The 7 October elections are the most uncertain presidential elections in Brazil in 20 years. It could not have been otherwise after four turbulent years, with the impeachment of the president, Dilma Rousseff, the corruption scandals, the arrest of Lula da Silva and the rise of a far-right outsider who has literally routed all his cards.
Unless a revolution takes place in the last few hours, the choice will be between the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad and the ultra-conservative Jair Bolsonaro. On one side stands the classic left-leaning PT, a party that seemed doomed after the collapse of Dilma and Lula but was able to rise again, precisely thanks to the continuous call for re-election of its imprisoned leader. On the other, the new populist right, screaming and raging.
Until two years ago Bolsonaro was little more than a picturesque MP like many others, nostalgic for dictatorship, homophobic and misogynous. In just a few months, especially thanks to social media, he has become the anti-system alternative, a “new man” compared to the traditional politicos heavily hit by different corruption scandals. A masterpiece of branding created by a small group of collaborators, his four children (all in politics), a few colleagues, a couple of influential and media-oriented evangelic pastors.
Bolsonaro’s campaign has been based on a few but effective slogans: firmly combating delinquency, light government, and explicit contempt for minority groups such as homosexuals, indigenous peoples and left-wing movements, from trade unions to tenant farmers. On the economic side, he has entrusted policy to “guru” Paolo Guedes, banker and creator of investment funds well liked by local financiers. Before being attacked on 6 September, when he was stabbed by a madman and forced to spend a month in the hospital, Bolsonaro had concentrated on centre-southern states, from São Paulo downwards, traditionally more conservative, seeking votes in that portion of anti-PT Brazilian society that does not recognise itself in centre-right parties. This way, he destroyed the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, the establishment man who hoped to climb the ladder in the final stretch of the campaign, but who paid the price for the corruption scandals that affected many of his party colleagues.
Even the former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, surprised many. Held on stand-by by the PT waiting to see what might happen to Lula, Haddad did the only thing he could; present himself as the political heir to the imprisoned leader, gathering part of the popular consensus that still exists for the “worker president”. However, in view of the ballot, he will have to cast the T-shirt with Lula’s face aside and instead wear a suit and tie to reassure the markets and the middle class.
The third wheel in this contest has been Ciro Gomes, a long-standing politician who has passed through almost all parties from the return of democracy to the present day. Gomes served as minister under Cardoso and Lula, was governor of the State of Cearà, and today is left-wing but not a member of the Workers’ Party. His electorate will probably lean towards Haddad, whilst it is still not clear where backers of Marina Silva will go the other big loser in this round (together with Alckmin) because of her inability to affirm herself as a valid centre alternative to the extremist opposition.
Also, the “old” free television propaganda, that was once decisive, has lost its influence. Bolsonaro had only 9 seconds per day available but his campaign was very effective on social media. Brazil is the third country in the world for number of Facebook accounts and is one of the biggest WhatsApp consumers. It is to social media, between one fake news item and another, that many voters have turned to inform themselves. What still remains to be gauged is the real weight of the feminist mobilisation begun in September against Bolsonaro, taking hundreds of thousands of people to the streets with the hashtag #elenao (Him No). The French say that in the first round of balloting, people vote with their hearts but in the second they vote with their heads. Today’s Brazil is very different from France in 2002, when eight out of ten voters opted for Chirac in order to block Le Pen.
If for many Brazilians it will be a plebiscite on Bolsonaro, for others it will be on Lula, less popular from São Paulo downwards. No matter how it is going to end, one thing is certain; there is no clear majority in parliament today, and those who govern will have to form cross-party alliances between the more than twenty parties that will form the new chambers. It is no coincidence that eighty percent of the outgoing MPs have chosen to run again. After having ousted one president (Dilma Rousseff) and “frozen” another for two years (Michel Temer), the Brazilian parliament’s transformist faction is well aware that, with either the left or the right wing in power, it will continue to count very much.
Translation from the original version by Elena Corradi, ISPI