Magna Inácio – The 2018 Presidential Elections in Brazil: A Turning Point?

A far-right president, Bolsonaro, was elected in Brazil, propelling the most radical political shift in Brazilian politics since the redemocratization. In the runoff election, Bolsonaro secured 55.8 million votes (or 55%), a 10% margin of victory ahead the leftist candidate, Haddad.

The former army captain, Bolsonaro, successfully turned himself into the mouthpiece of the politically dissatisfied. Under the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”, his strident rhetoric echoed nationalistic, conservative and identity-based issues against corruption, crime, and moral crisis. To broaden his electoral appeal, he won over markets by pledging a deep policy shift toward market-friendly reforms under the charge of his ultra-liberal economic advisor, the would-be minister of finance. Even without clear proposals, and by means of contradictory signs, he successfully packaged all the issues into a promise of an alternative government, expressing not only a rejection of leftist administrations headed by PT, the presidential party for 13 years, but of the whole political system. Branding himself an outsider, Bolsonaro spiced up his anti-establishment appeals with controversial remarks about basic democratic tenets. His statements signalled little tolerance for political opponents and activists, and his proposal to change the Constitution raised concerns of authoritarian threads put forth by his government.

The exceptionality of this presidential election partially explains the electoral success of Bolsonaro, a backbench deputy, nominated as a presidential candidate by a small party and managing limited campaign resources. This election had a frontrunner candidate, former president Lula, deemed ineligible by the electoral courts due to his conviction for corruption crimes. At the same point of the campaign, Bolsonaro was stabbed at a rally and campaigned from his hospital bed and from his home until Election Day. The commotion caused by this violent event restrained his rivals’ negative ads against his electoral platform and political discourses. He did not take part in TV debates with other candidates, a contest highly valued by Brazilian voters. Instead, he broadcast himself extensively using social media and, at the same time, he blocked his running mate and economic adviser from taking a public position on sensitive issues of his electoral platform. In addition, the electoral process was heavily poisoned by misinformation, rumors and fake news disseminated through social media by campaigners and extremist supporters.

But, is this only an exceptional election, or a turning point in Brazilian politics? We are probably witnessing a more radical change than occurred with the first victory of a leftist party at the presidential level in 2002. This is signaled not only by Bolsonaro’s profile and his path to the presidential seat. He is the most visible face in this process. Other electoral effects reveal a shift far beyond that.

First, the political polarization has assumed a centrifugal dynamic in this election. The political divide evolved into voter fury against the political establishment, mainly the most presidentialized parties. These anti-system feelings and strong rejection of established parties has spread to legislative and subnational races. Electorally, it boosted the Bolsonaro candidacy, but also changed the face of the legislative branch. The electoral volatility showed a considerable transfer of votes to right-wing parties. Although Bolsonaro´s party was the most rewarded, several small parties also gained seats. The seat-shares of the centrist parties reduced considerably, raising concerns about their pivotal roles in moderating legislative decisions in the next legislature. On the left side, parties maintained their legislative strengths, given the coattail effects of their presidential candidates, ending the presidential race in the second and third positions. However, it shadows the future of a stronger, united opposition to Bolsonaro’s government.

It led to a second consequence, a higher legislative fragmentation. The effective numbers of the parties (EFN) was raised to 16.5 and 13.5, in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, respectively. It showed not only changes in the interparty competition within the congress. The anti-establishment feelings also triggered a tsunami of legislative turnover, skyrocketing to 52% and 48% of legislators in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, respectively. It greatly benefited conservative outsiders and freshmen candidates, mostly affiliated with right-wing parties. The conservative-leaning seat-shares has increased considerably with the election of religious-minded and military deputies. However, it is still not clear how aligned they are with the liberal reforms in the economic policy area. Thus, the next congress will be not only more fragmented, but also populated by cross-pressured legislators.

It raises the cost of forming political majorities, even if the president decides to walk away from coalitional presidentialism and govern through ad hoc coalitions. Thus, the expectations that 2018 elections would foster the conditions to overcome five years of political and economic turmoil in Brazil seems to be unrealistic.

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