Image: Isac Nóbrega/PR, via Wikimedia Commons.

For some years now, a conservative movement has transformed Brazilian politics. Led by Jair Bolsonaro, this movement – often simply identified as Bolsonarism – opposes abortion and gay rights, and even questions democracy. With Bolsonaro’s defeat in the recent presidential race, it may appear that Bolsonarism has been vanquished. This is shortsighted. When we track the evolution of Bolsonarism from the context in which it emerged through its period in power, it becomes clear that the movement will continue to play an important and influential role in Brazilian politics. Taking action to diminish that role is a task facing the new government of Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

Like that of many of its Latin American neighbours, Brazil’s democratic history is marked by a period of military rule. In the context of an intensifying Cold War in the early 1960s, the accession of a left-wing president, João Goulart, was taken as a signal that Brazil would be heading toward communism. To prevent that from happening, the armed forces unlawfully deposed Goulart in 1964 and installed General Humberto Castelo Branco in his place.

After two decades of military rule, democracy was restored in Brazil in 1985. Since then, Brazilians have been governed by eight presidents: José Sarney (1985–90), Fernando Collor (1990–92), Itamar Franco (1992–95), Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2003), Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (2003–11), Dilma Rousseff (2011–16), Michel Temer (2016–19) and Jair Bolsonaro (2019–23).

The election of Lula in 2003 and his successor Dilma Rousseff in 2011 proved to be turning points in Brazilian politics. Lula and Dilma were the only left-leaning presidents ever elected since the restoration of democracy. Among the left-wing policies implemented during their presidencies were those expanding minority rights in the country, including the legalization of same-sex marriage. They also took action to reduce crimes against women and to enhance the protection of indigenous communities.

At the same time, corruption was particularly widespread during Lula’s and Dilma’s terms. Among other revelations, it turned out that the government paid for the vote of parliamentarians and that Lula and Dilma’s party received money from fraudulent contracts. Lula eventually spent 580 days in prison. However, the Supreme Court later invalidated his trial and he was released.

As a result of Lula’s and Dilma’s time in power, a conservative movement gained traction in the country. By the time of the 2018 election, Bolsonaro, a leader of this movement, had a real chance of being elected president. Bolsonaro was a retired military officer who from 1991 served in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, The corruption of previous governments was a key to his getting 55 per cent of the vote in the second round of the 2018 presidential race. But another factor was personal appeal. Charisma matters for Brazilians, and Bolsonaro is, in his own way, a very charismatic leader. His 2018 opponent, Fernando Haddad, is not.

The years following the 2018 election surprised even those who were most sceptical of Bolsonaro and the conservative movement that he led. While Bolsonaro and his movement made cleaning out corruption a major issue in the 2018 election, the new regime turned out itself to be involved in several corruption scandals at the highest levels. In one case, it was found that Bolsonaro intervened with the federal police to prevent criminal investigations against his sons. In another, it was revealed that Bolsonaro attempted to buy overpriced COVID-19 vaccines. His attempt to name one of his sons, Eduardo Bolsonaro, ambassador to the United States caused further outrage.

The economy – another major issue during Bolsonaro’s campaign for president – fared poorly during his rule. Inflation rose into double digits in 2021, standing at 10.1 per cent. Unemployment increased from 11.6 per cent in 2016, Dilma’s last year in power, to 14.4 per cent in 2021. And the number of Brazilians suffering from hunger or food insecurity grew from 19 million in 2020 to 33 million in 2022. Bolsonaro tried to blame the pandemic for the deterioration of the economy. But he made the pandemic worse by discouraging vaccination, ignoring Pfizer’s attempts to distribute vaccines in Brazil and changing his minister of health four times.

The 2022 presidential race, in which Lula ran to get his old job back, gave Brazilians an opportunity to signal their discontent with Bolsonaro’s presidency. But observers and the media were unprepared for Bolsonaro, unlike previous presidents seeking reelection, openly using the machinery of the state to maximize his vote total. His government continued paying a basic income to low-income citizens through 2022, and it advanced the payment that was scheduled for December 1 to several days before the date of the second round of the election, October 30. In addition, Bolsonaro apparently made access to the ballot harder in northeastern states, where Lula’s support is concentrated. It was also reported that on election day federal highway police officers stopped buses carrying Lula voters, some of whom were unable to arrive at the polling station in time to vote.

In the end these measures proved insufficient, and Bolsonaro did not increase his already very considerable strength in southeastern and southern states.

As expected, Bolsonaro’s supporters were not happy about the results, and a group of truck drivers blocked major interstate roads in protest. But this ended when the Supreme Court ruled that those responsible were subject to immediate arrest. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro remained silent. He did not concede, waiting 45 hours to announce in a two-minute speech that he would “respect the constitution.” Despite his unhappiness with the result of the election and how it was carried out, he will not be able to impede a peaceful transition of power.

Bolsonaro’s failure to be reelected president is clearly a major setback for Bolsonarism. It represents a rupture in what had been continuous growth. But this does not mean that it is no longer a political force. Several of Bolsonaro’s former ministers were able to secure positions in legislative bodies: former Women, Families, and Human Rights Minister Damares Alves, former Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina and former Science Minister Marcos Pontes were all elected to the Senate. Even the outgoing vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão, managed to be elected senator.

Moreover, Bolsonaro’s party made the most gains of any party in the Chamber of Deputies, from 33 to 99 seats. These numbers show that Bolsonarism is likely far from over. But it is not simply a matter of numbers. Polarization remains at historically high levels: there is a visceral hatred of Lula and Dilma among Bolsonaro’s supporters, likely to be intensified by the result of what many claim was a stolen election. In addition, the ongoing criminal investigations against Bolsonaro and his relatives will fuel both the antagonism for Lula and Dilma and continued support for Bolsonarism.

Are there any antidotes to such polarization on the horizon? What, if anything, can the new Lula government do? First of all, while in the past Lula simply denied all accusations of corruption, he has recently begun expressing mea culpa for the corruption in his own party. Making a clean breast of – and apologizing for – such corruption would be an initial step. However, this will not be enough. The new Lula government will also have to implement policies that visibly root out and prevent corruption.

Moreover, rather than limiting the composition of his government to his supporters, as he has tended to do in the past, Lula should strive to form a more inclusive government that includes some of his opponents. Bringing instruments of direct democracy – notably plebiscites, for which the procedures are set out in Brazil’s constitution – into the decision-making process could also contribute to a sense of inclusion among Brazilians of all political allegiances, and particularly those with conservative orientations.