Moisés Mendes, a Brazilian journalist, recently wrote that the dissemination of fake news by the Bolsonaro camp had reached a level such that voters will miss the ‘mamadeira de piroca’. The reference is to the penis-shaped baby bottles with which Bolsonaro’s campaign inundated social media in 2018, falsely charging the Workers’ Party (PT) presidential candidate, Fernando Haddad, with distributing them in schools along with ‘gay kits’ to teach homosexuality. Film director Wagner Moura is convinced the ‘mamadeira’ won Bolsonaro the 2018 election.
Mendes is right; since 2 October (the date Lula won the first round with 48%), the defeated Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters have spewed a huge amount of fake news against the PT presidential candidate and his supporters. They have spread a message of hatred against not only Lula but anybody who questions or objects to it, with Bolsonaro leading by example while persistently violating existing electoral norms and rules. The violence and intimidation he has promoted has resulted in an increasingly tense atmosphere—which is liable to reach boiling point ahead of today’s second round.
Bolsonaro’s dirty electoral campaign has been its most stark in the context of the gross abuse of his position to favour his candidacy. His expansion of increasing welfare payments in the months leading up to the first round through a special budgetary provision, popularly known as the ‘secret budget’, was deemed a scandalous sidestepping of existing constitutional norms.
And Bolsonaro’s election campaign has so intoxicated Brazil’s political atmosphere with fake news that on 18 October the Federal Police (FP) submitted a report to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE in its Portuguese abbreviation) that bolsonarista social networks were ‘diminishing the frontier between truth and lie’. The FP’s report states that in the dissemination of false news about electronic voting in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s sons, Flavio (a senator), Eduardo (an MP), and Carlos (a local councillor), plus several key parliamentarians and members of his party, are directly involved.
The defamation of Lula has, of course, been a favourite subject. On 11 and 17 October, there were TV spots falsely accusing the ex president of being associated with organised crime. Of these, 164 were so decontextualized and so offensive that the TSE granted Lula the right to directly respond to them. The Rio de Janeiro Court Justice judge, Luciana de Oliveira, ordered on 19 October the withdrawal of two Facebook and Twitter posts insinuating Lula had shown paedophilic behaviour during an electoral visit to the Complexo Alemão neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro the week prior.
The electoral authorities have sought to clamp down on the campaign of disinformation—including its claims that Lula practices Satanism, is engaged in narco trafficking, and suffers from alcoholism. An audio recording of a supposed conversation between two leaders of the PCC (one of the largest gangs in Brazil) about Lula being a better president for organised crime was widely circulated in Bolsonaro’s social media platforms; then, on 21 October, the same networks circulated an photo of a public meeting between Lula and Andre Ceciliano MP, who was substituted with narco trafficker Celsinho da Vila Vintem.
A video used in bolsonarista social networks also showed writer Marilena Chaui grabbing a bottle from Lula’s hands during a public event at the University of Sao Paulo in August, which went viral, along with allegations that the ex-president was drunk. In reality, Reuters Fact Check shows Lula was trying to open a bottle of water while holding a microphone at the same time, so Chaui took it from his hand, opened it, and gave it back to him.
The smear of alcoholism does not end there: a bolsonarista candidate for Congress in Parana, Ogier Buchi, formally requested in September that the TSE bar Lula from presidential candidacy on the grounds of alcoholism, for which he demanded the ex-president be tested. The TSE denied the request.
Incitement to Violence
While facilitating these lies, more seriously, President Bolsonaro has made it easy for civilians to purchase all types of guns, leading to the acquisition of thousands of weapons by his supporters. In nearly four years, Bolsonaro has issued a total of 42 legal instruments regarding the acquisition of firearms. Almost all of these presidential decisions were published in the quiet of the night, and in night editions of the Official Gazette (on many occasions on the eve of bank holidays to minimise publicity).
Rio de Janeiro, a city of 16 million, is where the connection between armed gangs and right wing politics is at its strongest, with militarised groups, drug traffickers, and evangelical churches dominating most of the poor areas. Bolsonaro won against Lula in the first round in nine out the ten of the Rio areas controlled by militias. The PT’s Rio de Janeiro Councillor, Taina de Paula, pointed out that the activists campaigning for Bolsonaro operate in these areas while most other campaigners cannot, and has speculated on a relationship between right-wing militias and drug traffickers.
This presidential election has led to unusually high levels of political violence, which continues to pose a threat. In a special report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), its authors asserted that ‘Police militias and drug trafficking groups use violence to intimidate candidates who pose a threat to their activities.’ Two other NGOs have reported that compared to 46 instances of recorded political violence in 2018, when Bolsonaro was elected, the 2022 election has seen the figure so far hit 247—a 400% increase.
Former MP for Rio de Janeiro Roberto Jefferson, a Bolsonaro ally, was so furious with the decision by TSE Minister, Carmen Lucia, to vote for punishing Sao Paulo radio station for offensive comments on Lula that he posted a video slinging a string of insults at her, including ‘witch’, ‘prostitute’, and others much stronger.
The above mentioned Roberto Jefferson was arrested in 2021 as part of a clampdown on ‘digital militias’, which saw him placed under house arrest. When police went to his Rio home to take him into custody for breaking his confinement and the vicious attack on judge Carmen Lucia, he fired a rifle and threw grenades, and then proceeded to barricade himself in his house using other firearms and explosives for eight hours.
