—Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development
Guy Debord, the radical French philosopher whose words impacted the world during the protests of May 1968, once wrote: “The spectacle, considered as the reigning society’s method for paralyzing history and memory and for suppressing any history based on historical time, represents a false consciousness of time.” His words say much about a phenomenon that has increasingly impacted constitutionalism worldwide: the spectacle, this “false consciousness of time”, has gained strength where history and memory have been suppressed. Brazil is living, at this moment, its own “false consciousness of time,” a phenomenon that has challenged the interpretations of the most prominent political scientists and constitutional scholars in the world. It represents a systemic disruption of the understanding of the political system, its normal rules of operation and expectations of deliberation. The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s next President is one of the most radical outcomes of this phenomenon. As such, it demands the continuous monitoring of the international community because it poses a real danger to liberal democracy not only in young democracies like Brazil, but even in mature ones.
Jair Bolsonaro was elected in a context of political crisis and deep distrust in the political system. Although he has been a Representative of the Lower House for 27 years and has been a member different political parties, he has presented himself as a political outsider. His current party – the Social Liberal Party (PSL) -, was, until recently, just one among many small parties in Brazil’s highly fragmented party system and was part of the so-called “under clergy”, a depreciative term that designates the group of congressmen with almost no influence over major political affairs. No more. Not only was Bolsonaro elected by 55% of the valid votes in the runoff, but also the number of PSL Congressmen jumped from 8 to 52 in the Lower House, and from 0 to 4 in the Senate.
This is a phenomenon never before seen in Brazilian history. Just for comparison, the Worker’s Party (PT), which competed with Bolsonaro in the second round, took more than twenty years since its foundation in 1980 to cross the threshold of 50 Representatives elected, and, unlike PSL, it is closely connected to grassroots movements that had already strength in the final years of the dictatorship (1964-1985). PT is still the second biggest and most ideologically identified party in the country, but it saw its parliamentary bench shrinking from 69 Representatives in 2014 to 56 now and from 13 Senators in 2014 to 6 in these elections. This is not, in my judgment, a normal political phenomenon. Something very unusual and strategically well thought out took place in Brazil, and, though similar movements can possibly be identified elsewhere, the Brazilian movement is also unique.
Even the most prominent political scientists in Brazil, until few months ago, did not see this coming. Fernando Limongi, from the University of São Paulo and the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), in a column for Valor Econômico, a major economic newspaper, wrote in September that “the candidate [Bolsonaro] conquered his niche, but he does not have ideas to expand it. And if he does not do it, he will die of starvation in the dug trench.” Marcos Nobre, from the State University of Campinas and CEBRAP, sustained, in an interview for El País in April, that “the polls do not show elasticity in his vote, he has a granite ceiling… That many people identify themselves with his candidature is really worrisome, but, from the electoral point of view, I cannot see the chances of his candidature moving forward.”