“Leaders do not have the right to remain silent before Bolsonaro”

Brazilian academic talks to EL PAÍS about why action must be taken against the rise of the far right

Brazil's right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil's right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. MAURO PIMENTEL (AFP)
Carla Jiménez

Fernando Limongi, a political scientist from Brazil, does not conceal his concern at the outcome of the first round of voting in the presidential election. In his view, the victory by the ultraconservative candidate Jair Bolsonaro is pushing Brazil, the most populous nation in Latin America, to the edge of the abyss. And those who support him are playing down the risks of a Bolsonaro administration if, as the latest polls suggest, he wins the runoff on October 28.

Political scientist Fernando Limongi.
Political scientist Fernando Limongi.F.Cavalcanti

This university professor and researcher says he is shocked at the neutral attitude that relevant public figures such as former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso have taken with regard to the upcoming vote. He calls it “unacceptable cowardice.”

The following are Limongi’s opinions on the main political issues affecting Brazil today.

A leap in the dark

“The Brazilian state pays me to think, and I believe I have to make a public statement,” says Limongi, who does research work for the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), a think tank founded in 1969 by a group of university professors who were expelled by the military dictatorship.

“I think that the right, that Brazilian conservatism – or however those who voted for and supported Bolsonaro should be termed – is minimizing the risk we face and choosing a very dangerous option. The elite is taking a leap in the dark even though it knows that what it is doing is stupid: it is accepting to be led by an obscurantist, backward apologist of violence, a man who supports coups and who misses the old military regime.”

Cardoso’s unacceptable cowardice

“The right has created a ghost and generated an exaggerated fear around the Workers’ Party (PT) [whose candidate, Fernando Haddad, will face off with Bolsonaro in the second round], as though we were back in the Cold War and the PT represented a totalitarian, communist threat, which is not true. There is no objective information that might lead one to reach that conclusion,” says Limongi.

He is a madman who will do away with education in Brazil and take us back to the Middle Ages

“The PT made serious mistakes, but they pale in comparison with what Bolsonaro is threatening to do, what he says he will do, and what he grew up doing. He is an option that cannot be chosen under any circumstance and which people are minimizing,” he adds. “I got shivers watching Fernando Henrique Cardoso [who served between 1995 and 2003] declare himself neutral. It is an inadmissible cowardice and a lack of responsibility. At first he declared that he would oppose Bolsonaro and vote for the PT. And now that he is on Twitter, he bows like a coward to popular pressure. Intellectuals cannot do that: intellectuals have a commitment. Can anyone in their right mind compare the risk of a PT government with a Bolsonaro government? Whoever thinks that they can lead that individual [Bolsonaro] by the nose is being very naive.”

The risks of an extremist candidate

“This will come at a very high price. The price with the PT is much lower: the PT has a reputation and Bolsonaro is a rookie. He is someone who cannot be trusted. Anyone who believes in the rationality of information, who analyzes the past and the future, who draws conclusions... how can you analyze his information and say he is to be trusted? He is a liar who says, in a sordid and populist way, that he follows the market just to get his hands on power. The most terrible example of this is Nazism: it was believed that [Hitler] was a fool who could be kept under control.”

Barbarity at stake

“Those who criticize Bolsonaro are not defending [former president] Dilma [Rousseff] or necessarily saying that the PT is filled with saints. Is this the black-and-white game that the center and the right in Brazil have agreed to play, except that now they are being its unsuspecting victims? What’s going on here is madness. We still have a chance to correct it, but only if people like Cardoso take a stand and think about their own responsibility.

Censorship will make a comeback if Bolsonaro wins

“It is very sad to hear Xico Graziano [Cardoso’s former chief of staff] say that he would support Bolsonaro. Has he no memory? Can he not remember what happened to him when he took a stand against Bolsonaro in social media, saying the 2014 elections were being manipulated? When he bravely came out to say this was stupid, the group of troglodytes who stand behind Bolsonaro ripped him to shreds. You cannot exchange half a word with that individual, and this needs to be underscored: there is no way to minimize him. Will there be persecution? Of course! That’s what we’re talking about, that censorship will make a comeback if he wins. He is going to test our institutions, which have already shown little ability to handle a character like his.”

‘Fake news,’ conspiracy theories and social media

“Many people say they no longer vote for the PT because it lies, but then they go and vote for a guy who champions fake news and has a penchant for conspiracy theories. He is crazy, unbalanced. The theory of election fraud is one of the looniest conspiracy theories around, and the Brazilian justice system is being soft on that. There is an underground world in the social media, just like in Brexit, in Colombia [with the peace accord plebiscite] and in the 2016 US presidential election. But we are not just fighting that demon; there is also WhatsApp.

Voters are much more volatile and the moderate center is disappearing

“Madness is roaming free and there is a new campaigning technology in use. A time will come when both sides will know how to use it evenly, but for now, the right is making better use of it. We have an international crisis of democracy, and the instability may have to do with that changing technology. Everyone is feeling bewildered: the way that public opinion reacts to facts, the speed of it, is no longer the same. Voters are much more volatile and the moderate center is disappearing, while the radicals remain. There is madness in the air, and we don’t know if balance will be restored.”

Real politics versus WhatsApp politics

“In Congress, politics is something different. That notion that professional politicians are a bad thing... thank goodness there are professional politicians. This is not for amateurs: there is a silly voluntarism that has taken hold among the young and the business class.”

Strategic mistake by the PT

“A majority of voters rejects both candidates [Bolsonaro and Haddad]. But the political elite has created that ghost, and the PT has erroneously clung to [former president] Lula. And Haddad has obtained the same number of votes from loyal party supporters. He has been reduced to the party base, and elections are not won that way.”

Fernando Haddad, presidential candidate of Brazil's leftist Workers' Party.
Fernando Haddad, presidential candidate of Brazil's leftist Workers' Party.PAULO WHITAKER (REUTERS)

Goodbye to moderation

“It is not just the left that has an ideology. The right – and that is the most worrisome issue right now – is generating a very dangerous ideology based on intransigence, radicalism, rejection of moderation of any kind... I don’t see the far right in Brazil as being such a novelty, but the [political] game can only continue if you agree to play by its rules. And the question is, will Bolsonaro agree to play by these rules from now on?”

Education under Bolsonaro

“He wants to take children out of school so they will not continue to be exposed to Marxist teachers [Bolsonaro believes that ‘indoctrination is one of today’s greatest evils’]. And if children go back home, who will take care of them? Who will go to work? Consider the economic imbalance that this individual could trigger out of his ideological paranoia. Everyone says: ‘Oh, the PT is very ideologized.’ So is Mr Bolsonaro a wellspring of reasoned and scientific ideas? He is a madman who will do away with education in Brazil and take us back to the Middle Ages. He sees a communist in every state agent and cozies up to the far right, which thinks the state is paternalistic because it protects the losers.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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