Brazil elections: the only certainty is polarisation

High-profile corruption cases, a political crisis, and a deteriorating economy have resulted in a Brazilian people embittered with its governing class. This dissatisfaction has boosted the support for the two leading candidates in the upcom ing presidential election: former military officer Jair Bolsonaro, and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad. Both are seen as anti-establishment, but for very different reasons.

Bolsonaro is infamous for his controversial views on dictatorships, once affirming that Brazil’s own military dictatorship made the mistake of only ‘torturing and not killing’. He is also known for misogynistic attitudes and controversial remarks about minorities. Offensive comments Bolsonaro has made include him once telling fellow congresswoman Maria do Rosário that he would never rape her because she “didn’t deserve it”, and arguing that he would rather his son “die in an accident” than be gay. Bolsonaro is unpopular in the polls among women, holding only 17 per cent of approval by the female electorate. The candidate’s misogynistic behaviour has even prompted women online to create an angry hashtag,#EleNão (#NotHim).

Image: Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil

Bolsonaro is also the current poll favourite, with a comfortable lead over his opponents in the first round. Dramatically, the candidate was stabbed in the abdomen while on the campaign trail on 6 September. While he has been recovering in hospital, his support has increased, perhaps due to sympathy after the attack. The only candidate who had fared better in opinion polls was former-president Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva who led the polls with a wide margin. However, his candidacy was permanently halted in August by the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) due to his conviction in the anti-corruption case ‘Operation Car Wash’. His party then selected Haddad as its candidate. Despite many feeling that Haddad lacks charisma, Lula’s endorsement rapidly bolstered his support from single digits to a comfortable second place.

Image:Elza Fiúza/ABr

Lula and his centre-left to left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), were first elected in 2003. However, Lula’s and his successor Dilma Rousseff ’s implication in a huge corruption case in Brazil’s oil company, Petrobras, led to Rousseff ’s impeachment in 2016. Ultimately she was deposed over “fiscal pedalling” instead, due in part to a lack of evidence against her. The fact that those leading the process were themselves implicated in corruption raised many eyebrows.

Lula’s own conviction came in a heated atmosphere. Threats from the military that the trial not go in Lula’s favour revealed an institutionally weak country. Lula’s arrest and ban from participating in the election despite still being in the midst of his appeals process raised further tensions. The government even ignored the UNHRC ruling that the candidacy be permitted. Meanwhile, vice-president, Michel Temer of the centrist MDB took over and began to implement a neoliberal program. Labour and pension reforms led trade un ions to strike, while protests against Temer’s own corruption were sup pressed by the military. Brazilians’ response to all this has been to turn to anti-establishment politics that has manifested itself in the two ideologically opposing poles.

One view is that the PT and corruption within it are the source of Brazil’s ills. Bolsonaro is the main beneficiary of this view as he has not been implicated in corruption scandals. Many of his voters are likely also disenchanted with the neo-liberal turn, however

the candidate’s own transition from an economic nationalist to a more pro-free market view shows how the priority remains fighting corruption. The other tends to associate Lula’s government with an increase in living standards, the alleviation of poverty and the representation of working class Brazilians in politics. The tra ditional elite that governed Brazil before the PT’s ascent and policies, including Bolsonaro, represent the extremely classist society detrimental to the poor and racial minorities.

Despite being polarised both views share the similarities of looking for outsiders to “rectify” the miscourse the country has taken evidenced by recent high-profile corruption cases. Bolsonaro, despite being a congressman for 27 years, is portrayed as “playing outside the rules” and has not governed Brazil. Lula is of working class origin and is seen as confronting the much despised elites. Paranoia at being denied a rightful victory is found in both groups as well. Beyond that, in most social and economic policies advocated: the comparisons end there.

Opinion polls give Haddad a slight lead of three points over Bolsonaro in a second round, a difference too small to be able to place a safe bet. If all of Lula’s support were to materialise behind Haddad, then the PT stands a very possible chance of returning to the presidency. However no matter what the outcome of the election is, both opinions carry a passionate rejection of the status quo that won’t go away after the results are announced. Whoever wins will have to deal with an extremely divided nation.

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