The Prince, the Frog and the Serpent: Brazilian Presidential Politics Since 1985

Brazilian presidential politics since 1985 is a parable of a feud between a Prince and a Frog, engrossed in a quarrel, who cracked the Serpent’s Egg. Fernando Henrique Cardoso is the Prince of Brazilian democracy. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the Frog who became a Superstar. Jair Bolsonaro, the Serpent who hatched in 2018, represents forces that ruled the country from 1964 to 1984, and were lurking in the underbrush. It was not the class struggle but political miscalculation that created circumstances and relationships that allowed this grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part. 

The metaphors are not my own. Paulo Markun published O Sapo e o Príncipe in 2004.(1) Cid Benjamin published O ovo vai gerar a serpente in 2020,(2) quoting Shakespeare: “And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg / Which hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous; / And kill him in the shell.” 

 Lula is by far the most charismatic of the three, indeed he is the most charismatic figure to emerge in Brazil since Getúlio Vargas. But despite his charms, Lula lost three presidential campaigns when his rhetoric was too radical for most Brazilian voters. When Lula was finally inaugurated president in 2003 he proclaimed that “hope has finally conquered fear and it is time for Brazil to blaze a new path.” 

The speech was well received, but it was mistaken. Brazil blazed a new path when it returned to electoral democracy in 1985. It blazed a new path with the plano real in 1994. But 2003 wasn’t the time for a new path. In 2003 Brazil needed to put squabbles on the center-left aside to follow and improve the path that Cardoso had undertaken. 

Lula and his advisors knew Brazil had to continue on Cardoso’s path, and they did so for his first term, much to the frustration of his utopian supporters. But in Lula’s rhetoric he demonized the herança maldita he said he had received from Fernando Henrique and the PSDB. And in his second term he came to believe his own rhetoric, expanding the bureaucracy and loosening controls on spending, although the economists told him he was riding on a commodities boom that couldn’t last.

Lula’s other tragic error was defaulting on the Workers Party’s promise to fight corruption. The issue isn’t the personal corruption he was convicted for, which was minor at most, but the reliance on massive and systematic corruption to maintain the alliance between the Workers Party and its opportunistic allies. The mensalão and the corruption of Petrobras provided more than enough grounds for impeachment.

When FHC was in office, the PSDB also relied on conservative and opportunist parties to pass legislation, using patronage but without such massive corruption. This strategy of relying on opportunist allies to fight each other worked, for both the Prince and the Frog, because the forces of the Serpent were content to grub for patronage. 

One puzzle is why the Serpent didn’t break out of its shell during the 24 years from 1984 to 2014. One theory is that Brazilian public opinion leans to the left so conservatives didn’t have enough popular support. Another might be that Brazilians don’t think in terms of “right” and “left” or don’t believe the terms apply to Brazil. A recent paper by political scientist André Singer shows that neither of these hypotheses is correct. Singer examined survey research on the trends in the Brazilian ideological spectrum for the entire period from 1990 to 2019, as shown in the following table.

 Self-classification on the Ideological Spectrum in Brazil from 1990-2019 (in %)

1990 2000 2003 2006 2010 2016 2017 2019
Left 14 18 16 15 12 15 13 17
Center-Left 10 10 11 7 8 11 9 9
Center 18 16 16 17 17 24 29 24
Center-right 15 11 13 10 13 11 10 12
Right 28 26 28 25 24 20 26 28
Don’t Know 15 19 16 25 25 19 14 9
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
N of Cases 2340 11298 5701 6884 2623 2828 2771 2948

Source: André Singer, A reativação da direita no Brasil, data from Datafolha; SciELO Preprints -11-2021, https://preprints.scielo.org/index.php/scielo/preprint/view/1664/version/1767 

Several very interesting things are shown in this table. First, most Brazilians believe they understand the terms “left” and “right” well enough to classify themselves on a left-right scale, however they may define the terms. Second, more Brazilians classify themselves as “right” than “left” and this has been true for all of the years since 1990. Third, the percent choosing “don’t know” was higher during the Lula and Dilma presidencies. Finally, the percentage classifying themselves as “center” has increased in recent years at the expense of the “don’t know” category.

In his interpretation of these data, Singer argues that Lula “deactivated” ideological thinking to win the presidency. Lula didn’t persuade people to become leftists, he got them to stop thinking ideologically, at least when he was running. This was clearly his intention as expressed in his “Letter to the Brazilian People” promising to honor Brazil’s debts and maintain economic stability, the major conservative priorities at the time.

Similarly, although Fernando Henrique was known as a scholar interested in Marxist theories, he won the presidency by stabilizing the currency, a hoary conservative goal. Fernando Henrique had strong support from conservatives and business leaders, Lula persuaded them to accept him as well. 

Lula and Fernando Henrique had been allies in fighting the military regime and they contested much of the same ideological terrain after that. What happened to the more conservative politicians? The PSDB and the PT successfully bought them off. 

A great many Brazilian politicians identify with the “center” including a grouping of legislators from small parties known as the centrão and those in the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB). But these politicians usually don’t have a defined centrist ideology, they tend to hedge their bets, keeping the flexibility to win payoffs, licit or illicit, from whichever party wins the all important presidency. The PMDB, although a very powerful party in many states and in the legislature, was often content to not run a presidential candidate at all, preferring to wait to cut the best deal with whomever won.

