The general elections in Brazil on October 7 come amid recent upheavals which have resulted in a sharp political divide, with a large portion of the population either defending the idols they see as persecuted, or turning to the right in an attempt to escape the left they see as fully responsible for corruption and graft.
Meanwhile, a large percentage of the electorate are reeling in horror at the thought of voting for either of the two frontrunners.
Fernando Haddad, former Mayor of São Paulo and a former minister of education, who carried only single digits in the polls a few weeks ago, and is now above 22 per cent for the first round.
A descendant of Lebanese Christian immigrants, Haddad is a lawyer with a Master’s degree in economics and a PhD in philosophy, and has won international awards for his initiatives regarding food, land use, and transportation as mayor of São Paulo. Haddad was never in the limelight within the PT, the Workers’ Party, until recently, when he was chosen to be the party’s candidate.
He replaces former President Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva, who appeared to be the one who would finally lead the eternal “country of the future” to fulfill its destiny.
But Lula today sits in a jail cell on a corruption conviction, having led polls for the 2018 elections, before being barred from running. Haddad may look good on paper, but many simply will not vote for someone they see as a puppet whose strings are being pulled from behind bars.
Just a few years ago, economic growth skyrocketed, and Brazil’s train finally seemed to be getting on track. Winning bids to host major events helped bring the country into the spotlight, and the discovery of massive offshore oilfields in 2007 ensured future success. In Brazil and abroad, Lula received the credit for most of these developments, and for finally addressing the extreme inequality that had long plagued the nation.
As the dollar began to climb in 2012, however, and as the economic boom started to lose steam, corruption, mismanagement and disastrous fiscal policies took their toll.
The World Cup and the Olympics went without a hitch (except for Brazil’s staggering 7×1 loss against Germany), but brought no social or economic returns, with most of the investment disappearing into the pockets of the organizers, and the infrastructures built were left to rust.
Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, was at the helm when things went downhill. The former Catholic schoolgirl turned urban guerrilla had been head of Petrobras, Lula’s minister of energy and his chief of staff, but the discovery of corruption on a massive scale revolving around a kickback scheme at Petrobras had Brazilians taking to the streets en masse demanding her removal.
The red star of the Worker’s Party was tarnished: Lula, along with many of his close advisers, was jailed for involvement in the same scandal, and he and his party are now despised by many. Investigations into corruption allegations are ongoing, and have uncovered widespread graft all across the political spectrum, something not new to Brazilian politics.
But for some, the star still shines: there is still widespread support for the claim that the convictions were politically motivated. Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment is still considered my some supporters to amount to a coup d’état, and many believe Michel Temer, the successor she herself chose as her running mate in the 2014 elections, is an illegitimate president.
Deft, but controversial
In this political climate, controversial figures such as Jair Bolsonaro, a former military man whose chief political strategy seems to be making outrageous statements and stoking fears of the “Venezuelisation” of Brazil, are making waves.
His high name recognition was earned by making outrageous remarks disparaging blacks, natives, women, and the LGBT community, and his unpopularity is increased by his calls for intervention by the armed forces and his idolatry for the military, praising infamous characters of the former regime, including Colonel Carlos Alberto Ustra, who had personally tortured Ms. Rousseff and many others with electric shocks and beatings.
There is little to recommend him, but he has deftly positioned himself as the law and order candidate. His reputation for probity, which he has managed to uphold even as he has admitted receiving payoffs and employing family members in do-nothing jobs in his cabinet, hangs in the balance as serious questions about his finances begin to surface.
Many of his staunch supporters tout him as the only defense against the return of the left, and he claims nearly 30 per cent of the vote, but up to 60 per cent of voters reject him. Against any other candidate but Haddad, he’d lose the runoff.
Few are the voters who decidedly vote for Bolsonaro for his own qualities, but many would be persuaded to cast a vote for him if the alternative is a PT win.
With a disorganized campaign marked by aggressive rhetoric, he relishes the comparison with US President Donald Trump.
He is not a political newcomer, having spent 27 years in the senate, but in all that time, he has passed only two bills. Bolsonaro’s hate speech recently turned against him, and he was stabbed at a political rally in early September, an attack which many of his supporters still claim was orchestrated by the opposition to end his candidacy, and some of his detractors still claim was a false flag operation.
His time in hospital earned him some sympathy votes and underlined the devastating violence in Brazil, but most importantly, it allowed his name to remain in the spotlight without his having to say anything.
He is avowedly ignorant about policy, economics, healthcare, governance and legislation, but claims he has no need to know any of that if his advisers do.
With government plans vague enough to easily defend, the candidate gained some market trust after putting forward his choice for Minister of the Economy, Paulo Guedes, an economist with a PhD from University of Chicago, but he has barred him from speaking publicly about his plans after certain statements caused supporters to waver.
Bolsonaro, a captain in the army, also silenced his running mate, General Mourão, a hardliner who has called torturers “heroes” and called for military intervention, after he stated that households without a male head were “hoodlum factories,” hardly a wise choice of words in a country where over 11 million households are headed by women.
Unsurprisingly, he eschews television debates, having lost popularity each time he participated in them.
Women have spearheaded the opposition to Bolsonaro, and the #EleNão #NotHim movement quickly assembled millions of supporters over social media. Those close to him have called women who speak out against him “dirty, ugly and unhygienic,” and have brutally attacked his opponents.
A “moral conservative,” he has managed to unite the Catholic Conference of the Brazilian Orders (CRB), LGBTQ groups, popular artists, and even foreign celebrities in calling for a vote against him.
Public protests against Bolsonaro have gathered several million people, but may have galvanized his supporters, as he still rises in the polls.
The two candidates who advance to the second round will face each other in a runoff where whoever has 50 per cent of the valid votes plus one wins.
Gomes, the alternative?
Brazil only uses voting machines, and claims of fraud abound. Each candidate owes his position to resistance towards the other, but voters are not backing down.
Candidate Ciro Gomes, who is far behind in third place, with less than 15 per cent of the vote, would beat either one in a runoff.
As the former governor of Ceará, former government minister during Lula’s presidency, and congressman whose family has long been long involved in politics (and accusations of impropriety), Gomes has made it a habit to resign the offices to which he has been elected in order to pursue higher ones, and his reputation for being a bit of a hothead keeps his rejection rate high.
Planning to reverse privatization of public companies, but also close to industrialists, he seems to navigate from the left to the right of the political spectrum, and many Brazilians, disgusted by both front runners, are campaigning for him as a viable alternative.
Whoever comes out on top in the wacky races of Brazilian politics will inherit a country which has always had enormous potential but was almost destroyed by decades of catastrophic mismanagement, falling from what seemed like a meteoric rise straight into recession.
Over 200 million inhabitants are divided politically and socially, and the country cries out for structural reform. If Haddad wins, and manages to distance himself from the more ideological wing of the party, and to shake himself free of Lula’s influence, he might lead a moderate government that would give him a chance to right the mistakes of his party.
Bolsonaro is a trickier bet: he has already shown himself to be more radical than other populist authoritarian leaders such as Philippines’ Duterte or Venezuela’s Chavez were before their elections, and his lack of even the most basic understanding of public policy, as well as his abrupt persona, are obstacles to gaining necessary support and making allies in congress.