Elections in Brazil: High Uncertainty, But Any Room for Real Change?

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On October 2018, Brazilians will vote not only for their next president, but also all members of the lower house of congress, two-thirds of the senate, governors and state legislators. A lot is under dispute, because with the presidential, bicameral, federalist, and multiparty system in place, knowing who is elected leader of the country tells little about the story of the next government. In Brazil, no president elects a single-party majority alone, so political parties intensively engage in pre-electoral alliances and post-electoral bargains to build government coalitions. The so-called “coalition presidentialism” implicates the sharing of the Executive to build a legislative majority, a process that usually involves negotiations with several and diverse parties, among the nearly thirty entities existing today.

This year, the dispute is particularly polarized and fragmented. It is impossible to predict the outcome. The Workers’ Party (PT) returned towards more leftist grounds, with an alliance that includes the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB). There is a popular extreme right-wing candidate as well, named Jair Bolsonaro (Social Liberal Party – PSL), who is on top of voting intentions in a scenario without former left-wing president Lula. Bolsonaro is the first credible alternative further to the right of the Social-Democratic Party (PSDB), the classic center-right competitor. As you might have guessed, party names are a trap concerning their ideological orientations.

In total, there are thirteen candidates running for this presidency, the highest number since 1989. Latest opinion polls suggest that virtually anything can happen for the second round, given that there is an elevated number of undecided voters, it is still not determined if Lula will be able to run for the PT due to corruption conviction, and the score of the front runners is close under different scenarios. Among the candidates, about 5 have reasonable chances to be at run-off, based on latest opinion polls: Fernando Haddad (PT) (should replace Lula), Ciro Gomes (PDT), Marina Silva (Rede), Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB), and Jair Bolsonaro (PSL).

Analysts are divided when it comes to forecast how the run-off will look like. Some of them guess Bolsonaro could keep his loyal segment of voters by making use of internet and social media, assuring his presence on the next round, while others are more confident on a traditional PT-PSDB competition– common in Brazilian presidential elections since 1994, because of the concentration of resources on the hands of these two major traditional parties. Even if some observers risk identifying who should run the next round, it is too risky to point any final winner.

Although there is a high level of uncertainly in this election, and a lot is at stake regarding the future of the country, some key elements are likely to favor the establishment, while minimum room is open for real change. This is because, as mentioned, the president alone cannot govern the country. Besides, the elite-level articulations have been decided by dominant groups, who have arranged rules that help them to perpetuate in power.

A volatile electorate, and its distrust on politicians because of corruption scandals are just recurrent features of Brazilian politics. This is not novelty. Even if traditional parties have been somewhat destabilized with a fresh political and economic crisis, the establishment has managed to make some incremental changes in the system,which will favor bigger over smaller parties, traditional politicians over new-comers. Consequently, regulations will benefit those that already hold office, making it harder for outsiders to breakthrough.

Recently-approved electoral rules, operating for the first time this year, have established changes that benefit larger parties and the status quo. The distribution of resources – free time of campaign advertisement and money-  is conditioned to current party-size (votes and seats). Under the new rules, parties can only get access to public electoral funds if they have achieved a minimum threshold. There are harder electoral barriers to transpose in order to get seats too. In addition, the length of campaigns has been significantly diminished, leaving shorter time for parties to convince constituents. Private companies cannot sponsor candidacies anymore, there are limitations for individual donations to parties, and new spending limits for all types of campaign. The distribution of state party-funds and of free publicity time on television and radio are equally based on party-size.

It is true that there are some unprecedented elements and high uncertainty operating. As it happens on several democracies across the globe, the traditional political class is very distrusted in Brazil. Still, Brazilians haven’t typically shown a strong sense of partisanship, or confidence in the functioning of their system either. Most citizens are not interested in politics, they do not participate in social organizations, or hold pre-established political preferences. A majority only start to think about politics at the beginning of the of campaign period. Voting is mandatory. Not surprisingly, historically the percentage of undecided voters starts above 30%, or even 40%. It drops as campaigns flow. Citizens will mostly decide the candidate they will support at the final moment.

A factor of novelty in this election might be the rise of an “uncomplexed” extreme-right. A wave of anti-democratic and conservative social values has gained popularity in Brazil over the last years, as a reaction to the inclusive and pro-minority’s rights trend boosted by left-wing governments. This backlash has culminated in the rise of the controversial reserve-military and presidential candidate, Bolsonaro. A relevant part of the population really likes him, and believe she represents the only way to effectively protest the current system. He is also seen as having the courage to say what many people think, but don’t dare saying because of “political correctness”. His backing by evangelical Christians – a religion that gains most adepts in Brazil – should not be neglected either. Some commentators compare Bolsonaro to Trump, because of his sexist, racist and radical claims. But he is an even more serious threat to democracy, since he explicitly defends the intervention of the Army to solve Brazil’s economic, corruption and security issues.

As it often happens in Brazil, the course of the campaign will play a major role on voters’ decisions, and on the following strategies to be taken by candidates towards their competitors. So far, the elite-level has played alone. However, as the advertising period officially starts, the public enters the scene. Candidates have their own expectations. They will adapt their moves guided by how the public responds. For instance, Lula envisages to transfer his support to Haddad. But how likely is he of succeeding it, considering the disappointment of some voters with his previously-sponsored candidate, Dilma Rousseff? Haddad also displays a very different profile from Lula’s, so to what extent will he be able to incarnate his master?

Jair Bolsonaro, Ciro Gomes and Marina Silva will invest hard on non-traditional channels of communication, since their available time on traditional media is extremely limited. However, so far, all of them have failed to expand their party-support base, and they have somehow been hostage to the moves of dominant players, PT and PSDB. Furthermore, it is not only funds and traditional media advertising that matter, but also local and regional networks of party-support. Presidential runners rely heavily on the other candidates within their party coalition, like contenders for national and state legislatives. Equally important is the size and scope of locally elected officials (mayors and councilors), who play a vital role in gathering support to their party’s nominee. Large and older parties have an advantage on the field.

Intense use of social media and internet tools is expected. Nonetheless, more than 60% of the population still relies on television to get information about candidates. If access to the internet has significantly expanded, the percentage of households possessing it is still smaller than in other countries, reaching only 57.8%. Considering that the median voter is typically not interested in politics, and that social media tends to reinforce opinions, rather than make people change their minds or fact-check, undecided voters will be more exposed to the candidates that appear more frequently on their TV screens. Contenders’ online initiatives are more likely to consolidate their existing support, rather than broadening it.

Democracy is not only made by people’s will, after all. This is particularly true when citizens are not engaged in politics beyond electoral cycles, given that it allows more room for decisive moves to be exclusively taken by elites, lacking transparency and accountability. In Brazil, although the scenario is rather chaotic, this elite has been able to decide a crucial portion of the game: the rules under which elections will operate, and the offers to be presented to the public. At this stage, key elements do privilege the establishment and bigger parties, over new-comers or challengers.

Finally, any designated president will need to engage in complex negotiations with the elected parliament. Even if Brazil chooses someone who promises drastic changes, politics can’t be conducted otherwise with roughly the same legislators in place. More than 80% of the members of congress will be running for reelection. Little can be expected if congress and senate don’t change considerably, since they will be crucial for the arrangement and governing capacity of the next government. Latest electoral rules and the resulting distribution of campaign resources make it more likely that this will be the case, and that the legislative composition will not change substantively. Let’s wait, hope and see.

Photo: Reuters/Rodolfo Buhrer