Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. (2010-2013)
October’s presidential elections in Brazil continue to be a vast enigma, ever volatile and replete with contradictions. The frontrunner, the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will probably not stand, blocked by a judicial conviction sentencing him to 12 years in prison for corruption.
The other favourite, but currently with only half of Lula’s voting intentions, is Jair Bolsonaro, the ultra-rightist former Army captain who is pretty much against everything except gun possession – antiLula, anti-system, anti-gay and against human rights.
In the middle stands the Brazilian electorate of 115 million voters, whose decision on October 7 (with the run-off scheduled for October 28) will define the fate of the South American giant for the next four years.
If indeed they do reach a decision, because the social climate in Brazil at present does not favour politicians. The main candidates have negative ratings of around 50 percent. Thus in a March 4 opinion poll by the CNT/ MDA (National Transport Commision), Bolsonaro was rejected by 50.7 percent of Brazilians, Lula by 47 percent and the Rede Sustentabilidade party’s Marina Silva (ecologist/ leftist) by 54 percent. But all fall well short of the Olympic champion of rejection – current President Michel Temer, who a few weeks ago was flirting with the idea of running. He did well to have second thoughts – 88 percent reject him as a candidate, even more than those who disapprove of his administration, 83.6 percent, the worst figure in Brazilian history.
However, such aversion toward the candidates is not the only unusual ingredient in this pre-electoral period. Fifty-two percent, over half of those surveyed by CNT believe Lula to be guilty of corruption while 37.4 percent consider him innocent. But when the question is whether or not Lula should be a candidate, 52.5 percent think that he should go to jail and not stand, but 43.3 percent say that he should make a presidential run – even if guilty.
What is the explanation for that electoral loyalty to Lula, even when considered guilty? Apart from his 2003- 2011 presidency, he has been a presidential candidate ever since 1989. Furthermore, some analysts trace this devotion to Lula to the hopes accompanying his 2002 electoral victory which today, in the face of the indignation felt by Brazilians against politics and corruption, seem only pinned on him.
According to the pundit Mauricio Moura, of IDEIA Big Data, candidates appealing to this sense of indignation, like Bolsonaro, only stand a chance if Lula (the candidate of hope) does not run. To that should be added the factor that the Lava Jato (Car Wash) graft scandal has placed the three major parties of Brazil – the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party, social democrats), the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement, centre) and the PT (Workers’ Party, leftist) – on the same playing field, one drenched by corruption, creating room for outsiders or the candidates of minor parties.
And that’s where Bolsonaro fits in. His campaign rhetoric is based on two themes – that he himself is an outsider and that crime is a national emergency, one which needs to be fought with energy and with guns (which is why his parliamentarians have been labelled the “machine-gun caucus”).
As for his campaign, for now Bolsonaro is not staking his political bets on television, the arena where candidates have usually gone to seek popularity. He has a head start, he is already a very well-known figure after taking full advantage of the main vehicle of transmission amid the political chasm of mass indignation – social networks and WhatsApp.
Brazil has the third-highest number of social network users in the world with 120 million Brazilians communicating via WhatsApp, dedicating a daily three hours and 40 minutes on average to going online. Meanwhile, interest in TV has fallen – and it falls even further when campaign spots appear on the nation’s screen. In the 2008 campaign, electoral programmes reached peaks of 25 points of rating – last year they fell to five points. The majority today thus follow the campaign on their mobile telephones, giving an enormous advantage to Bolsonaro and perhaps (why not?) to the fake news emanating from Russia. The CNT poll’s voting simulations for the run-off show Lula winning in every scenario, but if Lula cannot run, Bolsonaro beats every candidate in the head-to-head: Marina Silva, Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB) and, of course, Michel Temer.
However, this poll also shows that in every run-off simulation without Lula, spoiled or blank ballots claim the majority of the votes (between 40 and 52 percent), underlining the massive indignation of the electorate with politics. And it also shows that Lula’s voters cannot be transferred to another candidate.
Could Bolsonaro end up being the preference of Brazilians by default? A friend of mine from Rio de Janeiro sent me a message of warning recently: “Don’t forget that his second name is Messias.” An ominous sign indeed. Could the extremist Jair Messias Bolsonaro really be the next president of Brazil?
With indignation off the scale and with these opinion polls, God only knows what awaits us.