Why did the right abandon its ideological cause? Anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwartz argues that Brazilian politics is driven more by affect than ideology.(3) Not that Brazil is unique in this respect, authoritarian populism everywhere is driven more by emotion than policy positions. The ethnographies in a recent book, Precarious Democracy, describe the waves of emotion that swept through Brazilian society in 2018, mostly rage and despair. They offer case studies of family conflict among informants who differed in temperament and political views, despite sharing a common socio-economic status. 

In the mass protests that broke out in 2013, demonstrators expressed understandable outrage and disgust with the corruption scandals. Preaching against corruption is an old Brazilian trope, used by Jânio Quadros, whose symbol was the broom he would use to sweep the country clean, and Fernando Collor de Melo, who promised to free the country from maharajahs. But why didn’t this sentiment generate mass outrage in response to the mensalão? Brazilians have proved remarkably tolerant of corruption by leaders who deliver the goods, as expressed in the saying “he steals but he gets things done.” 

The ritual humiliation of Dilma Rousseff obviously had nothing to do with the minor offenses that were used to justify her impeachment. It had everything to do with the economic collapse engendered by her failure to acknowledge and prepare for the end of the commodities boom. Dilma was a convenient scapegoat, lacking personal charisma and an independent political base. Attacking Lula in the same way would have been much more difficult, although her policies were essentially the same as his.

Jair Bolsonaro wasn’t a symbol of hope, he was a symbol of frustration, anger and despair. He and his family suffered many frustrations. His father suffered the humiliation of being denounced for illegally practicing as a dentist. Psychoanalyst Christian Dunker observes that “a father who was humiliated and persecuted generally leaves as a trait persistent desires for revenge.”(4)

Bolsonaro modeled his campaign on Donald Trump, but his personal history and psychological make-up are quite different. Bolsonaro served for 27 years as a backbench congressman, what Brazilians call the “lower clergy.” The little national prominence he had came from being an ideological outlier and making extreme statements, and for advocating military pay raises.

He was not consistently right-wing, and expressed admiration for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, seeing him as an anti-establishment figure. Dunker argues that “love and hatred for his father coexist in Jair, just as small Captain Bolsonaro loved and hated the Army, just as he obeyed and betrayed his superiors.” 

Dunker says that Bolsonaro’s “hatred is genuine, but the externalization to the enemy is false. For this reason his speech is relatively empty, elusive, and repetitive and lends itself to being embodied by anyone who has similar indeterminate feelings of revolt.” Bolsonaro has been married three times, like Trump, but he is not known for bragging about his sexual conquests or his looks or accomplishments (all of which prior to 2018 were modest).

The characterization of “narcissistic personality” so often applied to Donald Trump does not fit Bolsonaro. He can be more convincingly described as Bovarist, a term derived from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Bovarysme denotes a tendency to identify with more powerful and accomplished individuals or groups.(5) Haitian leader Jean Price-Mars used the term “collective bovarysme” to refer to the Haitian elite’s tendency to identify with European whites.

In Bolsonaro’s case it suggests an identification with the leaders of the wealthier countries and contempt for his own country’s institutions. Asked for a solution to Brazil’s economic woes, he advocates doing what the successful countries do. He may, indeed, see himself as Brazil’s Donald Trump, but this is mostly style, not substance. 

Getúlio Vargas shares some aspects of Bolsonaro’s profile. Getúlio was unimpressive physically, 5’2” short and rotund, his fellow military students nicknamed him xuxu because his physique resembled a pear-like vegetable (chayote).(6) He had trouble adapting to life as a soldier and got a doctor to say he had epilepsy.

Bolsonaro’s troubles with the military were different, he had conflicts with the hierarchy over pay and working conditions. But one could say that both went into politics when their military careers failed. Of course, Vargas came from a powerful family and had exceptional skill as an orator and political operative. But he suffered from depression all his life, and something about him  resonated with people who felt unappreciated and unrewarded. 

At this time (November 2021) it seems likely that the 2022 presidential election will come down to a runoff between Lula and Bolsonaro. In that event, Cardoso has said he will support Lula. Brazil is fortunate that Lula is charismatic and politically skilled, while Bolsonaro lacks charisma, political skill or a realistic understanding of infectious disease.

Bolsonaro may play a service by preempting the emergence of a charismatic authoritarian demagogue. But regardless of who the leading candidates are, the Brazilian right is not likely to go meekly back into its shell. Lula’s charisma may carry him to electoral victory, but it will take all the Prince’s horses and all the Frog’s men to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. 

1. Paulo Markun, O Sapo e o Príncipe. Rio de Janeiro: Objectiva, 2004.

 2. Cid Benjamin, “O ovo vai gerar a serpente,” pp. 75 to 77 , in O Ovo da Serpente, A Ameaça Neofascista no Brasil do Bolsonaro, Mauad Editora, 2020. 

 3. Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, “A Plan for a Country Still Looking for Democracy,” in Benjamin Junge, Sean Mitchell, Alvaro Jarrín, and Lucia Cantero, eds., Precarious Democracy: Ethnographies of Hope, Despair, and Resistance in Brazil. Rutgers University Press, 2021.

4. Christian Dunker, “A sombra de si mesmo,”  [ Revista Epoca, October 26, 2018. https://epoca.globo.com/a-sombra-de-si-mesmo-23184248

 5. Maria Rita Kehl,. Bovarismo Brasileiro. .Boitempo 2018. Amazon Kindle Edition.

 6. Robert Levine, Father of the Poor?  Vargas and his Era.  Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ted G. Goertzel – Rutgers University at Camden NJ. You can reach him at tedgoertzel@gmail.com

 

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