André Singer: In a polarized Brazil, Left needs to reiterate commitment to democracy
A political scientist, journalist, and professor at the University of São Paulo, André Singer is one of the most respected names in Brazil’s academic world. He was the spokesperson of the first Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration between 2003 and 2007 and the Palácio do Planalto (presidential office) press secretary between 2005 and 2007.
Singer gave an exclusive interview to Brasil de Fato and spoke about the presidential race, the polarized political climate in Brazil as elections approach, and the role of former president Lula in the democratic process, while he is barred from running. The first round of Brazil’s elections will take place next Sunday, Oct. 7, when Brazilian voters will choose not only their presidential candidate, but also governors and members of parliament. If candidates running for president and governor do not get more than 50 percent of votes, a runoff election will be held on Oct. 28.
Read the interview:
Brasil de Fato: Some candidates who are not doing well in opinion polls have been criticizing the political polarization and advocating for tactical voting. What is your opinion on this argument?
André Singer: The issue of polarization has to be analyzed from specific points of view. Of course, for candidates who are not part of it, it’s not interesting, because they are trying to find a way to break the polarization. Obviously, the polarization itself can have negative consequences if you have some kind of destructive radicalization.
Now, on the other hand, in case of a national debate, such as, for example, a refusal of an authoritarian solution – which, right now, is represented by Bolsonaro –, that could have a positive outcome. For example, by leading to democratic voting against the threat to democracy, which, as we can see, has been growing since 2016, when a parliamentary coup was staged. So the issue of polarization, whether it is positive or negative, really depends on its outcome.
Some have also been arguing there is fear of a new coup d’état that could be staged if the Workers’ Party (PT, Lula’s party) is elected. How do you see this?
Actually, there is a lot of missing information about this issue. I think we’ve seen, over the past few months, some very worrying signs, because movements are emerging from the Armed Forces. It’s a participation in politics that is not allowed by the Constitution, which makes the atmosphere heavy.
Now if that would lead to a coup, I’d like to believe it won’t. It’s clear that this assessment includes my own hope that it won’t happen, and I believe we don’t have enough information to say whether or not it is really likely to happen. But, on the other hand, we cannot ignore these signs that have been emerging, a movement that didn’t exist until very recently and that really makes certain concerns about the possibility of a rupture of democracy become relevant.
What could explain the fact that Brazil’s traditional Right, such as the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party), is not able to successfully push their candidates, while Bolsonaro emerges in full force in this election?
The origins of the Bolsonaro phenomenon are in the 2013 demonstrations. We have to be very careful when looking into this, because I know 2013 is a controversial topic, especially for the Left. And I always say we have to state 2013 started as a left-wing, legitimate, consistent, coherent movement that was demanding more government investments in transport, but then expanded for that issue of “FIFA-standard” health and education services.
However, at the core of the demonstrations that started with the Left, centrist, right-wing, and also far-right groups came along. That resumed by the end of 2014, when president Dilma [Rousseff] gets reelected by a slim margin, and groups that first emerged in 2013 once again come on the scene calling for her impeachment, which, at that moment, was popular among niche far-right circles.
That expands little by little and we cannot ignore how big the Car Wash Operation was in this process, as it amplified the idea that the PT and social and political segments that were allied with the PT were a criminal organization that should be wiped out of the Brazilian political landscape. All that led to an increasing radicalization that is behind Bolsonaro’s candidacy and the magnitude that he has reached. At first among middle class segments, and now, according to polls, reaching low-income segments as well.
I think that what ultimately happened was that a “Pandora’s box” opened up, in a sense that it sparked a radicalization process, taking the PSDB’s place of opposing the platform of what I call “Lulism.” Until the end of 2014, that opposition had democratic characteristics, but later it started to show these radical colors with clear authoritarian shades.
Even though ex-president Lula is not allowed to run for office, what is your take on the role he may still play in this election process?
It is a huge role, because he managed to achieve the political feat of surviving as the main people’s leader in the country – even from jail. He adopted a risky strategy to confront this situation, because he insisted in his candidacy, when it was clear that it was very unlikely that he would be able to from a legal point of view. But that risky strategy has been paying off. Like [Karl] Marx said, practice is the criterion of truth. So the outcome is that ex-president Lula is taking his candidate, Fernando Haddad, into the runoff election. Of course, we are [saying this] based on polls, which reflect the moment, and of course, things can change – and, as a political scientist, I have to say that. But right now, the polls show Fernando Haddad will make it into the runoff. So, if that really happens, we will have to acknowledge that ex-president Lula adopted a successful strategy, which makes him a key character for the period we have ahead of us.
If the polls for the runoff vote are correct, we will have a “battle of rejection rates.” On the one hand, anti-fascism. And on the other, the “anti-Workers’ Party” that led Fernando Haddad to a defeat in the first round of the local elections in São Paulo in 2016. Has this changed since then? How do you see this battle of rejection rates?
Yes, I think there has been a change, and it has to do with the fact that [Michel] Temer’s platform has failed. That caused great frustration as people were eager for improvements in the economy. Unemployment is at an excruciating level for the low-income people in Brazil, and also for workers in general, because unemployment means the struggle for better wages weakens a lot. That said, we have numbers, for example, showing the rise of the preference for the PT, which is back boasting closer rates to those from about 10 years ago, when the approval of the PT was very good, and that also shows there has been some change in the environment.
However, this potential war of rejection rates cannot be brushed aside, when it comes to a potential runoff vote with Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, because we will have a very polarized environment. There has been some kind of cultivation of hatred against the PT over this past period, and that will be expressed in the runoff. Obviously, if there is such an expression of hatred, there is always some kind of reaction, even though I think that the Left has been adamant standing for democratic banners and a democratic behavior, which is very positive. From the Left viewpoint, reiterating this commitment to democracy, this defense of democracy, will be necessary so that it can become very clear that radicalization and threats to the democratic process are coming from the Right. And I believe it is possible for us to water down this super heavy atmosphere, which, in fact, is interesting to no one.
Edition: Pedro Ribeiro Nogueira | Translated by Aline Scátola