Brazil at a Crossroads

Elections, Corruption, and the Growing Pains of a People

Voters in line at Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul State, on 7 October 2018.

Brazil, commonly known as the land of soccer and samba, is also a country that is getting older, politically robust, and trying to learn from its past. The territory that became Brazil was first discovered in 1500, but it was only in September 1822 that it achieved its independence from Portugal. Since then, Brazil has had two dictatorships (lasting 8 and 21 years respectively) and returned to democracy again with direct, universal voting only in 1990, which indicates how recent its contemporary, democratic political history is. There are multiple reasons for this delay in political evolution, freedom of speech, and democracy.

During the colonial period, Portugal violently exploited the native populations of the territory for labor and extracted its natural resources. Natives, as well as populations seized from Africa, were enslaved and natural resources such as gold, sugarcane, and types of wood used to dye clothes (like Paubrasilia) were expropriated to Portugal and the rest of Europe. With such a vast territory, colonial Brazil was also invaded by countries like the Netherlands (who were in the Northeast of the country between 1630 and 1654) as well as France and Spain (both swiftly expelled) while Portugal was still the principal colonial power. Independence was achieved only in 1822, with Pedro I declaring an independent Empire of Brazil, which lasted 67 years. In 1889, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca deposed Pedro II of Brazil and enacted the Proclamation of the Republic. Only in 1894 did Brazil have its first democratically elected civilian President, Prudente de Moraes.

In 1964, a military coup transformed Brazil into a dictatorship. However, a significant part of the public, the press, and the Catholic Church supported it as a necessary military government. Leftist parties criticized the coup and attempted to counter it, but the Brazilian Congress officially endorsed it and declared the Presidency to be vacant. With the Soviet Union wielding great influence among the countries of Latin America, the American Government supported the coup through Operation Brother Sam, which consisted of sending money, ammunition, and fuel to Brazil to ensure the success of the coup. After five military Presidents and a push for the restoration of democracy, Brazil finally arrived at its current political era through the movement Diretas Já (Direct Elections Now), which took place in 1984 and was led by students, artists, journalists, and labor union leaders, putting an end to the military dictatorship. This historical context is instructive in understanding the ongoing Brazilian general election.

The Candidates

A first ballot with 13 candidates running for President was held on 7 October 2018, which eliminated 11 of the candidates. Coming out on top was Jair Bolsonaro (right-wing PSL — Social Liberal Party) with 46.03% of the votes and Fernando Haddad (left-wing PT — Workers’ Party) with 29.28%. The second ballot will occur on 28 October. The intensity of this race is not expected to subside, especially with Bolsonaro nearly meeting the 50% plus 1 vote threshold required in the first ballot. Now the PT has a chance to acquire political alliances to increase Haddad’s chances. All of the following have declared their support for Haddad: Ciro Gomes (center-left PDT — Democratic Labor Party) who placed third with 12.47%, Guilherme Boulos (left-wing PSOL — Socialism and Liberty Party) who placed tenth with only 0.58%, João Goulart Filho (left-wing PPL — Free Fatherland Party) who placed last with 0.03%, and the center-left PSB — Brazilian Socialist Party that had no Presidential candidates.

On the other side, two parties (with no Presidential candidates in the first ballot) declared their support for Bolsonaro: the centrist PDT — Brazilian Labor Party and the center-right PSC — Social Christian Party. João Doria, Gubernatorial candidate for São Paulo State, has also endorsed Bolsonaro. So too has Ana Amélia (right-wing PP — Progressive Party), who was Vice Presidential running mate of Presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin (President of the centrist PSDB — Brazilian Social Democracy Party). This is despite their parties officially deciding to stand neutral for the second ballot and with Alckmin openly opposing Bolsonaro. A poll released on 10 October showed Bolsonaro winning with 58% of the vote against against Haddad with 42%.

The tight race makes sense in the context of how far apart the candidates stand on the issues. Bolsonaro is right-wing and rightist popularity has been on the rise due to the corruption scandals in the PT Government. In one of the most shocking cases, the PT Government was found to have bought off Parliamentary factions to approve certain pieces of legislation. Called a fascist, homophobe, misogynist, and racist by left-wing figures, Bolsonaro has never been implicated in corruption and thus has some support from the classes that the Left claims he stands against. Bolsonaro also stands for the opening of Brazil’s economy “without ideological bias” for the sake of “doing business with all countries.” He defends de-bureaucratization and deregulation in order to incentivize and support entrepreneurship to address high unemployment. Furthermore, he supports the privatization of some state-owned companies.

