Brazil’s current election cycle has exacerbated the divisions in Brazilian society and polarized the electorate, and will ultimately perpetuate the country’s political crisis. In terms of landmass and population, Brazil is very similar to the United States. It is an enormous country with a large, diverse population that has multiple economic centers. There are big discrepancies between household income, education, health care and standard of living among the different regions. In other words, there are many competing interests in Brazilian society. The needs of the poorer northeast are very different from those of the industrial, prosperous states in the southeast. An end to the country’s political crisis required a candidate to emerge who could unify the population, and that didn’t happen.
Instead, the political crisis generated a diverse group of presidential candidates – 13 in total – in which those with extreme political stances outperformed moderates. On Sunday, radical conservative candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the first round of the election with 46 percent of the valid vote, short of the 50 percent required to claim an outright victory. Populist candidate Fernando Haddad came in second place with 29 percent of the vote. (The two polar opposite candidates will face off in a second-round vote on Oct. 28.) The next three, more centrist candidates split 20 percent of the vote among themselves, with remaining voters opting for marginal candidates. In the lead-up to the elections, there were many calls for the moderate candidates to unify so that they could compete in the polls but to no avail.
Voters will now have to choose between two extremes in the second round. Though both candidates have a strong base, Bolsonaro’s represents at best a third of the voting population and Haddad’s a fifth. Thus, about half of voters will be forced to choose between candidates whom they don’t strongly support. Political analysts in Brazil have pointed out that Bolsonaro’s recent jump in the polls doesn’t necessarily mean his support has surged. Rather, some voters simply realized their candidate of choice would not make it to the second round and opted to throw their support behind the person most likely to beat Haddad, who replaced embattled former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as the Workers’ Party candidate.
The election results, however, don’t show the whole picture. Although voting is mandatory in Brazil, people can apply for exemptions, and in Sunday’s vote, 20 percent of the population didn’t cast a ballot. Of those who did vote, just under 3 percent cast blank ballots and 6 percent cast spoiled ballots. It’s difficult to say, therefore, how reflective the final vote is of the views of the general population. For example, in a survey conducted by polling agency Datafolha before the election, Bolsonaro had 35 percent support among those who intended to vote. But when those who intended to cast a blank ballot were taken out of the equation, his share of valid votes – those counted in the election results – increased to 39 percent.
Whatever the case, the results confirm that Brazil’s protracted political crisis is far from over. The crisis extends as far back as 2005, when allegations surfaced that the ruling party, led by da Silva, paid lawmakers to vote in favor of its legislation. The allegations were investigated, but the government survived the scandal. In 2014, large protests erupted throughout Brazil over the government’s mishandling of funds used in hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. That same year, another corruption scandal erupted, one in which contracts awarded by state-owned oil firm Petrobras were allegedly given to construction companies at inflated prices in exchange for kickbacks. Operation Car Wash, known as Lava Jato in Brazil, resulted in the closure of segments of major construction companies, the suspension or cancellation of major infrastructure projects and the arrest of dozens of high-ranking politicians from multiple parties. From 2015 to 2016, the Brazilian economy contracted by 7 percent.
The political fallout culminated in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on corruption charges in 2016. Vice President Michel Temer took over when Rousseff was removed from office but has been seen as a lame duck president from the beginning. Over the past two years, Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party has struggled to win support from other parties for its economic reform efforts. Temer entered office with an approval rating of just 13 percent – and that was the highest rating he saw over his tenure. For the past 16 months, his approval rating has held between 3 and 6 percent and his disapproval rating has consistently stayed in the 70 percent range. In that time, long-serving members of Congress were removed from office on corruption charges, parties splintered, and even da Silva, who once seemed untouchable, was jailed on corruption and money laundering charges.
The 2018 presidential election was thus seen as an opportunity to hit the reset button. But the ongoing corruption investigations, economic downturn and two-year tenure of a president who hadn’t actually won a presidential election wore down the public’s patience. A general sense of disillusionment and distrust of the political elite has endured. According to a poll released by Datafolha last week, 68 percent of the public is angry about the country’s current situation, and 59 percent are worried about the direction the country is going. About 40 percent say they don’t pay attention to candidates’ radio and television appearances, up from 26 percent in 2010.
The next president will face a similar challenge to that confronting the Trump administration in the U.S. – how to govern and unify an extremely polarized society. In fact, the single biggest challenge will be avoiding gridlock, which could jeopardize any prospects for economic and political reform. The next president will have to establish multiparty coalitions to be able to pass any legislation through Congress, which is as diverse as ever, and the Senate, which now has representatives from 21 parties, up from 15 in 2010. Of the 81 total seats in the upper house, Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party, or PSL, is expected to come away with four seats, and Haddad’s Workers’ Party, or PT, six seats. Of the 513 seats in the lower house, PSL won 51 seats and PT has 57. Whoever wins will be torn between the need to keep his base satisfied and the need to present policies that can win the support of opposing parties.
There are also potential ramifications for Brazil outside of domestic politics. The more the country is forced to look inward and deal with internal challenges, the less attention it can pay to its international interests, let alone develop strategies to pursue them. Among the broader international issues facing Brazil are the fallout from the U.S. trade war, transnational organized crime and rising energy prices. Until Brazil can get past its political crisis, its focus will remain on domestic affairs, and its international engagement will be limited.