Carvalho, Almeida and Centeno discuss 'elected authoritarianism' and electoral results at the Brazil LAB

Written by
Nikhil Pandhi
Oct. 11, 2022

On Wednesday, October 5, the Brazil LAB organized a panel with Laura Carvalho, Silvio Almeida, and Miguel Centeno on the theme ‘Coup or no Coup? A Post-Presidential Election Debate’. The discussion was moderated by the Brazil LAB director João Biehl.

The speakers presented complex perspectives through which to view the current and future socio-political trends surrounding arguably Brazil’s most significant general elections in modern history. Carvalho, global director of equity of the Open Society Foundations and professor of economics at the University of São Paulo drew attention to the growing threat of “elected authoritarianism” in Brazil, which she believed would outpace Jair Bolsonaro even if he lost the second-round of presidential elections, which was likely. This, Carvalho argued was based on emerging psephological data surrounding “changes in the profiles of voters of Bolsonaro and Lula.” For Carvalho, the most intriguing aspect of the first-round of general elections was that Bolsonaro’s support base grew significantly in municipalities with small voters, including some municipalities in the Brazilian north-east, traditionally considered anti-Bolsonaro. “What is clear is that Bolsonarismo, as an ideology, is fast gaining ascendence in non-urban areas”, Carvalho argued, adding that it was no longer tenable to say “the only ones voting for Bolsonaro are the elites.” On the other hand, Carvalho highlighted that Lula’s political performance – bagging nearly 50% of the votes in the first-round – too has been significant judging from the fact that Lula was “an incumbent president, jailed till recently and not necessarily the front-runner”. For Carvalho, while more research into micro-trends is needed, the general elections have already started throwing up themes about “the changing relationship between urban and rural voters”, “the role of non-elites in Bolsonarismo” and “the reasons for Bolsonaro’s shifting support-base in non-urban areas.”

Almeida, a leading Brazilian public intellectual, professor of law and philosophy at Mackenzie Presbyterian University and faculty at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, argued for a perspective that took into account Brazil’s deep and trammeled history of racism and slavery. For him, Bolsonaro’s immanent loss in the presidential elections doesn’t take away from the fact that “we are paying systematically less attention to the power of ideology of the [Brazilian] far right…ideology, in terms of its ability to inspire fear in the lives of people.” For Almeida, Bolsonaro’s election amplified several underlying “structural tendencies” in Brazilian society and his greatest strength has been his ability “to work with people’s desires”, to spread “hatred, fear, religious fundamentalism”, which, for Almeida, “is an expression of Brazil’s deep feelings” against its Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and other minorities. Almeida also argued that “Brazilian liberalism has had little or no commitment to democracy” and that the current electoral trends suggest that evangelicals, agro-business elites, and the military continue to be firm in their support for Bolsonaro. Regarding the possibility of a post-poll coup, Almeida echoed Brazilian public intellectual Lilia M. Schwarcz and said, “Bolsonaro is the daily coup on Brazil’s democratic system.”

Centeno, professor of sociology at Princeton and vice-dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) raised critical questions about the nature of the current political moment in Brazil in relation to the modern history of Brazil and other world-historical trends of democratic authoritarianism. “How Brazilian is Bolsonaro?” Centeno asked, wondering whether current authoritarian trends in Brazil were echoes of the political machinations of the far-right in India, Turkey, Italy and Russia. Centeno also wondered how and to what extent we could compare the fears of a coup today to “the 1964 coup” in Brazil, in which then president João Goulart, a member of the Brazilian Labour Party was overthrown by members of the Brazilian military. “Would the Brazilian military have the capacity to take over the state today in a post poll coup scenario?”, Centeno questioned.

A lively and engaging discussion followed with the panelists and audience members in which several key themes were discussed including the economic aspects of elected authoritarianism in Brazil, a growing urban-rural divide, the need to think critically about the chronic nature of Brazil’s political crisis, the place of hope and racial reckoning in Brazil and the threat that a deeply engrained Bolsonarismo poses to global blackness, LGBTQ+ rights and humanitarianism. All the panelists agreed, that while Lula and the Brazilian Workers Party are likely to win the second-round of the general elections, there is a deeply rooted social, moral, ethical and cultural chasm that needs to be identified and remedied to truly overturn the legacy of Bolsonarismo.

The event was co-organized by the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and co-sponsored by the Program in Latin American Studies, the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.