The Brazilian Presidential Elections and “The Rules of The Game”

The Pre- and Post-Game of the Brazilian Presidential Elections: An Introduction to Dunker’s “The Rules of the Game”

By Peter Lehman

Amidst a polarized electorate, growing disillusionment with democratic politics, and thirteen candidates running for President, the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro emerged the initial winner of last week’s presidential election in Brazil.  Bolsonaro, an ex-army officer and decades-old congressman from the small Social Liberal Party (PSL), did not receive enough votes to avoid a runoff at the end of October.  But with 46% of the popular vote, he did alarmingly better than anticipated, and he will now face the runner-up, Fernando Haddad, the candidate for the center-left Workers’ Party (PT) and the former mayor of São Paulo, who ended up with a little over 26% after only a month at the head of the PT’s ticket.

Bolsonaro had been steadily climbing in polls several months before the election but only emerged as the frontrunner once the clear leader in the polls and the PT’s preferred candidate, the ex-President Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, was taken out of the equation in September.  Earlier in April, Lula was imprisoned on charges of bribery linked to the ongoing federal anti-corruption investigation, Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash). Although he had not fully exhausted the appeal process, the Federal Supreme Court applied a new legal principle that denied Lula habeas corpus for subsequent appeals.  As a result, and because of a new “clean slate” law established, like the new independence given to the federal judiciary, by the previous governments of Lula and the PT, Lula’s conviction meant that he would effectively be barred from running and likely winning his third term.

For many PT supporters and sympathizers, the coordinated right-wing media attack on Lula and the fairly weak evidence against him merely confirm that his trial was more persecution than prosecution, more a partisan politics of hatred than an impartial process of the law. But what the Brazilian social theorist and psychoanalyst Christian Dunker calls Lula’s “punitive imprisonment” cannot be separated from the events that preceded it: above all, the 2016 parlimentary or soft coupthat removed the PT’s Dilma Rouseff from her second term term as President and ended fourteen years of the PT at the head of the national government.  In “The Rules of the Game,” Dunker analyzes the changing social, political, and ideological terrain after the 2016 soft coup by returning to both Lula’s frequent use of soccer as an allegory for politics and the right’s initial response to Dilma’s reelection in 2014.  Even though Dunker’s essay was written before Bolsonaro’s recent rise in the polls, and nowhere mentions the far-right candidate by name, “The Rules of the Game” presents a diagnostic of the conditions in which a right-wing populist with neo-fascist sympathies could emerge as Brazil’s leading candidate for President.

For Dunker, when in 2014 Dilma was reelected for a second term after she narrowly beat Aécio Neves, the candidate of the establishment center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), the right refused to look inward at the failures of their pick.  Instead of engaging in a productive process of mourning, they cried foul, complained that the left had violated the “rules of the game,” and pressured the Federal Election Court to investigate the possibility of voter fraud.  Although this alleged infraction was closer to Trump’s unfounded complaint about massive voter fraud in the U.S., there is up to this point a useful parallel with the failures of critical reflection in the Clinton camp after Trump’s election.[i] In the wake of Brazil’s prolonged economic downturn and the right-ward turn of anti-corruption protests in 2015, though, the forces that lost in 2014 successively orchestrated Dilma’s impeachment by selectively applying the regulative rules of the political game.

For Dilma was deposed not for any part in the Car Wash corruption scheme, but on charges of an irregular government accounting practice called “pedaling.”  Previously a somewhat common budgetary trick, the practice was made censurable only in 2015—that is, a year after Dilma was accused of doing it by the Senators who would orchestrate her impeachment.  Leading this opposition to Dilma was the Speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, a member of the same center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) as Dilma’s Vice-President and coalition partner, Michel Temer.  With the crucial organizational aid of the center-right PSDB and the vocal support of what then seemed to be only a marginal far-right, the opposition secured enough votes to impeach Dilma, paving the way for Temer to assume the Presidency.