On public security, Bolsonaro believes in streamlining the process for gun ownership, as it is currently difficult to have a gun at home, requiring the successful passing of psychological exams and submitting paperwork to justify need. He also wants a reduction of the age of criminal responsibility from 18 years old to 16 and more legal protection for police. Policemen around the country claim that human rights discourse has been acting more on behalf of offenders than of victims, that police are overly investigated and sometimes unfairly suspended when they shoot criminals, and receive more severe sentences compared to others for rape.

On education and health, he stands for the creation of a reference military school in each capital, abolition of racial quotas (while defending social class quotas), and the end of “indoctrination” on what has been referred to as “gender ideology” that preaches sexual openness (or incitement to sexual discovery) for young schoolchildren. He also wants to incentivize and grow the State Physician career path, in order to provide for medical needs throughout remote hinterlands like Amazonas State. Further to that, he wants to allow foreign doctors to take a qualifying physician test (Revalida) that would allow them to live as permanent residents in Brazil. This would provide them with access to the financial system, the ability to purchase property, and potentially to have their families join them. As of now, the current PT program of More Doctors (Mais Médicos) has brought in many Cuban physicians, but they are treated as temporary workers and thus do not have the right to remain in Brazil or have regular family visits.

Haddad is diametrically the opposite of Bolsonaro. A leftist, his candidacy is supported by Lula Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former President, who is incarcerated for corruption and money laundering. Lula’s reelection candidacy was disrupted because, according to the Ficha Limpa (Clean Record law), a person becomes ineligible for office for 8 years once convicted of a crime.

On education and health, Haddad plans to withdraw the Expense Ceiling, a Constitutional Amendment Proposal (PEC), which would freeze public expenditures for up to 20 years in order to contain fiscal deficits. This will allow more investment in health and education and the use of new revenue from oil in the recently discovered pre-salt layer. He also intends to expand technical and higher education enrollment.

On security, Haddad wants to improve the ammunition and gun restriction policy as a security measure by reinforcing its tracking, plans to change the policy on drugs, and intends to appoint a civilian to be Minister of Defense.

Unlike Bolsonaro, Haddad advocates for land reform and bank reform. Regarding the latter, he wants progressive taxation on the banks with a lower tax rate for banks offering credit at lower interest. He intends to stimulate re-industrialization by having public banks play a major role in capital financing. He also wishes to revoke the Labor Reform sanctioned by incumbent President Michel Temer, who was Vice President to President Dilma Rouseff before she was impeached in 2016 for kickbacks and corruption. The Labor Reform loosened labor regulations as a means of creating more jobs and incentivizing hiring.

The Situation

Voting is mandatory in Brazil, which always has a major impact in election outcomes. This is because of tactical voting, which in Brazil involves voting for the direct competitor of the candidate or party voters most dislike instead of voting for a candidate or party they do like. People talk about “voting against the PT” instead of “voting against Haddad,” making reference to the long tenure of the PT in Brazil’s government, which generated a lot of disfavor over the years. Other voters talk about “voting against Bolsonaro” and that is also because of the disfavor he attracts, so many vote for the PT to avoid Bolsonaro at all costs.

The tactical vote is very important in this election because, as the polls show, Brazil is divided in two again. In 2014, in the second ballot, the country was divided between 51.64% for Dilma and 48.36% for Aecio Neves, who is a defendant in Lava Jato, the most important Federal Police operation investigating corruption. A relevant factor that reinforces the tactical vote in this election is the current national distaste for the PSDB and PT, which have been involved in major corruption scandals and have been alternating the Presidency since 1994. With a second ballot now certain between Bolsonaro and Haddad, we will have a very tight final outcome of this election. Evidence of the divided electorate is apparent in the knife attack suffered by Bolsonaro.

Besides voting for President, voters have also been electing two-thirds of Federal Senators, Federal Deputies, State Governors, and State Parliamentarians. This all-encompassing General Election, which takes place every 4 years, has all elected seats open for contest in the next election, with the exception of Senatorial seats that have 8-year terms.

In São Paulo State, the most populous state of Brazil, there will be a second ballot, too. Not coincidentally, it is going to be between a rightist defending Bolsonaro and a leftist defending Haddad. The narrative is almost the same. The aforementioned Doria stands for privatization and austerity on administration of public finances. He is also hardline on public security and wants more investigations of fraud in social programs. On the other side, we have Márcio França (PSB), who stands for a more socialist government. One of his programs is the civil conscription, aiming at enlisting young men exempted from military service to provide service for civilians in the streets (earning 500 Brazilian Reais per month), which, according to him, may cost around 900 million Reais per year, but is worthwhile for social education. São Paulo State is sending two new centrist politicians (José Serra and Mara Gabrilli — PSDB) and a rightist one (Major Olímpio — PSL) to the Federal Senate.

