Brazil’s new president, far-right Jair Bolsonaro, was sworn into office just a couple of months ago, and he’s made it clear from the start that he intends to act upon campaign promises to weaken social protections and dismantle human rights policies. His government has already taken actions that include reducing projected minimum wage growth, weakening the land rights of indigenous people and traditional communities, pulling out from the UN Migration Accord, and considering pension reform proposals that would hit the poorest the hardest while keeping the privileges of the military and government officials.
Brazil is already a famously unequal country, and Bolsonaro threatens to reverse the feeble achievements in reducing inequalities made by previous governments. Bolsonaro is not alone. Brazil’s new Congress is its most conservative since the country’s re-democratization in the 1980s, and the far-right also notably expanded in state-level elections for governors and legislative assemblies. Considering the recent growth of the far-right across the world, as well as Brazil’s weight in global geopolitics, the relevance of these domestic trends certainly goes beyond national boundaries.
Despite this hostile setting, and in part because of it, a new generation of progressive politicians and political movements is also emerging in Brazil. Its main representatives are closely connected to grassroots groups, savvy in their use of new technologies – something the emerging far-right has already mastered – and willing to explore political innovations online and offline to reverse the current crisis of confidence in institutions.
Ocupa Política, a coalition that brings together politicians and movements from across the country, exemplifies this new generation of progressives. The initiative has already seen success, with the election of 16 legislative candidatures at the federal and state levels in 2018. Ocupa Política’s members come from multiple parties, and the initiative is managed independently, rather than by partisan structures – allowing it to operate with autonomy, despite its relationship with the party system.
Most of the people involved with Ocupa Política come from social movements, and are brought together by the common goal of occupying institutional politics to fight inequalities, defend human rights, deepen democracy and promote civic engagement.
Áurea Carolina, for example, who was recently elected to Congress by the state of Minas Gerais, emerged from black and feminist grassroots activism to become a political phenomenon. She is a member of Muitas, a movement bringing together representatives of various causes that range from right to housing, health and education to the promotion of culture and diversity, which has gotten four parliamentarians elected for legislative houses at the city, state and federal levels since 2016. Despite operating at different levels of government, all four unified their staff in a joint team to coordinate action and maximize impact.
Another example is Bancada Ativista, a movement out of São Paulo that has focused on electing activists in recent years. In 2018 they brought nine activists together in a single collective candidature for state deputy which became one of the most voted in the country. These nine activists will now share a single mandate in São Paulo’s legislative assembly, focused on strengthening progressive agendas and the voice of civil society by building bridges between the streets and the institutions.
Muitas and Bancada Ativista are two of the founding members of Ocupa Política – by building a common platform, they strengthen each other and their members both during their campaigns and throughout their periods in office, raising their potential to make an impact.
This new generation of progressives – which goes beyond those involved with Ocupa Política – is less vocal on labor and trade, and more focused on identity-related issues. An analysis of campaign materials from those who have been elected for the first or second time in 2018 evidences most ran on messages centered around gender, race, sexuality, or geographic identity with a focus on people living in low-income urban peripheries. Inequalities are heavily mentioned and framed through those lenses. Education, housing and security also appear frequently, often in connection to identity as well, while health, culture and environmental issues receive less attention.
A couple of central challenges will be faced by this new generation of progressives over the coming years. The first is to deal with the ongoing dismantlement of economic, social and environmental policies – a wave that is reaching its peak with Bolsonaro’s presidency. Most of their time and energy will likely be focused on resisting change that goes against progressive agendas, rather than working to advance those agendas. Considering the unfavorable power balance, this will require careful strategy to prioritize the issues most relevant from a structural perspective, and to ensure action where there are real chances of victory.
The second challenge will be deeply understanding the current concerns of Brazilians, and offering effective answers in a hopeful and engaging way. Brazil’s far right – as well as the far right around the globe – managed to grow by speaking to those concerns, building on mistakes from previous governments. Recent polls show violence (20%), corruption (14%) and unemployment (14%) at the top of the list of issues that most worry Brazilians, above education (12%) and behind only health (23%). Although attractive to many, the solutions put forth by the far right have generally proven to be ineffective, insufficient or against international human rights standards. Those who stand for progressive ideals now need to do the homework in order to regain territory in the debates over those issues.
Despite the challenging landscape for Brazilians who stand for more equality and rights, there is space to create change and there are reasons to be hopeful. The early days of the new government show it will not be easy for Bolsonaro and his allies to implement their agenda while keeping popular support. Many voters who were swayed by the far-right campaign rhetoric stand to lose from his policies, while a lack of cohesion and experience from Bolsonaro’s cohort is leading to internal conflicts and contradictory actions. Also, Bolsonaro is already dealing with serious corruption accusations connected to parliamentary activities of his son Flavio.
As Brazil’s far right grapples with governance, a new generation of progressives can offer new ways of doing politics that effectively challenge inequalities and promote human rights. The coming years will not be easy in Brazil, but knowing where to look makes it possible to keep hope.