In one of the starkest ironies of this process, Cunha would himself be convicted the next year on major corruption charges (he is now serving a fifteen year sentence for bribery and money laundering).  The newly installed President Temer, on the other hand, immediately began to dismantle central social policies of the PT through an intensification of neoliberal austerity measures, from market reforms that undermined the labor code to a virtual freeze on investment in education and health for the next twenty years (another unintended meaning of Temer’s campaign slogan for rapid economic development, “20 years in 2,” as Dunker emphasizes below).  Despite Temer’s dismal approval ratings (which have remained in the single digits since last year) and concrete evidence linking him to bribery (he is on tape apparently ordering payments to Cunha to maintain the latter’s silence), Congress repeatedly voted to uphold his protection from charges while he remains in office until elections this fall.

Lula’s case is another story. In Dunker’s soccer analogy, the imprisonment of Lula not only demonstrates another selective application of the rules that have regulated the game of democratic politics since the Constitution of 1988 and the end of the last military dictatorship (1964-1985). It also marks part of a more fundamental alteration of the rules that are constitutive of this game itself, a shift that has only become more apparent with Bolsonaro’s rise.  For Dunker, what emerged victorious with the imprisonment of Lula was “an archaic conception of power based on the strength of the person, the possession of means, and the instrumentalization of the State.”  In this conception of the post-coup, the punitive imprisonment of Lula not only connects to the continued impunity of the right (above all, the right hand of the State), but also to larger patterns of social resentment and violence, from everyday speech to more openly repressive acts like the assassination of the Rio de Janeiro socialist city councilor, Marielle Franco.

Franco’s assassination ocurred in the same several months that Lula was imprisoned and one of his campaign buses riddled with gunfire.  However, as a socialist as well as a black, queer feminist from the Maré favela, Franco embodied multiple identities that right-wing discourses of purification have targeted as an excess or threat to the normative social body.  She herself likely became an actual target of the police violence against the black and poor that she forcefully denounced as a politician and militant—the same police violence that Bolsonaro has justified as a necessary instrument for combatting an amorphous criminality.  But compared to the corruption investigation lionized by the Brazilian media, the continued lack of real police inquiry for even such a high profile case like Franco’s appears as symptomatic as some of the reactionary justifications of her killing analyzed by Dunker.

The interrelation between social resentment and political violence has only intensified in the months leading up to the elections.  After Bolsonaro himself was stabbed at a campaign rally by a street pastor acting on “an order from God,” his running mate, the recently retired general Hamilton Mourão, immediately linked the attacker to the PT.  (Although false, the claim also had a certain truth: the attacker had been formerly affiliated with a socialist left party as well as an itinerant pastor of an Evangelical church, part of a growing Protestant movement that has many prominent leaders now publically endorsing Bolsonaro).  However much the act of a mentally disturbed individual, the attack coincides with a wider culture of vengeance and a political theological turn to a punishing God, part of the new “archaic conception of power.” In this sense, the act also resembles a violent and distorted left version of “Brazil above everything and God above all,” the main slogan of Bolsonaro’s campaign.  The attack itself, though, appeared to have the effect of only bolstering Bolsonaro’s poll numbers, and his campaign responded by ratcheting up the military rhetoric of a “war” with their enemies.  In one of several videos recorded at the hospital, Bolsonaro claimed that Lula would resort to electoral fraud to secure a left victory against him.

We are thus back to the charges after the 2014 post-election.  But this repetition carries within it a signficant difference, for the explicit challenge to the “constitutive rules” of democratic politics has been nowhere more evident than in recent justifications for military intervention both within and alongside Bolsonaro’s campaign.  As the political scientist Luis Felipe Miguel has emphasized, a similar unsubstantiated claim anticipating a compromised election had already been made by the current Commander of the Army, General Eduardo Villa Bôas, the same general who had previously issued a veiled threat on social media about the military being “attentive to their institutional mission” should the Federal Supreme Court fail to imprison Lula.  In this climate, the runoff now between Bolsonaro and Haddad already has a specter of illegitimacy hanging over it, at least for the forces of the right attempting to conjure one.

