Politics in Brazil: Dividing families

8 Mins read

Brazil is still coming to terms with one of the most controversial presidential elections in the country’s democratic history.

The battle between Fernando Haddad and Jair Bolsonaro saw the right-winger, Bolsonaro, securing 55.1% of the votes and becoming the 38th president of Brazil. But the election highlighted a deep-rooted polarisation of the country which has been festering for years and has led to many divisions, even among families.

The newly-elected president is a far-right member of the PSL (Social Liberal Party), a retired military officer who has been serving in the Brazilian National Congress for 27 years. A significant proportion of his votes came from a campaign promising to tackle crime, corruption and create economic growth.

Bolsonaro’s popularity also built on widespread disapproval of with the leftist Workers’ Party which has been accused of corruption over many years. His opponents call him homophobic, fascist and gave him the nickname “The Trump of the Tropics” for his extreme discourse, and his victory speech even sounded Trumpian with a promise to be a “defender of the Constitution, democracy and freedom.”

The newly-elected president, Jair Bolsonaro. [Flickr:Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil Fotografias]

Fernando Haddad is São Paulo’s former mayor and minister of education under the presidencies of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, he carried the torch for the Workers’ Party, and his supporters come mostly from Lula’s devotees who firmly believe him to be a good substitute for the former president. Others were supporters who are simply against Bolsonaro’s more extreme policies.

His critics argued that he was an incompetent mayor and was only Lula’s puppet. Haddad was the first mayor of São Paulo to not reach the election’s second round for a second mandate and according to the Datafolha, his approval rate as mayor came down to 14% in 2016.

Many believe that Bolsonaro’s victory is only a result of the electorate’s strong displeasure with the former government and that in another political situation would never happen. The Workers’ Party (PT) is a left-wing democratic socialist political party which had the presidential seat for more than 13 years.

Elected in 2002, Lula has been the main figure of the party for years. Arrested early in 2018 for corruption and money laundering he was given a twelve-year sentence, but despite being in prison, Lula was still campaigning for the presidency until early September, when the Higher Electoral Court denied his candidacy registration. He then appointed Fernando Haddad as his substitute.

His successor in office, Dilma, was impeached in 2016 during her second mandate for violating budgetary laws, leaving the presidency with an unemployment rate hitting its record of 13.7. ‘Operation Car Wash’ investigated around 230 people, of which 80 were politicians, amid allegations of corruption at the state-controlled oil company Petrobras.

This serious polarisation of Brazil brought to light many conflicts for the country and a pattern of disagreement and even breakage between family members and friends. Political debates started to get heated up quicker and quicker in bars, Whatsapp groups and family dinners. Families and long-term friendships started to rupture. All for politics. Although it might seem an absurd decision in most countries, this has been happening all around the country.

Fernando Haddad campaigning for the mayor’s office of the city of São Paulo in 2012. [Wikimedia:Zé Carlos Barretta ]

But the breakdown of family relations is not restricted exclusively to Bolsonaro and Haddad. The opening of Dilma’s impeachment process also created a climate of political instability: on one side, a part of the population defended the opening of the case against the president, while on the other, many saw in the movement an attempted coup d’état.

Alexandre Costa wrote on Medium that his mother refused to spend lunch with him after a family disagreement on Facebook. Alexandre’s mother commented that she was “ashamed” and no longer trusted him because of his political views. “Initially I thought it was a misunderstanding, [however] I called her and she said she was not coming because of my ‘misbehaviour’,” says Alexandre.

Pedro was still young when he noticed that politics became an unpleasant topic whenever he visited his family. A significant part of his family is strongly in favour of the Workers’ Party. When the corruption scandals started to appear and the ex-president was impeached and a part of Pedro’s family wouldn’t accept the turn of events, an unspoken rule was created: no talk of politics near specific aunts and uncles.

Nevertheless, this rule didn’t fully prevent arguments. “Once, one of my uncles started to talk on the phone with a friend about a PT candidate and without him wanting to, his brother heard the whole conversation, which ended up on them fighting and not being on speaking terms for months.”

Although it was rare for the topic to be mentioned, Pedro sensed that a space was created between his family members. “I find it odd that people talk about politics as if there is a right and wrong side, when in fact no politician represents you 100%. He has defects like every human being, and parties are defective like every other institution, so I don’t see any sense in compromising yourself for someone or something like that, not to mention being unable to simply have a discussion about it.”

In an interview for Doctum TV, Rodrigo Luís Sousa Silva justified why it becomes so easy to be “attached” to a certain candidate without question. “Placing an extreme trust in a candidate is to take some of the responsibility as a social subject. How much will you hold them accountable for their promises, to what extent will you put that person up there and take away your responsibility as a social subject that makes a difference.”

Helena’s first political conflict was with her father when he attempted to coerce her vote. After the first round, she started sharing her political opinions on Facebook on a daily basis, with the main objective of persuading people to respect, democracy and peace.

