Elections in Brazil: A Case of Political Polarisation

By Guilherme Becker

After a cold and rainy winter in Southern Brazil, springtime has already come with some sunny but not so shiny weeks. As time runs towards the national election on October 7th, a land worldwide known for its clear sky and spectacular shores seems to be a bit cloudier and darker than usual. The feeling may come from the fact that things will remain the same for the next hundred years: stagnant, conservative, late, backwards and with its best minds leaving it behind. Is there anything worse than that? Well, maybe yes.
Democratic since 1985 and with direct elections since 1989, Brazil now faces a campaign full of hate. Violence has dropped off from the internet directly into the streets. Almost a month ago the right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) was stabbed while campaigning in the midst of a crowd in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Southeast.

On March this year, violent mood was already in the air, when a bus transporting voters of the then candidate of centre-left-wing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT, Workers’ Party, former president from 2003 to 2010, sentenced to jail for corruption and thus forbidden to run under Brazilian law) was shot twice in the state of Paraná, in the South, without injuries.
The first impression is that all that hate speech that people used to flow freely on social media now has poured into reality. And that is not only worrying: it actually is a very frightening development to observe.

Understanding this run

There are 13 candidates running for the Brazilian presidential elections this year. Only five, though, according to polls, have real chances to go to the run off, which may happen on October 28th if no one achieves 50%+1 of valid votes. In this case, the two best rated candidates face off a second round.
Besides the right-wing, options stay mainly from centre to left, with Fernando Haddad (PT, appointed by Lula from his prison cell), Marina Silva (former PT member), Ciro Gomes (PDT, a former minister of the PT administration) and Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB, classic PT rival, and also accused, but not yet convicted of corruption while he ruled the state of São Paulo). Not an easy task.
According to a poll released on October 1st, Bolsonaro leads with 31%. Haddad has 21%. Ciro (11%), Alckmin (8%) and Marina (4%) close the field of competitive candidates.
That being said, it is getting easier to see that former PT members and also classical politicians like Alckmin are not well accepted by Brazilians anymore. On the other hand, it is totally possible to perceive a great polarisation by the growth of the right-wing aside with the left supported by Lula, who retains a huge popularity, especially amongst poorest who saw their incomes rising during his mandate.

Fernando Haddad
Fernando Haddad (Paulo Pinto/Agência PT, 2017)

This polarization can be understood by two facts: 1) the so-called utilitarian vote, which means that people don’t vote exactly for who they prefer, but try to figure out through polls who has a better chance to run on the second round and cast their vote accordingly, most times against the candidate(s) they don’t support; and 2) the opposition against opposition, which means that the wave of “utilitarian vote” goes, but also turns back, making rejection growing upon both best qualified candidates – in this case, Bolsonaro and Haddad.
But who are these men? What are they looking for? Well, after a bit of country’s modern history, it can be well comprehended below.

A little bit of History

The first president elected through a direct vote, Fernando Collor (1989), was impeached. The second one, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994), has brought some hope through a stronger economy launching the currency (Real) that Brazilians earn and use until today, defeating years of hyperinflation – but he is also accused of buying votes at the Senate to approve the possibility of running for re-election, which was not allowed back then.
By the end of 2002, the country elected its first left-wing president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. His Workers’ Party (centre left-wing over the years) stayed more than 13 years in power, appointing Dilma Rousseff as his successor in 2010, when he was not allowed to run anymore. Dilma was duly elected, and later re-elected in 2014, but was impeached two years later over tricks used to hide an ever-growing fiscal deficit.
For the Workers’, things went quite well in the first six, seven years of government – though corruption investigations reached them all the time. From 2003 to 2010, a strong worldwide economy put Brazil into evidence through growing demand for mineral and agricultural commodities and international investments (do you remember that famous Economist cover with the headline “Brazil Takes Off”?). Public credit was spread among the popular, middle-class and upper classes. Hope was everywhere.
With abundant consumer credit, the poor could buy a washing machine and a good television for the first time, with their young children getting into university. Middle-class could travel abroad and kept investing in education and buying their own houses. The riches stayed rich and, as usual, remained the smallest percentage of the country’s population, which is an overall of 200 million people today.
At that time, people believed that things would be different. In fact, some social policies were great and truly gave some hope even to the most sceptical ones. But then more and more scandals came up. The World Cup and the Olympics also came up. And someone had to start paying the bills: with a clear struggle to maintain industries strong, allied with corrupted companies and making money through state-owned firms, PT went completely down, losing support at the Congress and suffering an impeachment.

Jair Bolsonaro Senate
Jair Bolsonaro, in the centre (Jefferson Rudy/Agência Senado, 2018)

Tough times

What happened next is a simple account: in an attempt to close the fiscal gap, the new government of Michel Temer (vice-president placed after Dilma’s impeachment) raised taxes on light and oil, for example, affecting many people and businesses directly. Unemployment rates have been growing a lot since then – nowadays, there are around 13 million unemployed in Brazil, 12,3% of the economically active population. The credit was gone with indebted families: more than 60 million people are now defaulters. The dream was – and it still is – over, once more.
Together with that, there is the endless crisis on high criminality rates. And that’s also another side of the main point: as a result of a “can’t stand corruption anymore”, with a failed economy and increasing crime rate on the streets (more than 60.000 people were murdered in 2017 and 17 of the 50 most violent cities in the world are in Brazil), the right-wing candidate leads the polls.
Jair Bolsonaro is a former captain of the Brazilian Army, based in Rio de Janeiro, federal deputy since 1991. In 27 years, he presented 171 motions; only two were approved. So why would this man be able to lead a country that needs urgent improvements socially and economically? The answer may seem to aim to radicalism.
After years facing daily corruption and seeing their big and opulent country sinking along with its poverty, Brazilians may have accepted the idea of having the far-right in charge. As “immediatists”, voters are keen to ignore his hate speech against minorities such as Indians, slums residents, LGBT community and women – who have started a strong campaign against him on social media called #EleNão, “Not Him” in English, which means that anyone can win but him and his extremists suggestions.

The campaign has got so strong that last weekend millions of Brazilians went to the streets lead by women and social movements to yell out loud against him. Demonstrations against far-right were registered in all 26 states plus in the federal district Brasília (62 cities in total) and were called “historic” by the media – even making it to international channels abroad. On the other hand, right-wing supporters’ protests occurred in at least 16 states.#EleNao Brazil 2

Especially among middle and upper classes, Bolsonaro have been improving substantially in polls, with voters approving his free-weapon policies, for example, which in his words can be the best solution to minimize criminality. Beyond that: by his voters, he is known simply as “myth”. In every city he goes, at every airport he lands in, there is a crowd waiting for him. When he arrives at the lobby, he is normally carried on arms with people screaming “Myth! Myth! Myth!” (he was actually like this when he was stabbed). One of the reasons for that is the fact that he has never been sued for corruption, which in Brazilians’ minds do matter.

Let’s summarise it like this: the right-wing candidate is the main option for people who can’t stand the corrupted left. Fernando Haddad, supported by jailed Lula, has been showed off as the best choice for left voters against the right-wing. The “utilitarian vote” and the opposition for the sake of opposition is evident in this election.
Through this small part of Brazil’s modern history, it is possible to see from far why people have an anxious will for change: all governments, most politicians, most policies have a background based on corruption, buying votes at the Congress, collusion and complete lack of basic investments in education and health. As a fast solution, voters are leaning to the radical sides: the distasteful right and the corrupted left.

Featured picture credits: #Elenão Barbacena, Hilreli.

 

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