It is thus not just that Bolsonaro has praised Brazil’s last military dictatorship or proclaimed that police should be lauded rather than prosecuted for killing criminals.  His campaign and its fellow travelers have also outlined, in Miguel’s terms, “two paths” toward some hybrid form of dictatorship: a new constitutional charter written by the elite and a so-called consititutional coup called upon by the state to restore law and order.  Mourão, echoed by another retired general, has defended a new constitution that would be written by a selected commission of jurists, constitutionalists, and other “notables,” then imposed from above, bypassing Congress or any Constituent Assembly with a potential plebscite vote.  In a long televised interview, Mourão asserted that use of the Armed Forces would be justified in a state of “generalized anarchy” and could be called on by some branch of the actual State to bolster its Executive power through a kind of “self-coup.”  The basis for this foreboding interpretation is article 142 of the Federal Constitution, a carryover from the dictatorship that has also been used to decree a legal role for the military in the “pacification” of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.  Like the neoliberalism promoted by the Chicago Boy economist of Bolsonaro’s campaign, Paulo Guedes, this justification for an expanded state of exception represents both a line of continuity with Temer’s government and a break with the old rules of the game.

In this sense, it is significant that Bolsonaro’s son referred to the choice of Mourão as a faca na caveira for their campaign.  Literally a “dagger in the skull,” the expression refers to the image emblazoned on the badge of the BOPE, Brazil’s elite police forces. This expression, however, was popularized in José Padilha’s earlier pair of blockbuster Elite Squad (Tropa de elite) films, which centered on the captain of a BOPE unit combating drug gangs in the favelas.  Although Padilha’s recent Netflix series, The Mechanism (O mecanismo), has moved from the violent frontline of the drug war to the federal police investigating the Car Wash corruption scheme, what remains the same is the projection of an uncorruptible police unit as the beleaugured savior of a corrupt society.  This, in part, is the meaning of the phrase cited by Dunker and uttered more than once by the lead police investigators: “God writes straight through crooked lines.”  In the series, the phrase suggests that amidst a society afflicted by endemic corruption only an uncorrupt federal police now follows the “straight” or “certain” path of true justice—a justice that, in turn, becomes almost solely identified with anti-corruption and the floating ideal of equal punishment.

But Bolsonaro would seem to represent another turn of this phrase.  At least part of Bolsonaro’s rise, Dunker has more recently suggested, relies on his image as a “great little man,” a term taken from Theodor Adorno’s mid-century analysis of the mass psychology involved in fascist propaganda.  In this sense, it is perhaps both necessary and insufficient to criticize Bolsonaro by repeating his racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and fascistic statements. For, according to Dunker, it is as ifhe respondsto his (majority male) supporters by subsuming these crooked lines under the aura of anti-corruption: “you know that we are all a little like this, no?  But, unlike Lula, I was not caught.”

For many on the left, an important counter to both this logic and Bolsonaro’s rise has been the recent massive demonstrations across Brazil, led by women and organized under the hashtag banner of #elenão (“not him”).  The radical and feminist current of this movement is attempting to build a national alliance politics against Bolsonaro, and its practical correlate is the rallying of the more progressive first-round candidates behind Haddad, who, even with this support, now faces difficult odds in the second round.  Despite an initial boost given by Lula’s endorsement, Haddad and his running mate, Manuela D’Ávila, must now contend with a percentage of undecided or dejected voters who must show up for the electoral game but intend to vote blank ballots in protest; previous non-PT Lula voters who have switched allegiances and are now cheering for Bolsonaro; and those sectors of the national and international capitalist class who, having seen their preferred team fair horribly in the first round, are now rooting for an authoritarian neoliberalism with neo-fascist characteristics (following approval by “the market,” the editorial page of the Wall Street Journalis now among those blowing their horns for the far-right).  The rules of this new game may have not yet been defined, but the October 28 election, like the events that preceded it, will no doubt play a significant part in shaping how it is played going forward.

