Brazil: A Moment of Truth

By Barbara dos Santos*

Brazil elections 2018

A group of demonstrators gathered in São Paulo last week to protest Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and show their support for other candidates like Ciro Gomes. / Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Campaigning for Sunday’s election has brought out deep divisions in Brazilian society and set the stage for an even more divisive runoff later this month.  This week’s polls underscore that, although most voters arguably occupy the center, the right and the left have the strongest candidates.  Populist conservative Jair Bolsonaro (31 percent) has a 10-point lead over Workers Party (PT) latecomer Fernando Haddad (21 percent), who started campaigning only after party standard-bearer “Lula” da Silva definitively pulled out of the race three weeks ago.  But both candidates have high negatives, and the polls suggest that they would be tied in a second round (42 percent each).  Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), is still hovering around 11 percent, but polls also show that he would beat Bolsonaro (39 to 45 percent) if they face off on October 28.  Everyone else is polling in the single digits.

  • Hate politics has spiked during this campaign, powered by polarization, culture wars, and fake news on social media. Uncivil discourse and even physical violence have increased.  Although Federal Police have concluded that the man who stabbed Bolsonaro last month acted alone, the candidate and allied social media are hyping the incident as a political attack.  Other rumors circulating online are that Haddad’s running mate, Manuela d’Ávila of the Partido Comunista do Brasil, ordered the stabbing (which prompted threats against her.)  A review by the national daily O Estado de São Paulo found that several of Bolsonaro’s campaign themes – defending the death penalty and vigilantism, the use of torture, and past racial cleansing – have fueled aggressive attacks by both opponents and supporters.  One of the leaders of the Facebook group Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro was assaulted by three men outside her home on September 24; their political views are clear, although their affiliation remains unconfirmed.
  • The emergence of Bolsonaro – who has publicly called women unequal, stupid, and even “too ugly to rape” – shows the stridency of the culture wars now occurring in Brazil. His campaign has also revealed greater tolerance among some sectors for misogyny going far beyond traditional machismo.  It reflects a rejection of the younger generation’s progressive and liberal values of equality and inclusion.  Bolsonaro’s proud refusal to apologize for his remarks suggests confidence that his base sympathizes with his views.

In terms of political institutions, the election is crucial to the future of the PT and the left in Brazil and beyond.  Over its 14 years in power, the party led the country on a path of decreasing inequality, a booming economy, and international prestige as a “global player.”  It all came tumbling down for external and internal reasons:  commodity prices crashed, economic recession set in, and massive corruption scandals led to deep, sustained political crises.  The PT’s opponents have cast the party as the embodiment of all that is wrong with Brazilian society and institutions, and Bolsonaro and others on the right are hoping to deal it a deathblow.  Haddad is running hard, but local observers believe he needs to distance himself more from his party’s past – such as by trying harder to avoid criticizing the judicial processes that landed Lula in jail, advocating a responsible government budget, and more aggressively criticizing Presidents Maduro in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua.

This round of elections is the most important since the re-democratization of Brazil in 1988.  While some democracies around the world are known for tumult and strident campaigning – and may even be able to weather periods of authoritarianism – those that are of more recent vintage and less institutionalized, including Brazil, can break.  A Bolsonaro victory would not necessarily lead the country to military dictatorship, but the acceptance of his authoritarian vision, including his praise for military rule in the past, poses a potentially serious threat to the continuing strengthening of Brazilian democratic institutions.  In an interview last week, he even implied that if he were not elected, he would reject the vote count and claim that PT committed fraud.  Similarly, Haddad would also pose a threat to democratic institutionalization if he does not allow the justice system to handle Lula according to the law.

 October 4, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.