Will pensions unite the Left against Bolsonaro?

Leonardo Sakamoto reports on the ‘first and most important battle to be fought by the opposition’ in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

It has to be said. The Brazilian Left today lacks co-ordination and mobilization, both in Congress and in civil society. So far, President Jair Bolsonaro has been his own strongest opponent.

His government spends more time creating ‘facts’ for social media to keep its far-right constituency constantly excited than building a congressional alliance to enable the passage of major bills.

Meanwhile, the man who would be the main opposition leader, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT), languishes in prison on corruption and money-laundering charges. The Party claims he was convicted without evidence. Appeals currently under way could lead to his release.

But although the Workers’ Party is well represented in parliament’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, it has been unable to unite the opposition. The Party is experiencing an internal power struggle which can only be settled at its national conference, expected later this year.

Since Bolsonaro took office, he has made many offensive statements towards minorities and enacted measures that harm human rights, education and the environment. He has been unable to explain his family’s ties with violent militias operating in Rio de Janeiro or his party’s connections with electoral crime.

Journalists, opinion makers and organized civil society may have reacted in opposition, but so far none of this government’s policies has had much impact on the wider population. This may soon change, with efforts to pass the Pension Reform Bill.

Arguing that the country has a serious fiscal problem and an ageing population, the government wants to change the pension and social security system. The stated aim is to tackle the privileges of the richest. But the proposal also includes extending the length of time that citizens have to contribute, tightening rules relating to social security for very poor elderly people and the retirement rights of rural workers.

Leaders of urban and rural social movements with whom I have spoken say that pension reform is the first topic, since the Bolsonaro administration began, which has the potential to bring the opposition together, mobilizing different categories of workers, and driving thousands onto the streets. They refer to the strength of protest against previous president Michel Temer when he tried to reform pensions.

Guilherme Boulos, the national leader of the Movement of Homeless Workers – one of the most important social movements in the country – has been travelling around the country to muster opposition to Bolsonaro’s bill.

But the context is far from easy. Unions have been weakened by funding cuts. And the war apparatus set up on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp by Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign is still very active. It is now being used to try to convince people that claims that they will lose their rights with pension reform are ‘fake news’.

Even though the financial markets, big corporations and some media are not fans of Bolsonaro, they are supporting his pension reform. If the President is able to get it passed without too many changes, he will gain the political capital to implement his medieval social and anti-human rights agenda.

This is the first and most important battle to be fought by the opposition and it will show whether society and Congress can resist – or if the rights gained since Brazil’s re-democratization more than three decades ago will be crushed by a government steamroller.