* * *

The Rules of the Game

By Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker

During his two mandates as President, Lula redescribed political problems using the allegory of soccer.  Like any game, politics and soccer possess constitutive rules and regulative rules. The regulative rules permit an alteration of how the game is played without thereby altering the essence of the game.  For example, soccer can be played with eleven or with five players, on the beach or on grass, with or without the use of cameras to aid the referee.  Yet the constitutive rules define the game itself. The eventual violation of these rules leads to the very alteration of the name of the game that is being played. For example, soccer that is played with the hands can no longer be considered soccer since the rule of playing with one’s feet (with the exception of the goalie and throw-ins, etc.) constitutively defines what soccer is.  The new game exists, and it can be called “handball,” instead of “football” or “soccer.”

The application of regulative rules in Brazilian politics has shown itself to be flagrantly selective since the deposition of [the last President Dilma Rousseff and the assumption of the presidency by the former Vice-President, Michel Temer].  The law was declared to be against “fiscal pedaling” (which Temer committed), averse to the protective nomination of ministers (which Temer committed), and critical of the presence of people whose behavior indicates extensive acts of corruption (which Temer also committed).

Up to this point, the country has become polarized around what in soccer is called an “error of interpretation.”  It is considered part of the game that a referee may systematically rule against your team.  It is possible that you may hear your neighbor say, “it tastes even better when it’s stolen” (roubado é mais gostoso), or that you should go “cry in bed, it’s much warmer there” (chorar na cama que é lugar mais quente).

When [, after the successful impeachment of Dilma,] the Dilma-Temer ticket was “absolved” [of campaign finance irregularities,] despite logical and material evidence to the contrary, it seemed that a new style of refereeing or arbitration had begun, a style that should have led to Temer’s forfeiture of the Presidency.  We have to remember here that if Dilma was charged with incorrect government accounting procedures, the Dilma-Temer campaign, which had used analogous procedures, should be charged as well.  But when this did not happen, a dangerous line was crossed.  A team could be champion because of a penalty that should have been called, as recently happened with the soccer championship in São Paulo.  In this case, the winners should be willing to admit that contingency favored them. However, the exact opposite occurred in the case of politics: the winners started to yell and taunt even more aggressively, as if to convince themselves that their victory is legitimate and uncontestable in every possible sense.

It was in this second period that something became vague from the point of view of a rules violation.  Henceforth, the regulative rules, sanctioned by the law, will now apply selectively against some and in favor of others.  Moreover, this would only be the generalization of current juridical practice. Whoever has money has justice.  To the loser, not even the potatoes.  It is as if the association of referees, by an infelicitous accident, had rooted against your team.  Worse, and more dismal still: the selective application of rules awakens and confirms in reality the feeling of injustice already lived in more local forms.  For this reason, those who suffer most with the capillarization of the coup are minorities, for it is as if each division manager, each little bureaucrat, each authoritarian father, each homophobe or bigot had received a ciphered message saying: “Now politics has become soccer.  Become a microentrepreneur of your own domestic coup!”

In other words, violence—the use of force through the possession of the means of coercion, money, discourse, and institutions—has now been liberated. Once again, this development only generalizes, officializes, and sanctions the general perception of endemic corruption.  In a situation of unemployment and increasing social precarity, the violence experienced as selective justice was the signal to generalize the “corruption within the law.”  The São Paulo championship game has now been duplicated.  As one says in soccer, it is necessary “to win with the ball and with the referee court of arbitration.”  It is necessary to confront the effects of social resentment caused by the even worse return of those who “don’t know how to win,” those who, besides winning, enjoy the humiliation of the other.  A culture of vengeance is already simmering.  There is an increasing feeling that the law is not impartial, that it does have a boss.

We arrive in this way to the third period of the game.  In this part, the constitutive rules of politics in Brazil have been definitively altered.  For some, the idea of a suspension of our state of basic functioning, expressed by the motto that the rich and powerful never will go to prison, was finally satisfied by a real case of exemplary punishment.  For others, there was a suspension of the game’s constitutive rules, vengeance, and the instrumental neutralization of the candidate with the largest popular support.  But we should note that, on this point, right and left are united in agreement that the rules have changed.

