Expected as a turning point after five years of political turmoil, the 2018 Brazilian presidential election is heading into ever-increasing uncertainties as to who will win and how she or he will govern. Since the 1990s, strong presidential powers and electoral rules favoring political polarization between large interparty alliances has turned the presidential competition into a structuring vector of the whole political system. Therefore, two presidentialized parties, PSDB and PT, have become the major forces alternating in power, blocking outsiders and newcomers to send themselves to the presidential contest. This bipolarization has made government policy offers more moderate and the Brazilian politics, centripetal. At this time, however, it seems to be challenged in an unprecedented way, and the competition is so far, very uncertain.
The success of coalitional presidentialism has been eroding after two decades of relative stability. Political dissatisfaction has been skyrocketing since the massive street riots in 2013, driving down even more the low levels of institutional confidence in Congress and parties and, recently, citizens’ support for the democratic regime is endangered. Corruption scandals and economic depression tempered the polarized reelection of President Rousseff (PT), in 2014, culminating in her impeachment two years afterward. The initial success of the new government, headed by vice-president Temer, vanished quickly when corruption scandals also reached him and his inner circle. In general, political parties have been strongly hurt and episodic institutional conflicts emerged since party and legislative leaders started to be investigated and arrested, sometimes with the suspension of parliamentary prerogatives of office-holders under investigation.
Generalized feelings that these wrongdoings are systemic has been fueling anti-establishment appeals and a strong pressure for political renovation. Political polarization feeds tension between democratic and authoritarian values, with a significant part of the population appealing for military intervention as a means to solve the political and economic crisis. On recent times, episodes of political violence have happened, such as the killing of Rio de Janeiro councilwomen Marielle Franco (PSOL) and her driver, and the incident in which shots were fired at Lula’s caravan, both in March this year.
Under this political nightmare, will mainstream political parties be able to coordinate this electoral process towards a new equilibrium?
For the first time since 1994, the highly unpopular sitting president has been politically ignored of negotiations of electoral alliances, despite his party, the PMDB, being one of the key actors. The most important left-wing leader and potential candidate, former president Lula (PT), was pushed out due his conviction for money laundry and gang formation, resulting in his arrestment few months before the nomination season. The involvement of leaders of large parties in corruption trials resulted in reputational losses and considerably reduced electability of their potential candidates. This increased, in the eyes of other parties, the cost of joining hands with them. In addition, reforms barring campaign funding from private companies increased the opportunities for self-funded candidates. Overall, these conditions have turned this into an ever more open-seat presidential election, raising the incentives for not-yet presidentialized parties and outsiders.
Given this political landscape, 2018 presidential race has been compared to 1989, the only time when a non-mainstream party won the presidency. Indeed, one of the surprises of this race has been the emergence of a competitive, far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), whose discourse is centered on an anti-corruption, moralization of politics and law-and-order approach. Bolsonaro has been leading the polls since the beginning, in a scenario without former president Lula, oscillating around 20% of vote preferences. He can be considered an “inside-outsider” since has been serving as representative for seven mandates despite his anti-establishment appeals. Although usually compared to Trump, Bolsonaro does not count on a robust party organization sponsoring him. His motto is to “change everything that is in place”, and his brand gesture is the simulation of warm guns with his hands. One of his proposals is to turn the gun regulation more liberalized in Brazil, and he has previously openly defended the military dictatorship. He surfs on the waves of backlash against progressive socio-cultural values and strong anti-system sentiment.
Electoral rules have, however, moderated centrifugal trends in the first stage of this election, the nomination season, closed at the end of July. Under runoff and concurrent elections, in a scenario of reduced campaign funding, established parties sought more conventional alliances. On the center-right, a large alliance among center and right-wing parties, headed by PSDB candidate, Alckmin, was formed to broaden its public funding and free publicity on TV. It inhibited medium and small parties from allying with the “inside-outsider” candidate, Bolsonaro, despite his high-polling position. Furthermore, newcomers, two millionaire businesspeople, are also getting access to the ballot. On the left, the PT worked to block an alternative alliance of center-left parties, since it is working to judicially reverse Lula’s expected ineligibility and keep its pivotal position on its side of the ideological spectrum. This resulted in more fragmentation on the center-left, with the nomination of Marina Silva (Rede) and Ciro Gomes (PDT), two competitive candidates challenging PT dominance. At the end, the presidentialized parties, PT and PSDB, were constrained to build different alliances from when they had won the election and 13 candidates are running for presidency. However, the nomination process has shown more predictable alliance strategies than expected.
Campaigning officially started on August 16th, and the advertising on traditional media took off on the 31st. Television and radio remain the most important sources of information for voters during the campaign, in the shortest period for presidential campaigning in recent decades. Nevertheless, candidates seeking their “campaign momentum” and putting themselves as front-runners are facing more uncertainties that they expected.
