Brazil's Elections – Following the Current International Trend

By Marina Costa Esteves Coutinho - 05 November 2018
Brazil's Elections – Following the Current International Trend

Marina Costa Esteves Coutinho comments on the rise of old messages in Brazil's recent elections. 

The result of Brazil’s latest national election follows the current international trend of electing extreme right wing populist candidates. Jair Bolsonaro, the next Brazilian President, ran his campaign using the disappointment and distrust of the Brazilian people against the establishment and the exploding of corruptions case in the political system.

Using a fascist rhetoric, the retired military officer and now elected president, spoke openly about his disdain against women’s right, the LGBTI community, people of color and the poor. Still, Bolsonaro won 57,7 million votes from Brazilian citizens against the 47 million votes for Fernando Haddad, the Workers Party candidate. What is impressive is the quantity of nullified votes and abstention as Brazil is one of few countries where the people are obliged to vote. Refusing to vote results in a fine and could have further consequences such as restrictions on obtaining a passport. Still, 42 million people chose not to cast a ballot or chose between the two options, risking the consequences.

The skepticisms and distrust for the current political system and its representatives is the common feeling among the Brazilian people. The big question now is how a defender of a dictatorship, a hater of human rights, a torturer apologist won so many votes?

It is too easy to say that the 57,7 million people who voted for him are racist, misogynist and homophobic. Some of them are but the analysis has to be more profound. Why is his hate, separatist and violent rhetoric not a deal breaker for many voters?

In the last few years, Brazil has suffered a huge economic crisis, the rate of unemployment is at 12,4%, and cases of corruption have been discovered at all levels of government. While Brazilians are suffering, politicians have increased their power and privileges, raising their salaries and the salaries of judges. Workers right and social programs have been cut. Furthermore, the rate of violence has increased as more people die in Brazil due to gun violence than in Syria, a country currently at war.

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric was modest but focused on simple answers to these topics. He blamed the Workers Party and its politics for the crises and corruption. He accused the Party of pushing communist ideas and argued that they would transform Brazil into Venezuela. Bolsonaro blamed the establishment for prioritizing their privileges, yet he was a house representative for the last 30 years. He spoke against human rights and how they enable criminals to get out of jail and promote hatred of law enforcement. He promoted more power for law enforcement, giving them more power to handle the ‘bad’ people and a blanket permission to kill ‘criminals. Bolsonaro also spoke about relaxing current strict gun regulations, stating every Brazilian should have a gun to defend their property. Bolsonaro enjoyed the support of evangelical leaders, who are becoming a very powerful interest group in Brazilian politics. Is not a coincidence that he first appearance on Television after the election included a Pastor who spoke of Bolsonaro as though he was chosen by god, yet Brazil is a secular State.

These are old messages that have been used worldwide through different generations and regimes yet have no basis or material substance. But with the rise of the internet, social media and fake news, combined the turmoil that is the country in the moment, the messages have stuck in people’s mind.

Besides, we cannot speak about the results of this election without highlighting the Workers Party’s role in the current situation. Winner of the last four general elections, the Workers Party got into power for the first time in 2002 with Luis Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva. During its government, Brazil flourish internally and externally, the social programs it created helped Brazil leave the United Nations hunger map for the first time and, economically, the country  grew and inequality reduced.

Yet, many Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro due to an anti-Workers Party feeling. This situation can be explained by the corruption cases that exploded during their government and the ‘Car Wash’ operation, an investigation that exposed money laundering cases within big government-owned companies. It is true that all of the main Brazilian political parties were involved but the Workers Party was created in the late 80’s as a left-wing party that wanted to change the system, fight for the poor and against privileges. Nonetheless, the reality was much of the same, and they embraced the system and the power that came with it. Yes, they did a lot on the social front but they didn’t attempt to overhaul a system that is imbedded in privileges and inequalities since its birth. And that disappointed a significative portion of society.

After Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the ongoing growth of the anti-Workers Party sentiment and the lack of self-criticism from party leaders, who were preoccupied in blaming everybody for their setbacks except themselves, helped to set the ground for Bolsonaro’s victory. It is possible to agree that the impeachment was a ‘Parliamentary Coup’ started by the PSDB party, and their refusal to accept defeat in the 2014 election, together with Eduardo Cunha, the head of the House at the time, and one of the politicians who later was arrested by the ‘Car Wash’ operation. It is also important to highlight how an important section of society believe that the Judicial System is partial and that decisions are made differently depending of which party the defendant is from.  

Nevertheless, they have responsibility for the situation that Brazil is in right now. First because they insisted of keeping the candidacy of Lula until the last minute, trying to create the idea of a martyr and savior; second because their will to stay in power was bigger than their willingness to create an easy path to victory against a fascist candidate. The Workers Party’s candidate was very prepared, but a lot of people saw him as Lula’s puppet, without a voice and ownership. Electoral polls showed that any other candidate would win against Bolsonaro in the second round except the Workers Party’s candidate. In this election, they should have stayed out. In the end, their downfall will leave significant consequences for Brazilian democracy and society forever.

Thus, the anti-Workers Party feeling, the discredit of the political establishment, the economic crisis and increased violence, the fake news problem, the weak institutions and the desire for something different was more decisive than the fear of having an extreme far-right populist ruling the country.

In his first interview, Bolsonaro spoke about using public funds to 'punish' the press that discloses information that he considers to be 'fake'. He mentioned that the Brazilian people are starting to understand that the dictatorship never happened. And he appointed Federal Judge Sérgio Moro, the leading figure in Brazil's historic corruption investigations, as the Minister of Justice, strengthening the argument of those who depict the entire ‘Car Wash’ operation as one-sided and partial (1). Moro was responsible for the imprisonment of former President Lula.

His head of finance spoke about how Mercosur is not important, following the international trend of a stronger national approach in international relations. During the campaign, Bolsonaro spoke about taking Brazil off the Paris Agreement, he plans to merge the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment, weakening environment protection that could lead to unmeasurable setbacks. Brazil is the country with the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world and home of two third of the Amazon rainforest.

Brazil may be a developing country but the result of this election affects not only the Brazilian people but the world. It is time to understand the worldwide trend of this new wave of politics and why it is winning. It is vital to fight to strengthen national and international institutions, protect democracy, the rule of law and human rights everywhere.


(1) Before Brazilian Court Ruled that 'Lula' could not run for President, he was winning in every Electoral.



Marina Costa Esteves Coutinho is a human rights and international law lawyer and a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at the University of Durham. Her research focuses on the relationship between international human rights law and how they are applied in national systems. She acquired extensive experience in the past 5 years working for international organizations such as Organization of American States(OAS) in Washington D.C and Human Rights Watch in Brussels. Marina holds a Master on Human Rights and Democratisation from the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation and a Law Degree by Universidade de Salvador in Brazil.

Image credit: Agência Brasil Fotografias via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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