We have begun to play “soccer with hands.”  The proper principles of the game, not only their selective and partial application, have been altered.  A judge, confronted by Lula [about the charges against him], says, “I don’t have any proof, so I question you and condemn you.”  Another judge of the Federal Supreme Court [who voted in favor of denying Lula habeas corpus] says, “I am voting on the case, even though I disagree with the principle that the case presumes.” It is not only that the double standard of “two weights, two measurements” also is the exemplary punishment, the use of anger that flourishes in the place of arguments.  But when a limit to the feeling of injustice is ruptured, whether justified or not by the ambiguities of legal dispositives or by the manipulation of juridical ordinance, the next step is the appearance of violence in name of the law and of justice by bullet.  This occurs because the common and popular sense of justice is surpressed by the opaque force of institutions, which further increases the distance of justice from communities seeking it.  When the State is not able to recognize that there is a desire for justice and equality in the rage of its citizens, it attacks these protests as if they were about a pure lack of submissiveness.

In this way, we return to the Temer government, “20 years in 2” (as the slogan of his quasi-campaign wanted to suggest, in an unvoluntary self-irony). It is the return of corruption within the law as a new edition of clientelism, the system of political favors and of the instrumentalization of the State, from which an exit in Brasil must be found.  Just as for many years sympathizers on the left closed their eyes to the infractions and diversions of the Lula-Dilma government, now it is the sympathizers on the right who do not want to see that certain justice can be made with crooked lines.

Here the stubbornness of the affects is combined with Brazilian cultural racism and its theory that purification will save us.  The God of wrath resurges by both the hand and the use of political theology from the Old Testament.  Much like in religious wars, it is not about winning one championship and losing another, maybe losing many to one day win in the future.  The alteration of the constitutive rules includes a plea to also declare the nonexistence of the other side.  A championship where only my team plays… and wins every time!

In the latter case, the analogy with soccer as struggle and symbolic conflict comes to an end.  For what resurges here is a regulative and constitutive sanction, contrary to the idea of a republic.  We return to politics as the possession of both force and the means of coercion. Guilt—when one knows about the exaggerations, coercive acts, and manipulations—is an affect that easily converts into aggressiveness.  It is for this reason that we frequently need to generalize, accuse, and diminish the other in order to buy a few minutes of peace with our own conscience.  Except that a conscience “bought” with this type of self-deception always asks for more.  The more it needs to attack others to confirm the truth of its convictions, the “greedier” it becomes.  In this way, it forms blocs of increasingly more generic people-types, types that are necessary to embody our hatred and our cowardice: artists, university professors, “pathological-leftists,” Workers’ Party partisans, gays—all are scarecrows created to try to keep away the crows that explain why the harvest on our plantation is not more plentiful than all the rest.

[Marielle Franco]—a black, bisexual, left militant councilwoman from the periphery—is executed and, up until the present, no proper police investigation has occurred. Politicians and high-ranking judges respond—in a national variant of Trump—by proclaiming that after all “the two sides are both somewhat right,” or that “she was looking for trouble,” or even “she got what she deserved.”  Is this not another case of true justice carried out by crooked lines?

This is the fundamental change in the social perception of injustice that our legal studies and our most elevated juridical forms have refused to think. Lula was put on trial with a pleasure and anger that had as its caption “throw this trash out the window below” (said to the pilot of the plane that transported him to the prison), since anyone at all became judge (not only soccer coach), anyone at all authorizes him or herself to be executioner and executor of the will, creating a depositary so that, once immolated in sacrifice, “everything returns to be as it was before in the headquarters of Abrantes.”[ii]

The worst aspect of Lula’s imprisonment is that it symbolizes the defeat of a project and the extinction of a perspective on Brazil.  Abolished along with this project and perspective is the idea that it is possible to share ways of exercising and alternating power.  What emerges victorious is an archaic conception of power based on the strength of the person, the possession of means, and the instrumentalization of the State.  The punitive imprisonment of Lula, independent of the vacillating juridical reasons and evidence, accentuates and generalizes the disbelief in the legal process and in the institutions.  The Dantesque spectacle of continually unraveling turns and counterturns, casuistry and contradictions, impedes the formation of a common sense with a minimally informed impression about the reasoning of the legal proceedings.  The problem here is that when power becomes opaque and much too complex for common people, each person tends to interpret this opacity according to their own fantasy.  That is, the great father savior, the theory of bad apples, the ideal of purification, the conception of the family and of the sacred as fundamental political determinants, paranoia about the foreign, the invisibility of certain forms of violence and the hypervisuality of other forms of violence. This resumption of our worst preconceptions ended up being sanctioned by the form of how the legal proceedings have unfolded.