First, although most candidates had already been nominated by the end of July, the dispute has been largely undefined since PT kept Lula as its candidate, holding on a strategy that insists on him being a victim of major injustice, until the very last minute. It was expected that Lula would be declared ineligible by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), due the Clean Record Act (“Ficha Limpa”), which forbids the candidacy of anyone who has been convicted by a decision of a collective body. However, PT called on the international community, having received support from famous left-wing leaders worldwide, and a request by the United Nations Human Rights’ Committee not to prevent the former president from standing for the election, until his appeals before the courts have been completed. As expected, the TSE declared Lula ineligible and established September 11th as the deadline for PT to present an alternative candidate. After having run out of appeals, the former mayor of Sao Paulo, Fernando Haddad, was nominated as PT candidate only 26 days before the first round of voting. Whereas Lula’s incomparable popularity seems capable of transferring some support for his designated candidate, this campaign is shorter than previous ones and relative unknown Haddad was nominated late. The underperforming government of the impeached president Rousseff, who was also chose by him, will shadow PT’s attempts to sell Haddad as someone able to rescue the success of Lula’s administrations. Despite PT simply omits Rousseff’s administrations from its announcements, the left-wing challengers are already recalling her failures and promising do better in pushing progressive agendas for attracting non-conservative voters.
Second, an unprecedented event shacked the campaign considerably. The far-right candidate Bolsonaro was stabbed on September 6th, during a rally by a person who alleged political motivation against the candidate’s positions towards minorities, but the act seems to be organized only by himself. A shocking event also happened in 2014, when the third-place on polls Eduardo Campos (PSB), died in a plane crash. This incident had a considerable impact on voters’ preferences for his running mate, Marina Silva, who replaced him and reaching more than 30% of vote intentions on the same point of the presidential campaign in 2014. However, this thread coming from a third-party candidate did not last, after an intense negative campaign from PT candidate. At the end voters turned back to what they see as the most credible options, and the PT-PSDB clash happened for the sixth time. By its turn, the outrage against Bolsonaro raised an expectation of larger impact than in 2014, since he was seen as victim of political violence and intolerance. However, polls have showed that the commotion was limited, while the resistance to vote for the radical and anti-system candidate remains high among voters. The impact of this violence on his campaign is uncertain, but it can reduce the voter mobilization in this last stage of campaign. Bolsonaro is hospitalized and blocked from conducting his personalized campaigns on the streets. Absent from media debates and backed by a less professional campaign staff, his attempt to resort to a massive Internet strategy may be insufficient to expand his appeals towards more heterogeneous audience or, even, keep his current supporters.
These close events, the expected replacement of PT candidate and the unforeseen Bolsonaro’s stabbing, have forced all presidential candidates to change their strategies. While the second round is likely to show the confrontation between right-wing and left-wing candidates, it is unclear how far these candidates are from the center and whether escalation of polarization can occur. Bolsonaro remains stable as front-runner, radicalizing the anti-PT sentiment. As the candidate with the highest rejection rate and facing a remarkable gender gap in voters’ preferences (30% of male and 14% of women), his odds to win the election are unlikely by now. Polls show that is likely to lose for any other candidate of both ideological poles. Other four competitive candidates linger very close in the dispute for the second place, center-right (Alckmin) and three center-left candidates (Ciro, Marina, and Haddad).
Since 1994, this is the first time that a front-runner is an “inside-outsider”, coming from an inexpressive political party. As it happened in previous presidential disputes, there are some tensions challenging the prior bipolar dynamic. However, this time the menace of a third-party breaking the status quo is relatively stronger. Usually the challenger comes from within the system, such as in 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014. A certain level of “insiderness” has been required to gather sufficient strengths in order to disturb the centrifugal dynamic induced by institutions and electoral rules. Even when a convincing challenger emerged with more confidence, voters have hesitated to stick with an alternative at the last minute. Polls on 2014 presidential election showed that voters’ first-round decision was only consolidated on the last 10 days before election day. In its turn, this uncertainty scenario, marked by high fragmentation of candidate supply, particularly on the left, the number of undecided voters remains high and swing vote tend to be a decisive factor. At this point of the campaign, who will benefit of this is still an incognita.
Magna Inácio is an associate professor in the Department of the Political Science at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, in Brazil. She is currently carrying out research on presidents and presidencies with focus on multiparty cabinets, executive–legislative relations and internal organization of the Executive branch. Her research interests include coalition governments, the institutional presidency, and parliamentary elites in Brazil and Latin America.
Aline Burni is a researcher for the Center for Legislative Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil), where she is a PhD candidate in Political Science. She was a Fulbright grantee at New York University, and previously served as International Advisor for the Minas Gerais state government. Her research interests are comparative and European Politics, Electoral Studies, Political Parties and Radical Right-wing Populism.