Comments, Globe, In Focus, Latin America

Bolsonaro, the law and the custom

In a week it will be known if Brazil’s move towards the extreme right and beyond is full or only partial. And this is because although the second round of the presidential elections is still to come – if the far-right ex-military leader Jair Bolsonaro wins as all the polls indicate – his political group will hold a great deal of power with the office of president and control of Congress.


Jair Bolsonaro Brasil. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Sapag M.


In Brazil, this is significant because although it has a federal system, it is more ‘centripetal’ (Mexico) than ‘centrifugal’ (Argentina) where an alliance of provincial governors may have even more power than the president and Congress.

If on the contrary and against forecasts the former mayor of Sao Paulo and current Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad (who replaces the now imprisoned Lula Da Silva) prevails, the alliance of those who have united together with the aim of preventing someone like Bolsonaro becoming president would avoid the worst. However, it would not prevent an already reactionary agenda in Congress which is overwhelmingly controlled by the right. This is a fact.

Hence, and aside from whether or not the victory of the new Brazilian right is total or partial, the truth is that this is no longer the rare exception. It is a trend affecting the region as a whole and it has the potential to engrain itself.

Fernando Haddad. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In such a case, the way of thinking that has albeit with difficulty allowed Latin America to have more or less classical political systems, that is, ideologically of the left, centre and right, regardless of how blurred in many cases these definitions were, would be definitively broken.

Bolsonaro is going much further than that. He is introducing a way of doing politics in the region equivalent to that of Trump in the United States and, above all, of Duterte in the Philippines.

These new unconventional politicians are not merely right or extreme right wing but are neo-populist and, in a way, related to classical fascism but in their style, they just borrow from it what suits them.  Hence the label does not adequately describe them. To some extent they are and at the same time they are not because in truth they are something else.

They are not mere passing anecdotes. They are the result of the deterioration of the classical political systems: systems which in Latin America never fully gelled and that is why they have been – more along the lines of the Phillipino political system than the US’s rather more Europeanised model – easy prey for candidates that are not necessarily understood as anti-establishment. Rather, they are the faithful figureheads of a system that has demonstrated its ability to change as a result of unlikely power grabs – power whose true custodians are only willing to give up symbolically.

Photo: Pinterest

When the threat to their interests is great, that is to say, transformative, they have gone from the electoral route to the coup only today not with tanks and soldiers on the streets.

That is not necessary anymore.

Just as in wars there is the so called ‘hybrid’ war, in politics there is the so called ‘coup d’etat 2.0’ in which a combination of the wrongful use/non-use of the law and the media is used to great effect without the spilling of blood; and with a few politicians thrown in jail accused with or without good reason of  corruption, which always pleases a section of the masses, regardless of their ideological leanings.

In part, this is what is known as “lawfare”:  practices which The Prisma is giving a detailed account of with examples stretching from Ecuador to Chile, including Brazil, where before Bolsonaro President Dilma Rouseff was dismissed and her predecessor Lula imprisoned.

But with politics like almost everything else in life there is no point in whinging.

Hence, the Latin American left, the sector most immediately affected by what is happening, but not the only one, cannot sit around making hysterical condemnations in stunned paralysis.

There will have to be some self-criticism of the role it has played in this tragedy which is neither Greek nor even Brazilian but Latin American and  bearing in mind the existence of Trump and Duterte, this tragedy perhaps stretches even beyond the region.

In Latin America, traditionally the left has dominated political discourse, in form and substance. It has always had better speakers and intellectuals to articulate its condemnation of an empirically harrowing reality.

Photo: Pinterest

But this discourse, nw referred to as ‘power narrative’, is not enough to govern what there is, much less transform it. What is needed is the law. And in this the left has failed.

As a prisoner of discourse, of its insistence to fight against endemic injustices and in many cases of wanting to be more Catholic than the Pope – to govern better than the right but in the same way and with the same system – they have neglected to change the law.

Examples abound but perhaps the paradigm is Salvador Allende and his desire to take Chile to Marxist socialism with conventional laws. The result is there for everyone to see.

The law is just the manifestation of the sovereign will of the people and if that is manifested differently politically, it seems reasonable that more than a little modification should be made to the law.

In Latin America, moreover, this is imperative because, as in Africa – although this is less the case there as they neither think like nor want to be Western – the law is not the embodiment of custom.

In Latin America, the law, for good or for bad, is the translation of a social, human, geographic and political reality that is very different from laws made in and for other contexts. Apart from a small number of exceptions, in Latin America few have initiated profound legislative reforms once in power. And this is the result. And beware that Brazil which has already become a Latin American, Pan-American and even global regional power does not stay an isolated case. It is a model. And Bolsonaro, and others like him, are evidence that he who makes the law also sets the trap. The danger is that this may become a habit.

(Translated by Nigel Conibear –  DipTrans IoLET MCIL –

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