Lula Won, but Bolsonarismo Still Looms Large

Bolsonaro’s return to Brazil generated less-than-expected fanfare, but the far-right ideology he represents remains very much alive.

May 31, 2023

Former President Jair Bolsonaro. (Wikimedia Commons / Palácio do Planalto / CC BY 2.0)

Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro has been going through a rough patch. After spending three months in Florida, he returned to Brazil in late March to find a less friendly institutional landscape than the one cultivated throughout his administration. In recent weeks, Bolsonaro’s efforts to spearhead opposition to the current government have been overshadowed by the image of the former president breaking into tears in a May 3 interview as he recounted a police search conducted in his home. The search was linked to the alleged falsification of his Covid-19 vaccination card to avoid travel restrictions. He denies participating in the scheme.

The fake vaccine accusations came after Bolsonaro was called in April to testify in response to allegations in two separate investigations. The first concerns accusations he attempted to illegally bring over $3 million worth of jewelry pieces he received from the Saudi Arabian government into Brazil; the second relates to his alleged role in the January 8 attacks on the Three Powers Plaza in the capital of Brasília. Several other investigations loom over Bolsonaro, his close associates, and his sons, who are also career politicians.

The legal challenges faced by Bolsonaro may seem like a sign that the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is making strides toward its goal of restoring democracy in Brazil. Indeed, throughout his four years in government, the former president went beyond attacking the electoral system. He also undermined institutions to carry out his authoritarian neoliberal project by cutting funding to several government programs and agencies, weakening the Federal Prosecutions Office, and interfering with the federal police, among other actions. The set of investigations involving Bolsonaro indicate that the previous course is being reversed, but the truth is that the right wing in Brazil is in no way weaker. Four years of Bolsonaro reconfigured conservative forces in ways that will be exceedingly difficult to disrupt and that have kept his reactionary project alive.

As the Lula government formulates a new economic policy to guide public expenditure in the coming years towards investments and social programs, debates are still framed by tenets of “fiscal responsibility,” a guise for austerity and other undemocratic spending practices. At the same time, religious fundamentalism and its propaganda have not receded and continue to showcase “the traditional family” as a model to be followed, while vilifying and trying to criminalize ways of life that challenge heteropatriarchal norms. Bolsonaro and Bolsonarismo have promoted a disregard for the rule of the law, stimulated the proliferation of weapons, and amplified individualistic and masculinist values. Unsurprisingly, brute violence has become the means through which many openly seek to address conflict, as shown by increasing homicide rates in the Amazon region and the rise of mass shootings in schools, a relatively new phenomenon in Brazil. The stakes of countering authoritarianism, in other words, remain high.

An Ideological Battleground in Congress

While Bolsonaro lost last October’s election by a slim margin, a majority of right-wing legislators snatched seats in Brazil’s Congress. This pressured the incoming Lula administration to incorporate some of Bolsonaro’s old allies into the government. The most controversial decision was to give cabinet positions to three members of the right-wing União Brasil (Brazil Union) party—an offshoot of the far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL), the party with which Bolsonaro won the presidency in 2018 but later abandoned—even though União Brasil was divided about supporting the new administration. The compromise secured crucial goals in the transition of power, such as negotiating a spending package to recover some of the social programs championed during previous Workers’ Party (PT) governments, but it has not been enough to consolidate a stable margin in Congress to pass legislation.

Lula has also faced the challenge of securing support in Congress because legislators were emboldened during the Bolsonaro years by the so-called “secret budget,” a slush fund with very little oversight that delegated the nitty-gritty of federal spending to members of the House and the Senate. Speaker Arthur Lira, who worked closely with Bolsonaro and has led the House since 2021, has admitted that legislators seek control over how money is allocated and has not shied away from pressuring the government to move faster to facilitate their access to funds. Needless to say, surrendering to such pressure will hurt a progressive agenda since the “secret budget” encourages funding to be distributed according to the interests of politicians rather than people’s needs. Yet in the face of legislative setbacks, Lula has ceded to the wishes of legislators, hoping to alleviate their defiance and gather support for his administration’s core goals, such as expanding social programs and investment in infrastructure projects.      

