Brazil: A Presidential Choice Reflects the Country's Political Divide

4 MINS READOct 8, 2018 | 18:58 GMT
The Big Picture

With their country still dealing with the effects of a deep economic recession and beset by a wide-ranging national corruption scandal and rising crime, Brazilians voted in the initial round of national elections on Oct. 7, sending populist presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro into a runoff. Bolsonaro, who has promised to root out corruption and tackle crime, will advance to an Oct. 28 runoff against Workers' Party president Fernando Haddad, who finished in a distant second.

What Happened

Social Liberal Party presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro has advanced to a runoff in the Brazilian presidential election, where he will face Fernando Haddad of the Workers' Party. With 46 percent of the vote, Bolsonaro, who campaigned on a populist platform and promised to root out corruption and improve public security, fell just shy of the 50 percent threshold required to win the election outright. Haddad captured 29 percent of the first-round vote in which 73 percent of eligible voters participated — a normal for Brazil, where voting is compulsory.

Opinion polling shows the potential for a tight race between the two candidates in the deciding round. The Oct. 7 result suggests a strong shift among Brazilian voters to the more conservative, populist Bolsonaro, who presented himself as a political outsider. Haddad, whose Workers' Party was in power as the 2014 Lava Jato corruption scandal broke and the 2015-16 recession hit, performed well in the same states and regions where his party previously was strong, such as in northeastern Brazil. However, in the southeastern and central parts of the country, voters overwhelmingly swung toward Bolsonaro. Contenders such as the environmentalist Marina Silva and leftist Ciro Gomes each drew a relatively small share of the initial-round vote, reflecting the sharp polarization in Brazilian politics.

There is little difference in the positions staked out by Bolsonaro and Haddad on foreign policy and broad domestic economic policy. Bolsonaro has advanced an ambitious proposal to privatize state assets, but — just like Haddad — his ability to implement any domestic agenda will depend on how he manages the divided Brazilian Congress. The Oct. 7 results left Brazil's Senate heavily fragmented, with no political faction holding a strong plurality. The party currently in power, the Democratic Movement of Brazil, captured 12 of the 81 seats in the Senate and will form its largest bloc. In the 513-seat lower house, the largest bloc will be held by the Workers' Party, with 56 seats; the Social Liberal Party is just behind with 52.

What's Ahead

The runoff battle between Haddad and Bolsonaro will be decided on the strength of voter turnout, specifically those who had backed more centrist and leftist candidates in the first round. Bolsonaro's positions have drawn concern from the aforementioned voting segments. He has advanced this far thanks to his promises to root out Brazil's endemic corruption and crime, popular ideas among a public that has witnessed plenty of both. But his anti-crime policies are unpopular among the left and Bolsonaro's alignment with the agricultural lobby concerns the country's environmentalists.

No matter who wins the Oct. 28 runoff, the result could send dissatisfied voters to the streets. Thanks to Brazil's deep political divide, results of a close election would likely generate accusations of voter fraud from the defeated candidate's followers. In such a scenario, demonstrations could be expected in major cities, although there is a chance they could also occur in smaller cities as well.

One key for Bolsonaro, if he wins election, will be how he proposes to carry out his plans to deepen existing corruption probes or create new anti-corruption mechanisms. Anti-corruption legislation would have to clear Congress, where it could be delayed due to the political horse-trading that occurs between every administration and in Brazil's heavily divided Congress. It will also be important to see how he decides to implement his crime-fighting proposals. His suggestions, such as reducing the age of criminal responsibility to 16 or deploying more military and police to combat crime in poor neighborhoods, run the risk of political division. However, Bolsonaro's general proposals appear to be generally positive for Brazil's investment climate, given his focus on improving security, rooting out corruption and generally continuing the outgoing administration's pro-business policies.

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