As tide of hate politics sweeps Brazil, Ireland re-elects poet of peace

Clodagh Kilcoyne, REUTERS | Michael D. Higgins is congratulated by his wife Sabina upon winning a second term as Irish president.

The rise to power of a fire-breathing nostalgic of Brazil’s military dictatorship stands in stark contrast with the re-election in Ireland of a “poet-president” who believes in harnessing the power of language to heal and unite.


“Words matter, words can hurt, words can heal, words can empower, words can divide," said Michael D. Higgins, Ireland's soft-spoken president, as he accepted a second term on Saturday. An author-turned-politician, Higgins knows the importance of finding fitting words in uncertain times. Setting out his priorities for the years to come, he added: “The urgent need to end the scourge of violence against women cannot be deferred, but must be ended now.”

The 77-year-old "first citizen" of Ireland could just as well have been talking about another weekend election taking place an ocean away, which saw Brazilians elect Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has spent a lifetime lashing out at women and minorities with wanton abandon.

Granted, the context and stakes of the two presidential elections are also an ocean apart. Brazil, a vast nation with a population of over 200 million, is reeling from its worst-ever economic crisis. Its still youthful democracy has been rattled to the core by massive corruption scandals and a spike in violent crime. Voters there were called upon to elect a president who could drag them out of the doldrums wielding real executive powers. All the elements were in place for Latin America’s largest country to ride the anti-establishment wave that has propelled hard-talking strongmen to power around the world.

Higgins, in contrast, holds a largely ceremonial role in a nation of under 5 million that has put crisis behind it. This explains why his re-election, with 56% of the vote, has gone largely unnoticed.

But it wasn’t always so for Ireland and its “poet-president”. When Higgins won his first term in 2011, the country was at a very low ebb, blighted by crippling austerity measures imposed under an EU-IMF bailout of its ailing banks. Adding to the economic pain, a string of sex-abuse scandals involving local clergymen had prompted acute soul-searching in the deeply Catholic nation. Some argued that the country needed a business-minded “man of action” to shake it up.

Instead, Irish voters warmed to a man of intellect, imagination and ideas, with an acute sense of the power of language to shape politics and unite – or divide – society. Higgins’ efforts to foster the values of equality and inclusivity throughout his first term in office have arguably played a part in the dramatic turnaround that has occurred in Ireland’s fortunes and self-confidence.

Bolsonaro’s sinister threats

Because words do indeed matter, millions of people in Brazil’s extraordinarily diverse society now have every reason to be alarmed by the “man of action” who has been propelled to the helm of the world’s fourth most populous democracy.

Prior to his victory on Sunday, Bolsonaro’s only noticeable record as a seven-term lawmaker on the fringes of Brazilian politics was the long list of offensive comments he aimed at women and minorities. He has said he would rather have a dead son than a gay one, twice told a congresswoman she didn’t “deserve” to be raped by him, and said people who live in settlements founded by escaped slaves are “not even good for procreation”.

A former army captain, the 63-year-old has said the answer to gun violence is to give “good” citizens bigger guns, and to decorate police officers who pump “10, 15 or 30 bullets” into suspects. In his victory speech on Sunday, he vowed to defend Brazil’s constitution – a statement that is incompatible with his truculent campaign pledges to “banish” his left-wing rivals from Brazil or leave them to “rot in jail”.

In a country where the abuses committed by the military junta were largely brushed under the rug in the name of reconciliation, it matters that the new head of state believes the dictatorship’s only mistake was that it didn’t go far enough in killing leftist opponents.

The trademark vulgarity that had long confined Bolsonaro to the margins of Brazilian politics has proved ideally suited to social media, which he dominated throughout the campaign with a combination of outrageous statements and simple solutions offered to complex problems. There is every reason to expect he will continue to use such channels once in office, in the manner of a Donald Trump.

Amnesty International said that taking into account his campaign pledges, Bolsonaro's victory poses a "huge risk" to Brazil's indigenous peoples, LGBT communities, blacks, women, activists and civil society organisations. Already, rights groups have denounced a spike in violent attacks in the run-up to the vote. Brazilian democracy’s most hateful and violent campaign on record proves the poison carried by Bolsonaro’s words is already at work.

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