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From the United States to Poland, the word “fascism” has been used to evoke ideas of authoritarian intolerance. In Brazil, the word has particular resonance among young opponents of presidential front-runner Jair Bolsonaro. The congressman and former army officer's comments have frequently drawn accusations of racism, sexism, and homophobia. He has also openly praised Brazil’s dictatorship-era political tactics, and fear of a throwback to an oppressive approach has galvanized youth. “The word ‘fascist’ ... embodies everything they don’t want,” says Esther Solano, a professor of international relations at the University of São Paulo. “These are young people for whom questions of race, gender, and sexuality are natural. Fascism is basically intolerant of all of this.” But supporters see his statements as being taken out of context. They view Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise as a way to right more recent wrongs. In recent decades Brazil has made strides on civil and economic rights and strengthened its institutions. But corruption scandals, a president’s impeachment, and a struggling economy have fueled a desire for change. The question now is what course change should take.
As the sun beat down on the crowds gathered outside Rio de Janeiro’s city hall last Saturday, Heloisa Gussate, a music student in her late 20s, stood with her feet on either side of a marching drum, ready to jump into action. Chants, whoops, and laughter emanated from the groups passing by, but the exuberant atmosphere was contradicted by a heavy word slapped across almost all the signs and posters on the street that day: “fascist.”
In at least 62 cities across Brazil on Sept. 29, tens of thousands of protesters transformed main thoroughfares into brightly colored, glitter-splashed demonstrations against presidential front-runner Jair Bolsonaro, who was near-fatally stabbed at a rally in September. Campaigning with the hashtag #EleNão (#NotHim), protesters voiced their opposition to a candidate they say represents a turn back toward the values of Brazil’s era of authoritarian rule.
“He's someone who defends hate, who defends the dictatorship,” says Ms. Gussate, referring to Brazil’s repressive military regime from 1964 to 1985. Gussate fears that groups considered second-class citizens during the dictatorship – women, black Brazilians, and residents of low-income favela communities in particular – could face cutbacks to their rights under a Bolsonaro presidency.
“It’s not that far away from what already happens today,” she says, referring to challenges those groups face. “What will change completely is this,” she says, gesturing to the protesters. “This won't exist anymore.”
From the United States to Poland, the word “fascism” has been frequently thrown about in political criticism in recent years, often evoking ideas of an authoritarian political system with no tolerance for opposition. But in Brazil, with living memories of the military era, the word has particular resonance among Mr. Bolsonaro’s opponents.
The congressman and former army officer's comments have frequently drawn accusations of racism, sexism, and homophobia. He’s sometimes referred to as “Brazil’s Donald Trump” for his populist approach and polarizing public statements.
But it’s the idea of a possible resurgence of “fascism,” or a throwback to an oppressive approach to governance, that has so galvanized the nation’s youth. Some 53 percent of of Brazilians ages 16 to 24, a large chunk of last weekend’s marchers, reject Bolsonaro’s candidacy, according to polls released Oct. 2. Bolsonaro has expressed intolerance for adversaries, openly praised Brazil’s dictatorship-era violence, and voiced admiration for the army major whose unit tortured former President Dilma Rousseff and other dissidents.
Younger Brazilians, who came of age under Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT), weren’t alive during the dictatorship. But its history still looms large in high school curricula or at the family dinner table. And many already have first-hand experience with protest and police violence, such as a rash of high-school occupations in 2015 to oppose austerity-induced threats of school closures.
But what Bolsonaro’s detractors might see as a step back to the past, his supporters view as a righting of more recent, repeated presidential wrongs. Over the past two decades, Brazil has made big strides on civil and economic rights, and has strengthened its institutions, like the judiciary. However, ongoing corruption scandals, a president’s impeachment, and a struggling economy have fueled an overwhelming desire for change.
But for his opponents, “The word ‘fascist’ ... embodies everything they don’t want,” says Esther Solano, a professor of international relations at the University of São Paulo. “These are young people for whom questions of race, gender, and sexuality are natural. Fascism is basically intolerant of all of this.”
Bolsonaro is currently leading voter polls, with 31 percent of Brazilians’ support. He wasn’t a likely victor just a few months ago, when former PT leader and two-term president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva looked like a possible candidate and certain front-runner. But his imprisonment after a corruption investigation earlier this year officially disqualified him from him from running in the Oct. 7 presidential race.
His party’s new candidate, former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, is currently polling 10 points behind. Mr. Haddad and Bolsonaro would tie in a run-off vote, according to a poll released Monday.
The nationwide protests against Bolsonaro came out of a Facebook group called “Women United against Bolsonaro,” with 3.5 million members. Posts within the group throw around the word “fascism” regularly, equating it with intolerance, extremisms, and the suppression of citizen rights. Some group members compare Bolsonaro to Hitler or Mussolini, citing his comments supporting military-enforced dictatorships.
“Brazil is a country in which women, and so many other minorities live very harsh and unfair realities,” says Maria Rita Taunay, a march organizer in Rio, describing why Bolsonaro’s candidacy compelled so many to turn out to protest.
Despite the middle class’s expansion over the first 10 years of this century, extreme poverty more than doubled between 2014 and 2017, according to research by Action Aid Brazil and the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis. Violence is also growing: Brazil has one of the highest femicide rates in the world, and young black men disproportionately fall victim to murder – which reached a record high of 63,880 in 2017.
In Ms. Taunay’s view, women’s rights are too fragile to withstand a candidate who has argued against equal pay on the grounds that female employees can become pregnant, and who has famously joked about sexual assault. “Bolsonaro is a setback that we cannot afford,” she says.
Voting for something different
Widespread anti-PT sentiment has partially fueled Bolsonaro’s rise among an agitated and disillusioned electorate, says Thiago Krause, a history professor at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO). “Bolsonaro serves as this symbol of destroying the political system, which everyone thinks of as totally corrupt,” he says.
“He’s been a congressman for 30 years, but he’s only had two bills approved,” says Bruno Mourato, an unemployed logistics worker in his late twenties who intends to vote for Bolsonaro. Mr. Mourato says PT’s long-running grasp on power only served to line the political class’s pockets, rather than governing for the benefit of ordinary Brazilians. “You have a gang inside the political system who govern for themselves,” he says.
Supporters argue that Bolsonaro’s comments are frequently taken out of context, and call his social positions sensible, such as his critiques of “gender theory.” Many also support his desire to scrap racial quotas for universities, intended as reparations for slavery, which they argue unreasonably benefit black Brazilians.
Opponents say their concern goes beyond incendiary statements, and centers on his commitment to democracy. During a 2015 TV interview, Bolsonaro defended Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, saying: “Pinochet did what had to be done. It had to be done violently.” His vice-presidential candidate, retired military general Antônio Mourão, has made public statements supporting military intervention in cases where the judiciary isn’t able to address the nation’s problems.
“Based on what I see in the streets, I [will] not accept any election result other than my election,” Bolsonaro told national media last week.
Many voters supporting Bolsonaro don’t necessarily support his perspectives, according to Thiago de Aragão, director of political consultancy Arko Advice. Nevertheless, he says, resentment and mistrust for the PT could drive voters toward the candidate.
“Voters will choose candidates based on who they want to see lose, rather than who they want to see win.”