After a tense, violent and polarized campaign, Brazilians have voted to advance two candidates from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum to a presidential runoff on Oct. 28.
Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman who enjoys strong evangelical backing for his law-and-order stance on policing, support for gun rights and opposition to abortion, won 46 percent of the valid votes.
Fernando Haddad, a leftist candidate of the Brazilian Workers Party and former mayor of São Paulo, came in second place with 29 percent, his portion of the vote split with the other left-of-center presidential candidates, Ciro Gomes and Marina Silva.
Nine other presidential candidates shared the remaining 12 percent of the vote.
In addition to choosing their top two picks for president, Brazil’s 147 million voters also voted on Oct. 7 for two-thirds of the Senate and more than 500 congressional representatives, races that featured a historic number of black women candidates running for local office.
Congress will remain highly fragmented, with no political party controlling a majority of seats. But maintaining a pattern seen in previous elections, conservative caucuses – which represent the evangelical, agribusiness and crime-fighting interests – have increased their influence.
Despite electing right-of-center candidates to Congress, Sunday’s vote also show the loss of support for traditional parliamentarians. Several influential Brazilian politicians were not reelected. The results for state governors’ races paint a more complex picture. Left-wing candidates won in the first round in seven of Brazil’s 27 states, showing progressive parties’ continues popularity at the state level.
The stakes of this year’s election are extremely high.
Hundreds of politicians, including former President Lula, have been arrested and jailed in a judicial investigation that has exposed corruption at the highest level of government.
Now, as the country prepares for its presidential runoff, public trust in Brazil’s politicians and political institutions has never been lower.
A survey conducted in August by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics showed that only 25 percent of citizens trusted their federal government and 18 percent trusted Congress.
Other public opinion polling has put faith in Brazil’s government closer to zero.
The 2018 campaign did little to reassure the electorate.
Bolsonaro, who trailed the popular former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva by a wide margin throughout the campaign, saw a boost in the polls after he was stabbed at a campaign rally on Sept. 6. His attacker appears to suffer from mental health problems, but the attacker’s Facebook posts also showed outrage at both Bolsonaro and Brazil’s political system in general.
The election was thrown into further disarray a few days later when front-runner Lula – who was jailed on corruption charges in July – was forced to withdraw from the presidential bid after an electoral commission ruled he could not stand for office.
With less than a month to go before election day, the Workers Party chose Fernando Haddad, education minister under Lula, to replace Lula on the ticket.
Lula had been in first place with 37 percent of voter support, but his forced withdrawal put Bolsonaro into the lead.
Yet nearly 20 percent of voters were still undecided in the final days of the race – a sign of the general lack of interest in the electoral process this year.
Politics of disillusionment
The fact is that Brazilians, who are required by law to vote, will return to the polls on Oct. 28 with very little expectation either Bolsonaro or Haddad will do much to improve their lives – despite the country’s instability and troubles. Both candidates in the latest polls had more than 40 percent rejection rates.
Such situations tend to favor what I call the “politics of disillusionment.”
When voters don’t believe in their politicians or government institutions, candidates who tap into voter disdain for the political system can find success. In my opinion, this phenomenon helped lead right-wing outsiders to triumph in the United States, Italy and Hungary.
Over the last eight months, the politics of disillusionment have driven Brazil’s presidential race.
The two front-runners – Bolsonaro and Lula – may sit on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they both espoused an openly anti-establishment agenda throughout the campaign.
Rather than make concrete proposals for pulling Brazil out of the crisis that grips it, Lula – who left office in 2010 with 80 percent approval – spent much his campaign attacking the country’s political institutions.
He depicted Brazil’s judiciary as a corrupt institution in the thrall of powerful right-wing politicians who use Congress to persecute their enemies.
“I am an innocent,” he said. “These judges are trying to prevent an innocent man from once again running a government that’s good for Brazil.”
Racism, misogyny and anger
Bolsonaro’s rightist critique of Brazilian society is far more scathing.
To capitalize on Brazilian voters’ frustration with political corruption and extreme violence, the former army captain defends Brazil’s military dictatorship which ran the country from 1964 to 1985, saying that the only problem with the authoritarian leaders was that they “tortured rather than killed” dissenters.
He also regularly uses homophobic, misogynistic and racist rhetoric to stigmatize, sideline or criminalize large swaths of Brazilian society. Critics point to Bolsonaro’s often violent messages as one explanation for the Sept. 6 knife attack against him.
When asked why he wants to roll back affirmative action at Brazilian public universities, Bolsonaro replied with a question: “Why don’t they [minorities] just study?”
He has also said that he would “never allow” his children to get romantically involved with a black person. He told a fellow congressional representative that she “did not deserve to be raped” by him because she was “terrible and ugly.”
To tackle Brazil’s record-high violence, Bolsonaro says he would ease gun laws and reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. He is a staunch proponent of reactivating the death penalty in Brazil, saying that he would “volunteer to kill those on death row” himself.
Brazil has the world’s third-largest prison population. Sixty-four percent of those incarcerated are black.
The triumph of radicalism
The outcome of Brazil’s first-round presidential election reveals a deeply polarized, angry and alienated electorate.
In such a political climate, my experience shows that the most radical candidate – in this case Bolsonaro – is likely to triumph.
Haddad has softened the kind of anti-establishment discourse Lula used, hoping to attract moderate voters, and he may well have more concrete proposals for reforming and improving a democracy that’s frayed at the edges.
But in the politics of disillusionment, that will give him no advantage.