Though Bolsonaro condemned Jefferson’s actions, he repudiated the investigation that led to his house arrest. Lula tweeted: ‘[Jefferson] is the face of everything that Bolsonaro stands for.’
The manner of this liberalisation of firearm rules raises suspicions that ever since his election in 2018, Bolsonaro has been preparing to lead some kind of authoritarian outcome by non-peaceful means. It remains not implausible that if he loses this run-off, he may feel tempted to use violence to stay in power.
There is, as a result, huge concern about Bolsonaro’s repeated efforts to undermine democracy, specially about his persistent questioning of the trustworthiness of the electronic voting machines, which he has falsely suggested could be used to rig the election against him. His cabinet ministers, nearly half of whom are military generals, have also repeatedly questioned the election process.
There is great apprehension that sections of the military top brass may support Bolsonaro in an eventual rejection of the election results if he is defeated, not helped by persistent rumours that the military will have a ‘parallel vote count’ for the electoral process. This section of the military I refer to is unhappy with the TSE’s hard line in clamping down on bolsonarismo’s disinformation campaign. Hamilton Mourão, a retired army general, Bolsonaro’s vice president, and now elected senator for Rio Grande do Sul, shares this view. Mourão supported a Bolsonaro threat to increase the number of members of the TSE to reduce its vigour in fighting fake news. He even publicly attacked TSE judge Alexandre de Moraes for ‘overstepping his authority’.
Another General, Paulo Chagas, attacked the TSE as recently as 22 October for ‘conspiring in favour of the election of a convicted thief” (read: Lula). In April, General Eduardo Vilas Boas, special adviser to the presidency’s security cabinet, launched a similar attack against the TSE. And Bolsonaro’s vice-president and current running election mate, Walter Braga Netto, a retired general and former minister of defence, broached the view in July 2022 that without printed ballots, the 2022 election was unviable.
Worse, Braga Netto, with the commanders of the Navy, Army, and Air Force, signed a communiqué in March 2022 both celebrating the anniversary of the 1964 military coup d’état that ousted democratically elected president Joao Goulart, for ‘reflecting the aspirations of the people at that time’, and condemning those who depict the military dictatorship ‘as an anti-popular, anti-national and anti-democratic regime’.
Lula for Hope
In contrast to the terrifying atmosphere created by Bolsonaro, Lula brings a message of hope and intends to run a government that can overcome these four bolsonarista years. Lula stands on solid ground to make this promise.
The legacy of the PT administrations (2002-2016) is indeed impressive: 36 million Brazilians were taken out of poverty; the Zero Hunger programme guaranteed three meals a day for millions who had previously gone hungry; housing policies meant new houses for 10 million people in 96% of the country’s municipalities; 15 million new jobs were created; unemployment was 5.4%; the number of university students increased by 130%; spending on health increased by 86%, employing about 19,000 new health professionals giving healthcare to 63 million poor Brazilians; external debt fell from 42% to 24% of GDP; and Brazil played a leading and influential role in the world. And much more—no wonder Lula ended his government in 2010 with an 87% rate of approval.
Lula has placed himself at the head of a broad national coalition that defeated Bolsonaro in the first round, and has just made public a Letter for the Brazil of Tomorrow, which lays out key components of his government programme.
It includes policies on investment and social progress with jobs and good income, sustainable development and stopping the destruction of the Amazon, expansion of state expenditure on education, health, housing, infrastructure, public safety, and sports, upholding and promoting human rights and citizenship, re-industrialising Brazil, creating sustainable agriculture, restoring Brazil’s active voice in world politics, and the restoration and expansion of all freedoms currently curtailed and under threat to ensure their full enjoyment in a society organised against prejudice and discrimination.
The priority for his government will be helping the 33 million people going hungry and 100 million people thrown into poverty by bolsonarista misgovernment, both central elements in the strategic aim to reconstruct the nation.
In his Letter, Lula says that on 30 October, Brazilians confront a stark choice:
One is the country of hate, lies, intolerance, unemployment, low wages, hunger, weapons and deaths, insensitivity, malice, racism, homophobia, destruction of the Amazon and the environment, international isolation, economic stagnation, admiration of dictatorship and torturers. A Brazil of fear and insecurity with Bolsonaro.
The other is the country of hope, of respect, of jobs, of decent wages, of dignified retirement, of rights and opportunities for all, of life, of health, of education, of the preservation of the environment, of respect for women, for the black population and for diversity; of sovereign integration with the world, of food on the plate and, above all, of an unwavering commitment to democracy. A Brazil of hope, a Brazil for all.
Bolsonaro has made it abundantly clear that unless electoral fraud is perpetrated against him, he should win. On Thursday 26 October, four days before polling day, he called a press conference to denounce the alleged suppression of his electoral propaganda in radio stations in Bahia and Pernambuco. The TSE dismissed the allegation for ‘lack of credible evidence.’ The press conference occurred immediately after an emergency meeting with ministers and commanders of the three armed forces branches in which Bolsonaro announced his intention to challenge the TSE decision. This false allegation seems to be the ‘smoking gun’ he needed to ‘prove’ the election was stolen, if he loses.
Simply put, a hard-won democracy is once again on the brink. Only a Lula victory can pull it back from the abyss.
This article was first published in Tribune
About the Author
Francisco Dominguez is head of the Research Group on Latin America at Middlesex University. He is also the national secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and co-author of Right-Wing Politics in the New Latin America (Zed, 2011).