Legislators’ leverage was on display once again when the government yielded to the creation in April of a joint House and Senate committee to investigate the events of January 8. This congressional probe will run parallel to the investigations currently being conducted by the federal police and the judiciary. The goal of right-wingers in proposing and eventually installing such a committee has been to change the narrative about January 8, softening or misdirecting accusations that implicate Bolsonaro and his supporters. In other words, their goal is to blame the Workers’ Party for the destruction of the Three Powers Plaza, arguing that the crowd was overall peaceful and that the new administration was negligent, failing to anticipate and then act effectively against the insurgents.

While Lula and his close associates initially challenged the formation of an opposition-backed committee, they are now negotiating to have members of the Workers’ Party and (real) allies in key positions of the January 8 Committee preempt this conservative backlash.

Meanwhile, a second committee has taken aim at the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), the longstanding social movement fighting for land reform in Brazil. The committee is led by some of the most strident voices of Bolsonarismo, including former Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, under whose watch emissions and deforestation of the Amazon massively expanded. Salles was caught on tape encouraging the weakening of environmental regulation.

The MST Committee has no substantial basis. The Right has advanced the investigation into MST activities to attack the Workers’ Party through “Red Scare” tactics, or fearmongering around leftist positions bolstered by a range of conspiracy theories that have been disseminated throughout the last decade. This Committee is meant to carry on the ideological battle that characterized the Bolsonaro years, keeping a conservative vision for Brazil in the spotlight, undermining equitable alternatives, and criminalizing social movements. In a similar vein, Congress is now pushing through a controversial bill that would curtail recognition of Indigenous lands, raising fears of fresh attacks on Indigenous communities.

An Ongoing Struggle to Revive Democracy

Much of the far-right ideology that has crept into Brazilian society over the last few years remains very much alive thanks to the digital militia of influencers, bloggers, “alternative” news sources, and politicians that flourished under Bolsonaro and continue to populate multiple platforms. Regulation of misinformation on the internet has been tabled since the 2018 elections, becoming even more urgent with the January 8 attacks. But the control of misinformation and hate speech now faces an additional challenge, as companies such as Google and Telegram have effectively sided with conservative interests by boldly campaigning against the proposed regulations. Authoritarianism faced a setback with Lula’s win but has yet to crumble and give way to a new consensus around the basic rules of the democratic game.  

To be sure, the new administration has not been passive. Lula has constantly criticized Brazil’s Central Bank, whose current president was nominated by Bolsonaro, for maintaining the exorbitant interest rates that curtail investment and job creation. Lula reinstated channels giving voice to members of civil society in policy-making and, on his first day in office, revoked Bolsonaro’s executive order that expanded access to firearms. The investigations into the January 8 attacks also play an important role in countering authoritarianism since they tackle several aspects of the insurrection—from tracking who participated to mechanisms of funding.

It remains necessary, however, to fully account for the state of the right wing in the post-Bolsonaro era. The powerful far-right bloc in Congress is not alone but assisted by a wide range of groups semi-autonomously galvanizing followers, creating narratives, and at times breaking new ground. This hydra-headed movement’s base is not clear-cut: it consists of a combination of die-hards alongside more or less loose supporters who consume and amplify, to differing degrees, an authoritarian neoliberal project for Brazil.

In this landscape, the role of Bolsonaro remains uncertain. The court challenges he currently faces can either diminish his public persona or recenter him on the national stage. On one hand, Bolsonaro’s return to Brazil generated less-than-expected fanfare, and claims that criminal charges may render him ineligible for a 2026 presidential run may result in his isolation. On the other hand, no other right-wing figure in the country has (yet) matched the unifying power Bolsonaro has wielded. The looming charges could, therefore, embolden him and push right-wing factions to realign around him. Regardless of Bolsonaro’s fate, the takeaway is unmistakable: the end of authoritarianism and the revival of democracy in Brazil are still far on the horizon.   

Nara Roberta Silva is a core faculty member and Praxis Program head at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, where she teaches about social movements, race, and social theory. She is on Twitter @nararosilva.

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