“In a few posts (two at most), I admit had something offensive or unnecessary, but most did not have that content. My uncle began to question me publicly about what I stood for, the faith of my parents (who have faith in Christianity, like him and my parents), questioned the art and the colour of the party and ignored many of my inquiries.” As the personal attacks continued, she privately asked her uncle to stop. Although he did stop publishing comments, he still kept trying to change her mind.

Former President Lula, ratifying the pre-candidacy of Fernando Haddad for mayor of São Paulo in 2012 [Wikimedia: Henrique Boney.]

Even with the end of the arguments between them, Helena still feels separated from the family. “I am in a dilemma with my entire family, I am no longer considered normal for being the only Seventh-day Adventist and being an ovo-lacto-pesco-vegetarian, and now I will also be billed as a communist.”

According to Jorge Broide, a psychoanalyst and teacher at University of São Paulo (USP), in many cases, aggression creates “with the mass, individuals function much more like children and are directed by their affections, much less for thought.”

Many arguments arise because of the way people share their political opinions online. Even unintentionally, as with Helena, users are driven by emotion and tend to lead nowhere.

For Amaury Pontieri, a journalism graduate from the USP and a school’s director in the south of Brazil, debates should happen in a face-to-face conversation. “I consider social media excellent for a number of activities, but when considering debates on overly contentious issues is definitely not the case. In fact, I find them to be endless and fruitless, because of the gradients of intellectual and emotional maturity that exist there, as well as the high circulating amount of fake news, irrational content and secondhand ideas passed without any criterion.”

Open posts like Helena’s tend to instigate even more heated discussions, and in many situations, the facts presented are misleading. Before Pontieri decided to leave Facebook until the end of the elections, he witnessed a typical argument over fake news. “A candidate for an elective post appeared in a videotape in a demonstration in Bahia, dressed in character, and the associated fake news stated that he was participating in a religious ritual, when in fact he was only receiving support from a well-known local carnival block. This was the subject of a violent discussion in the virtual group, to the point that some people even cut relationships with others.”

Melissa is a twenty-year-old university student and currently lives and depends on her parents. On several occasions, they have argued about politics for having distinct views. “I defend the idea of a political renewal and they believe in a ‘hero’ who will supposedly save the country.”

The most serious of their discussions was during the first round. Her parents asked her to vote for a state deputy candidate. But when it came to analysing the options and choosing the best choice for the country’s improvement, she voted for someone else. At the time, she was unaware that the candidate they asked her to vote for was originally from their city.

Melissa and her family voted in different moments, but soon after, on the way of a lunch at an aunt’s house, she was asked about her vote. Her answer left them extremely angry. “They said I did not respect them anymore, that I did not obey and did not listen to what they told me and so they would punish me.” When she questioned the reason why she was being punished for voting someone who was not of their appointment, they told her it had nothing to do with politics.

Protest in Rio de Janeiro against corruption

Protest in Rio de Janeiro against corruption [Wikimedia:Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil ]

Melissa later discovered that the deputy was elected and a relative was appointed to work with him. “This just proved my point that the politics should be renewed, but they will never admit it. Even after the second round, our relationship didn’t go back to the way it was. Things got tense here at home simply because I disagree and doubt ideas.”

Broide explains this “hero” ideal as a “childlike fantasy that someone will solve [everything].” This comes back to Freud’s idea of masses where “the mass gives the leader this paternal role who knows the way and who will solve the question.”

Alice has been living with her grandparents for five years and their relationship was strong and open. In the past year, she discovered herself as a homosexual and has since then trying to understand where she stands. In a conversation over dinner, discussing Bolsonaro and his statements over the Gay Kit (a material created by the National Development Fund for Education in 2011, with the intention of addressing issues related to gender and sexuality, but that was widely seen as being responsible for “stimulating homosexuality and promiscuity), Alice’s grandfather said: “I don’t believe that children should be taught to be gay.” His statement came harshly to her, leaving her speechless, so the discussion didn’t come to an end that day. “I don’t think that their strategy is the right, but he used the word gay in a pejorative way, and after all, I am gay.” She noticed that as the days went by, she spent less time at home.

This anguish made her have a long conversation with her family explaining how she felt about their choice, the impacts it would have on her life and her feelings about the situation as a whole. “I think it was the final straw for our misunderstanding, but not the core of the problem.” For Broide, cases like Alice’s only exist because there is a strong family bond that allows this civilised discussion to take place. “These conflicts do not come out of nowhere. It arises from family relationships and family history, and the history of each subject in the family. This is what Freud used to describe as the triggering factor.”

In his view, these issues affect the person much more than it might seem. “We have a view that politics affects the person only up to a certain point, and it is not true. It affects the life of the subject as a whole. The person is not talking about a single part of his life. These social issues run very deep in the way we feel about the world. So people feel deeply involved and the conflict is therefore much stronger. ”

So in fact, the bottom of these disagreements and breakages aren’t truly about politics. They are mostly about issues between family members that were already there, hidden and unresolved,  and were “forced” to be brought up because of politics. On that account, politics is unable to trigger any misunderstandings if there are free conversations and respect.




* Interviewees’ names have been changed in order to protect their identity.

Featured Image by Leonardo Veras via Flickr CC

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