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Brazil's Divisive Election

04 Oct 2018
By Dr Deborah Farias
Credit: twitter @Poder360.

Retired Army Colonel Jair Bolsonaro has aptly exploited a series of existing frustrations in an election divided as never before by radicalism, social values and gender.

On 7 October, Brazilians will vote for a new president. In a country where voting is compulsory, this means more than 140 million people – out of a total population of 207 million – are expected to choose one of 13 presidential candidates. If no candidate reaches over 50 per cent of votes, which is expected to be the case, there will be a run-off at the end of the month between the two most popular candidates.

The leading candidates in the polls – and most likely to go to the second round – are veteran Congressman and retired Army Colonel Jair Bolsonaro and former mayor of São Paulo Fernando Haddad. The latter officially joined the presidential race as a lead candidate for the Workers’ Party less than a month ago. He is the Party’s replacement for former President Luis Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, after his candidacy from jail was denied by the country’s Supreme Electoral Court due to corruption charges.

While all presidential elections can be called unique, this one certainly deserves the label. Three key reasons stand out, all of them directly related to Bolsonaro: the presence of a candidate from the far-right, the importance of social values issues and the gender divide in electoral preferences.

A widening left-right divide

As in many Latin American countries, Brazilian politics has a long history of debates being framed along a “right” versus “left” axis and this one is no different. Yet, one has to go back to the period immediately before the military coup of 1964 to find a similar level of radicalism to the current day. While a leftist radical discourse has been present since the country’s re-democratisation in the mid-1980s, the far-right was not an expressive movement until now.

For the past 30 years, none of the candidates with serious chances of winning has embraced a hardcore far-right platform. The general pattern has been a leftist versus a centrist candidate. This time, Bolsonaro proposes a far-right, fascist-leaning platform. His record and overall positions are a mash-up of US President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. His supporters appear to see him as a political “Chuck Norris”: a strong man, willing and able to face any challenge, doing whatever it takes to destroy the country’s enemies and bring back order and safety.

Bolsonaro has strongly proposed a military/coercive approach to dealing with the rampant violence in Brazil, including facilitating gun purchases. More concerningly, he has openly signaled his tolerance for torture: when recently asked what his bedside table book was, his answer was an autobiography written by Colonel Ustra, the most well-known torturer of the country’s military regime. Ultimately, Bolsonaro’s rise has been fueled by an anti-establishment discourse. He presents himself as a rupture to the status quo and – more importantly – as the antithesis to 13 years of the Workers’ Party’s legacy of large-scale corruption. This is kept visible in the campaign by the ongoing Car Wash corruption investigations, Lula’s arrest and the several criminal investigations related to Haddad and those in his campaign.

A cultural divide on social values

Ever since the country re-initiated its democratic process, elections have been ideologically centred mostly around economic and foreign policy aspects of the right/left spectrum, such as the role and size of the state, free market limits and international alignments. This election, the cultural or “social values” axis has come to the forefront with discussions over LGBT rights, abortion, religious values, women’s rights and sex/sexuality education in school curricula. None of these are new issues per se in Brazilian politics. They have been bitterly discussed in the context of specific laws or in legislative candidates’ platforms, but not full-on in previous presidential bids.

The socially conservative versus progressive debate is more than a key element of this year’s campaign cycle: it has even managed to obfuscate the traditional right/left economic-based ideological split. Among other elements, this is linked to the strong rise in numbers and political activism from the country’s growing Evangelical base, which is generally more conservative than the Catholic majority. While 28 per cent of Catholics support Bolsonaro compared to 24 per cent for Haddad, support for the Congressman among is Evangelicals at 40 per cent compared to 15 per cent for Haddad. Prior to this election, no presidential candidate has had such an explicit appeal to socially conservative groups.

A gender divide

In Brazil, voting preferences have commonly divided along certain variables such as family income, religion, educational level and age. This is the first time in Brazilian history where there is a clear distinction between male and female voters’ preferences towards a leading presidential candidate.

Bolsonaro’s support among women is significantly lower than his numbers from male supporters: 24 per cent versus 39 per cent respectively, according to the latest numbers. When asked “who would you not vote for under any circumstance,” Bolsonaro’s number is the highest among all candidates, but much higher among women (51 per cent) than men (35 per cent). This mainly derives from derogatory comments he has made towards women, like “joking” that after having four boys he “faltered” and had a girl, telling a congresswoman that he would not rape her because “she didn’t deserve it” and repeatedly refusing to say that he would support equal pay for women if elected president. There have been other statements by his sons, who are also running for legislative positions, such as “women in the Right are prettier and cleaner, they don’t walk around topless or defecate while protesting.”

These statements help to explain why a large number of women have engaged in the #EleNao (#NotHim) movement. The Facebook page ‘Women Against Bolsonaro’ now has four million members and managed to galvanise protests in about 100 cities in and outside Brazil this past weekend, bringing out around 150,000 people in São Paulo alone. Unsurprisingly, appealing to female voters is expected to be a core issue for Bolsonaro in a second voting round.

Bolsonaro may not have created these new fragmentations. He has managed to aptly exploit a series of existing frustrations, along with fear and anger towards the Workers’ Party and Brazil’s current economic troubles. However it is not clear if his uniqueness will succeed. According to the latest polls, Bolsonaro and Haddad appear to be tied at 42 per cent each in a second round, leaving the final result an absolute toss-up at this point.

What will the remaining undecided voters use as reference for making their choice? That is the 207 million vote question.

Dr Deborah BL Farias is a lecturer in the University of New South Wales. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of British Columbia and a BA in Law from University of Fortaleza.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.