In Rio de Janeiro, the scenario is ideologically more defined. The government is being contested between the rightist Wilson Witzel (PSL) and the center-rightist Eduardo Paes (DEM — Democrats). Whoever wins the election will have a great challenge ahead: containing the increasing violence and administering a terribly broke state (the deficit for 2018 is estimated at 5.3 billion Reais and the current debt, according to the Brazilian Institute of Statistics, is 168.040 billions, equivalent to 45 billion American dollars. Rio de Janeiro State is sending two new rightists to the Federal Senate: Flavio Bolsonaro (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro’s son, and Arolde de Oliveira (PSD — Social Democratic Party).

The only region in the country that has been shown to be more clearly leftist is the Northeast, with the North region being divided between Bolsonaro and Haddad. In Bahia, a Northeast State, the PT achieved its fourth consecutive election after two terms of Jaques Wagner followed Rui Costa who just won his second term. Pernambuco, another Northeast State, also reelected its governor, the leftist Paulo Câmara (PSB).

In general, throughout the country, the PSL has forged a solid base of Federal Deputies. Its caucus has grown from 1 to 52 seats, already lending Bolsonaro considerable support. Nevertheless, the PT still has the largest plurality of seats with 56 out of 513.

Another important aspect that is central to this election is the discussion on political illiberalism and intolerance. Candidates have been accusing Bolsonaro of being anti-democratic due to a statement by his running mate, Hamilton Mourão. During an interview, Mourão, a member of the Army reserve and a retired General, defended the idea of an auto-coup in case of generalized chaos or political disorder (something he says is unlikely to happen) as part of the Brazilian Constitution. However, intolerance has also been demonstrated by leftist candidates like Ciro Gomes, who verbally and physically attacked two reporters on two different occasions when asked political questions.

There is intolerance also coming from voters. On 8 October, a 63 year-old capoeira master was killed after a political argument. According to the police, the victim disagreed with the aggressor (who was a Bolsonaro voter) and was attacked with a knife after saying he supported the PT. Two days later, both Bolsonaro and Haddad released official notes to the press repudiating intolerance and violence.

One thing is certain, Brazil has never been so politicized in its history. It is notorious seeing people talking on the streets, on the bus, at parties, about politics. We do seem to be learning from the past, but that doesn’t mean much, because we still are divided between the ideologies. The truth is that Brazilians have never seen their country economically grow the way it should and corruption has been a thorn in our side. This setting gives us the certainty that the next president, whoever they are, will be closely watched for any “corruption slip” or liability crimes that may be used for an impeachment. That is why, in some aspects, we can be optimistic about this election, since our new president will surely be making every effort to show work and worthiness of being there. No matter the candidate chosen by the people, this election will definitely be a milestone in Brazil’s history and progress.

The Hope

Other countries are closely watching the outcome in Brazil, for the second ballot will yield two very different results. On one side, we have a leftist candidate, who claims he will bring back all the progress Brazil had when Lula was president and believes in socialist governance, which may affect the economic relationship with some key countries like the United States and China. This is worth noting as last week Trump claimed that Brazil is “unfair” to American companies and it charges them whatever it wants. Brazil is, according to international standards, one of the most closed countries for international trade. It adopts strong protectionist barriers to imports, making it the 153rd most commercially open country out of 180. On the other side, we have a rightist candidate who stands for a economic liberalism, an open market and has already declared that “Trump is an example” and intends to get closer to him. He also says that “China is buying Brazil” and he will not let that happen.

Venezuela and Cuba will be closely watching this election as well, since the PT (through Lula and Dilma) has had an aid relationship with these countries. This has included building a port in Cuba worth 957 million American dollars and having a commercial relationship with Venezuela that grew 227% between 2002 and 2010. On the other hand, Bolsonaro is firmly against the dictatorship in Venezuela. His son has also said that Brazil’s next peace operation (likely making reference to its successful UN operation in Haiti) will be in that country.

Despite the tense national contestations, the scene is optimistic and Brazilians can start hoping for a better country in the next few years, once the corruption scandals have been fully investigated and prosecuted. The aforementioned Lava Jato operation has become so vast it does not have a mandated endpoint. The population is, justifiably, more skeptical and better informed, mainly through social media. This will compel the new President to work hard to benefit all sectors. No matter who wins, it will, indeed, be the people’s will. Since Brazil seems to be learning from its history, anything that may go wrong in the next government will definitely be heavily watched and accounted for by the people, who no longer have any tolerance for corruption. One thing is certain: Brazil is finally growing up.