What Does Being Far Right Mean

How Bolsonaro is politically classified in the international press and in Brazilian newspapers

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

Some people say that there is no sense in trying to split the world between left and right wings. What do these concepts even mean nowadays? It's a politically complex topic. However, the clash between left and right is a worldwide phenomenon. In Brazil, petism and antipetism (being for or against PT, or Worker's Party) is our local flavor of this clash, although it can't be exactly considered as a right versus left issue.

When it comes to journalism, Folha has been receiving criticism from a portion of its readers that say that the newspaper is avoiding calling things by their names. Case in point, saying that the PSL presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, is from the far right.

In early October, two months after the presidential campaign officially started, Folha's managing editors released an internal memorandum saying that in the current Brazilian election cycle, no candidate that could be qualified as "far right" or "far left". The memo recalls an entry from Folha's stylebook, which reserves the use of these terms to refer to "factions that practice or preach violence as a political method." The memo guides the newsroom to call Jair Bolsonaro, from PSL, as a right-wing candidate, while Guilherme Boulos (PSOL), that didn't make it to the runoff, a left-wing candidate. 

It didn't take long for the memo to reach our readers, who wrote the ombudsman criticizing Folha's editorial guidance.

Many of the most important newspapers abroad, that make an undeniably good journalism, are using variations of the far right concept (ultraderecha, extrême droite) to define Bolsonaro's candidacy. They are The Economist, Financial Times, The Guardian, El País, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Le Monde, Clarín, La Nacion, among others.

This is a debate that the newspaper should make in its pages, with transparency. For that to happen, some questions need answers. What are the objective elements in both speech and actions from Bolsonaro that allow classifying him or not as far right? What are the journalistic outcomes of thus classifying him? In which position of the ideological spectrum does Folha put each candidate?

Folha's executive editor, Sérgio Dávila, says that the newspaper doesn't classify any current political leader as far right or far left. It only uses the term to define some political movements in the United States and Europe. The newspaper uses radical left or ultranationalists/radical right in cases such as Marine Le Pen, in France, and Rodrigo Duterte, in the Phillipines.

"When it is called for, we will write that they use or have used part of the far-right discourse. Not even the Farc political party, in Colombia, is classified as far left; we call them radicals. We call far left movements that wreck personal property and attack the police force, like the black blocks," Dávila says. "The new stylebook entry was born out of a wish to normalize what seemed to be imprecisions when defining the candidates in the last French presidential election," he recalled.

Political scholar Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004) defines very clearly extremism and moderation. He says that these two concepts follow a rule of opposition in the political universe that is different from the dichotomy left/right. The concepts of extremism and moderation refer to the employed strategies to reach the desired outcomes, while right and left refer to the connotation of the programs that define these outcomes.

I don't think the Folha Stylebook entry is enough to mandate reserving the use of "far right" or "far left" to only the " factions that practice or preach violence as a political method." I understand that they contain only an orientation to "no hesitation" in using them in these cases.

Bolsonaro's candidacy represents a militaristic political trend, that explicitly advocates for human rights violations, questions minority rights, denies the historical facts of Brazil's military dictatorship and practice of torture, and keeps on flirting with the possibility of breaking our democracy.

Put together, all these facts seem more than enough reason to classify a candidacy as far right, when such candidacy chooses for extreme strategies, going beyond the democratically agreed axis of right and left.

News outlets from all over the world - from the economically right-wing liberals to the openly progressive left-wing -- agree with this appraisal.

I think Folha and other Brazilian new outlets are mistaken in not doing the same and don't seem to be concerned with the historical dimension of this interpretation.


There will be no ombudsman column next week.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language