For better and worse it is necessary to try to understand why Lula was the virtually most supported candidate for the next elections.  Curiously and despite everything, he represents a certain consensus—conciliatory reason—that he in fact put into practice, and for many that would have been the ultimate reason for the degradation of his project.  At present, this conciliation has disappeared. Another very important value has vanished along with conciliation, a value that is translated in republican terms by common feeling towards the res publica, by the recognition of conflict as a form of reason that is itself productive of politics.  Now, negotiating, arguing, convincing, and justifying takes work.  It involves dedication, information, a certain political formation, and some command of history and culture.  To have a wide-ranging opinion is much easier.  The same subject who radicalizes now will become disinterested in politics when it ceases to be the expression and support for his or her own social resentment.

Faced with all the uncertainties that appear on the horizon, it is fairly certain that the way in which things have occurred—the rhetoric of hatred and the imposition of humiliation on the defeated—can only spill over into an increase of social resentment.  This was the case with Temer’s ascension to the Presidency, and after that with the emergence of problems connected to violence of all types, from the prison rebellions to the slaughters in the urban peripheries, from homophobia to the massacre of young black men.  It is not a mistake.  When we understand that “authority” only justifies itself through rage and selective justice, we interpret this as a message that authorizes our little oppressions and our quotidian conflicts once they have ceased to be treated “institutionally,” through the labor of the word.  We then authorize ourselves to do the same thing with our so-called “subordinates.”  If the rule is “whoever has more means to do so, takes what they can” (quem pode mais, leva), those who ultimately pay the price are the least well off.

Translated by Peter Lehman


[i] Only here the allegory would have to be American football, since for the DNC-liberal punditry any critique of Russiagate has functioned like a version of the right’s reaction to NFL players taking a knee: critique of the role of race in the prison-industrial complex at home, like that of the role of American empire in the military-industrial complex overseas, is displaced and translated into an affront to the flag. The main difference is which of the two intertwined elements of American exceptionalism must now be morally defended: for conservatives, it is the integrity of the military challenged by internal forces; for liberals, it is the integrity of a democracy challenged by external ones. In the latter case, though, the post-election failure to engage in a process of mourning and to look inward would pertain as much to reconsidering the internal democracy of the Democratic Party and the innovations of its new Sanders wing, as to implementing actual measures that could protect democratic elections, from countering the new tactics of voter suppression to assuring a paper trail and security for electronic voting machines, as well as to the debate about cyber security and social media. (Of course a more radical long term vision might include other things like a need to link democracy and the decriminalizaton of precarious life, following the movement for black lives and the immigrant rights movement, as well as the push to reestablishing voting rights for the formerly incarcerated).  With Trump as the main object of hatred, though, there is a lot of moral reaction and little political action beyond investing hope in the outcome of the federal investigation.  In the U.S., as in Brazil, this has often lead to a heroization of federal police and judicial forces, and a subsequent displacement of politics.

[ii] Abrantes was the militarily strategic city where Napoleon’s forces first invaded Portugal before they sacked the capital Lisbon, an act that sent the Portuguese court to over a decade of exile in the colony of Brazil.  This ironic proverb is often used to convey how, even in a period of social unrest or a change in political rule, those in power remain the same.  During Temer’s two years in the Presidency, some mainstream commentators have invoked the phrase after Temer and other center-right presidential candidates from the PSDB have avoided prosecution, despite often strong evidence of their involvement in the corruption scandal and its cover up [translator’s note].