Brazil: Expected polarisation

Date first published: 9/10/2018

Key sectors: all

Key risks: policy uncertainty; electoral unpredictability; governability

Polarisation has been one of the few certainties in Brazil’s ongoing electoral process. The results of the 7 October general election are testament to this deepening reality: for the first time in more than 30 years a far-right candidate has a tangible chance to secure the presidency, and will face off a leftist rival on the 28 October runoff. Jair Bolsonaro and his far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL) won the 7 October vote in a clear-cut victory at both the presidential and legislative levels. Brazil’s political establishment – to the left, centre, and right – lost. Imprisoned former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was crucial in guaranteeing leftist Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad passage to the second round. Lula backed Haddad after being banned from running, with most Lula supporters voting for the former Sao Paulo mayor. Ironically, that same Lula support might play against Haddad on 28 October. Bolsonaro won on his ‘anti-establishment’ stance, and Haddad represents it. Prior to the vote, most polls showed both candidates in a technical tie in a second round. Uncertainty over the final result will persist until the day the vote.

Bolsonaro not only won the presidential first round – he secured 46 per cent of the vote, 17 percentage points ahead of Haddad, who won 29.3 per cent – but also made large gains in Congress. The PSL will for the first time have Senate representation with four seats. Bolsonaro’s party also became the second largest party in the lower house with 52 seats up from 1, trailing the PT, which remains the largest party despite having only 56 seats out of 513. The legislative results show that polarisation and overall disenchantment with traditional parties have resulted in unprecedented fragmentation. 21 parties secured representation in the Senate after the upper house renewed two thirds of its seats. Coalition and alliance building will be crucial both to secure victory in the upcoming runoff and to ensure relatively smooth policy making. The next three weeks will probably see both candidates trying to lure the centrist vote, although Bolsonaro has already stated he will not soften his stance. Further polarisation cannot be ruled out.

Haddad has moved fast to present himself as the ‘democratic’ candidate against a former army captain viewed by many a threat to Brazilian democracy. Haddad reportedly aims to create a ‘democratic front’ against Bolsonaro, who on 8 October stated that he does not represent a coup d’etat risk. The comments came as a clear attempt to try to mitigate previous statements praising Brazil’s military dictatorship. To have a chance at winning, Haddad will need to create that ‘democratic front’ so that it does not look as ‘the establishment reunited’ vs. Bolsonaro. That could further exacerbate the reactionary vote that led to the far-right victory on 7 October. Haddad will say that a Bolsonaro win will be the end of democracy. Bolsonaro will continue to strengthen his anti-graft stance against the embattled PT. Around 30 million Brazilians – or around 20 per cent of those entitled to vote – abstained in the first round. Their vote could define the runoff. The former captain has made it clear he will only accept results granting him the presidency. Irrespective of the results, Brazil’s democratic institutions will be put to the test on 28 October and in the months that will follow.