On March 14, Brazil was shaken by the killing of Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro, where Franco served as a leftist city councilor representing the favela community of Maré. Franco had recently been named to head a commission investigating military abuses during President Michel Temer’s February “anti-gang” deployment in Rio. A human rights activist beloved by her community, Franco was also one of the only black LGBT elected official in the country. She had just attended a roundtable discussion of Afrofeminist youth when unknown assassins opened fire on her car, using bullets traced back to the federal police.
Marielle Franco represented a progressive new left, built on advocating for Brazil’s most vulnerable citizens, making her murder doubly tragic.
Despite its unique horror, Franco’s murder can best be understood as the latest episode in the political crisis that has engulfed Brazil since the months before the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, a member of the center-left Workers’ Party. The appeal of far-right politics and a general distrust of democratic institutions is rising in worrying ways as the country faces its next scheduled elections in November. One of the fastest-rising candidates, riding the wave of this revanchism, is the ultra-right Jair Bolsonaro, “Brazil’s Trump,” an avowed fan of Brazil’s 1964–85 military junta who regularly serves as public apologist for police violence and torture, and who last year was censured in Congress for telling a leftist congresswoman that she was “too ugly to be raped.”
Every time there is political upheaval in Brazil, there is some talk of military intervention and a return to dictatorship, but it is usually limited to fringe figures and shadowy military generals. This time, though, things are different. From Facebook to talk radio, nostalgia for authoritarianism—and fret about the excesses of democracy—have become prevalent, and increasingly figures in the speeches of politicians such as Bolsonaro. Open expressions of homophobia, sexism, and racism are continuing to gain traction in response to the perceived overreach of political correctness under the previous dozen years of Workers’ Party rule. More broadly, there is a widely-held belief that democratic institutions have failed; that the courts are partial and political instruments; and that political parties are uniformly corrupt.
It is worth remembering how we got here.
In late January, former president “Lula”—Workers’ Party’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who held office from 2003 until 2011—faced an appeal hearing following his September conviction under Operação Lava Jato (Operation Carwash), a wide-ranging corruption investigation. The allegations revolved around an apartment Lula allegedly bartered in exchange for preferential treatment for government contracts. The original trial did not actually produce a single piece of documentary evidence, despite months of investigation and wiretaps. This however did not stop the judges, who were also the prosecutors, from finding Lula guilty. A second court affirmed the original conviction and lengthened the sentence to twelve years. Now Lula’s case is before the Supreme Court, where it seems unlikely that he will prevail or be permitted to continue his run for president.
If Operation Carwash was a hit job aimed at the Workers’ Party, its aim went wide, taking out nearly all other democratic institutions with the same spray.
Yet Lula remains an extremely popular figure in Brazil, particularly among the poor, and is currently leading the polls by a wide margin. He has declared he will not seek asylum elsewhere, and will instead stay and fight for his innocence, even if he must do so from prison.
A case of anti-corruption politics gone awry, Operation Carwash has implicated politicians from all major political parties and construction companies, as well as the state-owned oil company, Petrobrás, yet the operation has selectively prosecuted politicians from the Workers’ Party. For its part, Globo—the Brazilian media giant known for its anti-left bias—has been presenting Operation Carwash much like a round-the-clock soap opera, replete with a handsome protagonist, prosecuting judge Sérgio Moro, and a cast of unsavory villains such as Lula and Rousseff. This media circus has energized elite Brazilians who feel that they have been excluded during the three terms of Workers’ Party rule, which saw the enactment of affirmative action programs and cash transfers to the poor.
Michel Temer, who became president upon the impeached of Rousseff in 2016, is today often described as “the world’s least popular president”—and indeed, some polls have him pulling single-digit approval rating. Prior to her impeachement, Temer had been Rouseff’s coalition partner and vice president, a kind of Faustian bargain between the Workers’ Party and Temer’s right-leaning Brazilian Democratic Movement. But as political winds shifted, Temer (himself indicted by Operation Carwash) played no small part in orchestrating Rousseff’s ouster. Upon his swearing-in, he promised a program of clean government and market orthodoxy, his so-called “Bridge to the Future”: government austerity, loosened labor laws, reductions in pensions and taxes, and wide-ranging privatization.
Temer and his legislative allies actually managed to pull off some of this platform, notably passing a constitutional amendment that freezes social spending for the next twenty years. Temer has also overseen significant rollbacks in labor rights—but his political capital was quickly exhausted. Beginning in January 2017, a series of militant protests and strikes around the country opposed his proposed pension reforms. At the same time, very serious corruption allegations came to light involving Temer, including an attempt to buy the silence of a convicted politician. Temer soon faced the prospect of impeachment himself, and although he was able to kill it in Congress, the cost was huge, doling out favors left and right to buy the votes to save his neck. Even for elites who had supported the impeachment, the hypocrisy was too much. Since then even the right wing has been distancing itself from Temer, who now finds himself an isolated figure.
From Facebook to talk radio, nostalgia for authoritarianism—and fret about the excesses of democracy—have become prevalent.
The impeachment of 2016 left the country deeply polarized, and also established a set of terrible precedents: that unpopular presidents can be impeached simply for being unpopular; that laws matter less than popularity; that Congress is less a place for debate than for making deals; that political office can be openly used for individual gain; and that laws can be bent to suit the interests of the powerful. And all of these have been confirmed in the popular imagination by subsequent events.
And now both the left and right are in disarray. Lula is unlikely to be able to run for president, though he is still campaigning. From the progressive sector there is no agreement on what an alternative candidate or strategy might be. Social movement activists have managed to energize a base and coordinate across cities, successfully lighting revolt against Temer’s policies. But the energy of the streets is, as of yet, disconnected from the political parties. The Workers’ Party, for so long the traditional channel for social-movement energies, is seen by activists, particularly millennials, as too close to the establishment and status quo politics. There is agreement that neoliberal policies must be stopped. But there is little sense of what alternative routes might be. Franco was seen by some as representing a progressive new leftist politics, organized around advocating for the country’s most vulnerable citizens, making her murder doubly tragic.
Conservative forces, however, are faring badly too. Nearly all nationally prominent figures from right-of-center parties have now been linked to corruption. While most are at-large and continue to exercise their functions (nearly half of Congress is implicated in corruption investigations), so far no one has emerged who appears to be able to articulate a broader coalition, let alone negotiate with political opponents. If Operation Carwash was a political hit job aimed at the Workers’ Party, its aim went wide, taking out nearly all other parties and democratic institutions with the same spray.
And this is the worrisome scenario in which we find ourselves. Some pessimistic analysts are predicting elections will not take place in November, given the lack of viable options. Our worry is actually more immediate: calls for law and order, for military intervention, for a state of exception, and for criminalizing dissent are becoming more common and seem to gain currency every day. At the same time, wildcard political outsiders are giving voice to resentment and anger in ways that stoke the basest authoritarian instincts of the populace. The question now before the country is whether incidents such as the violence that took Franco’s life will spark outrage or simply be accepted, as so much else is, under this new dispensation.