particular match may very well be in the hands of women.
On October 7, in a ‘celebration of democracy’ — a commonly used expression in Brazil that serves as a reminder of the country’s not-so-distant dictatorial past (1964-1985) — voters will cast ballots for the presidency and the House and Senate as well as state leadership. If no candidate wins 50 per cent of votes cast, runoff elections for president and state governors will be held on October 28.
The current political environment provides a textbook example of a fertile breeding ground for far-right populists taking advantage of dissatisfaction and despair to propose deceivingly simple solutions to very difficult problems. In 2016, following a traumatic presidential impeachment process, the Workers’ Party’s Dilma Rousseff was succeeded by Michel Temer, a very unpopular president whose aggressive austerity and pro-market measures left a staggering 13 million Brazilians unemployed, including 30 per cent of youths.
Although the corruption investigations that sealed the fate of the previous administration are still ongoing, distrust in politics and institutions have only grown among a citizenry that overwhelmingly believes that the machinery of corruption benefitting parties and politicians of all stripes, will not be dismantled. Neoconservatives have been quick to seize the opportunity.
For several months, the polls were consistently led by former president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, PT’s then-presidential candidate, despite the fact that he was in prison following a politically motivated corruption trial. Given that Lula’s conviction could still be overturned following appeals, the UN Human Rights Committee had urged the government to guarantee his right to run for president, a call echoed by the Coordination Bureau of National NGO Associations and Networks of Latin America, among many others.
In record time, however, Brazil’s Supreme Court decided that the UN request could be in conflict with national legislation and on September 11, PT had to replace Lula with the largely unknown former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad.
Enter Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate who has been both decried and hailed as the Brazilian version of Donald Trump. Now leading the polls with close to 30 per cent, Bolsonaro’s racist, sexist and homophobic views have set the tone of the election campaign. The 27-year Congress veteran has advocated for Brazil to leave the UN, the Paris climate agreement and any international human rights mechanism that could be deemed a nuisance. A defender of torture and military rule, his running mate is an Army general who said a new constitution could be drafted without popular participation, if the new president so decides.
Worryingly, the view that repression might be required to get the country back on track is becoming widespread. Since president Temer took office in August 2016, Army officers have been increasingly vocal about their preparedness to seize power if necessary — a stark contrast with neighbouring Uruguay, where a military officer was recently served with an arrest order for making political comments publicly.
Equally worryingly, ‘fake news’ has effectively spread the anti-rights views held by Bolsonaro and his circle, which appear to have resonated with about one third of voters, according to polls. In Brazil, as in the US, these tactics have led to the relative normalisation of the idea of violence as a means for conflict resolution and change.
Amid the incendiary rhetoric, policy discussion has taken a backseat. Besides the two successive PT candidates, only Guilherme Boulos and Vera Lucia, a couple of left-wing presidential nominees with no prospects of election, have taken a progressive stance on issues such as the criminalisation of human rights defenders, the use of the controversial Antiterrorism Law against civil society, and the need to shift the debate on migration from security to human rights.
Boulos, Haddad and Marina Silva, an environmentalist with also little chance of winning, are the only candidates that mention the need for protection measures to counter the increasing violence and human rights violations that make Brazil the most dangerous country in the world for indigenous, land rights and environmental rights defenders.
With hopes looking slim for progressive contenders in a climate of regressive, reactionary campaigning, a fiery challenge to Bolsonaro has unexpectedly come from a demographic well under-represented in Brazilian politics. While they account for 52 per cent of the country’s population, women currently make up only 30 per cent of all candidates to elected positions.
Brazil holds the worst record in South America for female congressional representation, with only 10 per cent in the House and 16 per cent in the Senate. No election campaign has put women at the center – unless misogynistic attacks count. But if something has shaped the climate more than anything, it has been Bolsonaro’s violent discourse, frequently targeting women. His and his supporters’ attacks have been instrumental in sparking a loud feminist response.
Building on Brazil’s recent Feminism Spring — powerful national campaigns that saw millions of women publicly protest gender-based violence, harassment and discrimination – an online feminist movement has mushroomed, overflowing the web and out onto the streets. Using the hashtag #EleNao (#NotHim), Brazilian women are urging other women, and men, to vote for anyone but Bolsonaro.
In a matter of days, 2.5 million Brazilian women had gathered on Facebook to discuss how to best present their case against Bolsonaro and how to take their action offline and organise themselves locally. When, a week later, their online group was hacked and renamed in support of Bolsonaro, some three million angry women harnessed public support against the cyberattack, amplified their voices with the backing of several well-known artists and celebrities, and summoned a massive day of protest in late September. Dozens of events were planned abroad to accompany the hundreds taking place throughout Brazil.
Will this be enough to swing the vote against Brazil’s Trump? It’s unclear — any prediction on the election’s results is premature. But what is certain is that women will play a key role in it. If anything can stop Bolsonaro, it is the higher-than-average proportion of women that outright reject his candidacy — more than half of those polled.
When there is no other choice than to resist, women have raised their voices. For them, there is no going back to the obscurity of home or second-class citizenship, regardless of who the next president will be.
A day will come when these elections are remembered for the role played by women against hate and for democracy. In a game in which they’ve been forced to sit on the bench for so long, Brazilian women are scoring goals that count, regardless of what the final score turns out to be.
Opendemocracy.net, October 6. Ana Cernov is a Brazilian human rights activist. Inés M. Pousadela is a senior research specialist with CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.
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