Is There a Way Out of Brazilian Political Manichaeism?

7 de Setembro 2021 (Belo Horizonte, Brazil). Source: Matheus Camara da Silva via Unisplash

The date, 2 October 2022, is set. The clock is ticking. And preparations for the next Brazilian general election will soon be underway. As of now, polls show incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva as the front-runners.

But they also reveal another important figure: rejection rates and a call for change. Both candidates are very divisive figures who muster support by instigating fear about the other. If a legitimate challenger were to arise and defuse the Lula-Bolsonaro dichotomy, they could be well-positioned to prevail.

The Prevailing “Lesser of Two Evils” Logic

Since the end of Brazil’s military regime in 1985, the only real political movements that stand out are Lulismo and Bolsonarismo. Both are personalistic movements based on a belief that their leader is the only one who can defend one side of the political spectrum against the other. And their leaders mirror that belief with a Messiah Complex.

Both groups are very antagonistic. Hardcore Bolsonaro voters echo their candidate in portraying Lula as a ‘communist demon’ eager to turn Brazil into “the next Venezuela.” Hardcore Lula voters, conversely, depict Bolsonaro as an aspiring totalitarian and borderline fascist leader who serves the Brazilian elite.

Vote intentions for the first round of the 2022 Brazilian General Elections. Source: Exame

The reason why the two candidates stand so far ahead of the pack right now is that both leaders possess a very fierce, loyal, and noisy core of voters. As of January 2022, that core group of voters represented 34% and 20% for Lula and Bolsonaro, respectively, per a poll promoted by EXAME/IDEA.

But above all, both groups are resorting to the same strategy to foster their candidate’s support: Tactical Voting.

Under its current voting system, Brazilian presidents are elected by a simple majority. If no candidate receives enough votes for a majority in one round, a run-off between the two best-performing candidates takes place.

In that scenario, Brazilians who are unsatisfied with the two already front-runners, are nonetheless encouraged to take one of them into the run-off, as they are convinced that the chances of their preferred candidate making it past the second round are seemly slim to non-existent. Thus, many voters are cajoled into settling for what they regard as the lesser of two evils.

There is an opening: high rejection rates

Lula being deposed by judge Sergio Moro during a trial related to Operation Car Wash on 10 May 2017. Source: Rede Brasil Atual

Choosing the lesser of two evils is, however, something that Brazilian voters are increasingly unwilling to do, as rejection rates and desire for a third-way candidate are high across Brazilian society.

In terms of rejection, a poll made by Data Folha in December 2021 suggests that 60% of the population dislike Bolsonaro. Lula fairs better, but with a still elevated 34% rejection rate. Regarding a desire for change, non-stimulated polls, when voters are not given a list of opinions, reveal that many voters have currently not decided who to vote for. As of January 2022, 25% of voters claimed to be undecided, and 12% said that they would not vote for any of the currently available options.

Such rejection rates for both figures are understandable. On the one hand, Lula’s administration was beset by corruption scandals that led many of its former ministers and, later, even Lula himself to be jailed (read our analysis here). Lula is now free, but around 57% of Brazilians believe that his arrest was warranted. Additionally, there is no way to dissociate Lula from his less successful successor, Dilma Rousseff, who inherited Lula’s unsustainable economic growth model based on public debt.

Bolsonaro delivers a speech to its supporters, some of whom called for military intervention. Source: G1

The Bolsonaro administration, on the other hand, faced its own set challenges, ranging from corruption scandals involving allies and the president’s sons, three of which are also politicians, along with economic and sanitary mismanagement during the pandemic. The sitting president has also had to deal with the backlash from always being in ‘campaign mode’.

From the beginning of his term, Bolsonaro has sought to appease its core group of supporters by attacking groups that these supporters saw as enemies. In particular, the president has picked fights against key figures in the legislative, the judiciary and issued inflammatory speeches against opposition groups. While this tactic yielded little result expanding its base of supporters, it has eroded the president’s popularity to such an extent that he is no longer capable of promoting any reform in the country, even if he wanted to.

The time is, therefore, ripe for a third way to materialize. Right now, polls indicate that alternative candidates could win against Lula or Bolsonaro in a run-off. The issue is indeed making it into that run-off.

If not them, who?

Terceira via? Doria, Ciro Gomes e Sergio Moro participam na corrida eleitoral de 2022
From left to right, João Dória, Ciro Gomes and Sérgio. Source: Exame

There is no obvious challenger to the Lula-Bolsonaro dyad. Other relevant political figures do stand out. But there are three problems yet to be overcome by whoever wants to receive the presidential sash.

The first is fragmentation and infighting amongst potential candidates. With rejection rates of Lula and Bolsonaro on the rise, many potential candidates smelled blood and flocked to launch themselves as viable presidential hopefuls. This includes João Doria, the governor of the state of São Paulo, Ciro Gomes, a former finance minister and congressman, and Sergio Moro, the judge who was in charge of Lula’s arrest. Together, these three candidates account for 22% of voting intentions, about as much as Bolsonaro’s.

However, all these candidates are fighting for the same group of disillusioned voters, making it harder for any of them to mount a viable campaign for making into the run-off. Such division plays right into a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy promoted by the two front runners.

The second challenge faced by potential challengers is to build a coalition strong enough to support their campaign. In Brazil, important elements of a political campaign, such as television airtime and public funding are determined by the strength of the coalition of political parties that a candidate has in its support. The more parties you have in your favor, and the stronger they are within the parliament, the more money and exposure you get.

Unfortunately for these candidates, Brazil’s political constellation is made up of a nightmarish patchwork of 24 parties, most of which have no fixed alliances or ideology, who have resources and reach to help with the aspirations of presidential hopefuls. The problem is that, with only one year left before the vote, there will be little time for a third-way candidate to stand out and gather enough support from these non-pledged parties.  

In conclusion, both Lula and Bolsonaro have never been weaker. Their rejection is high and their survival is directly linked to the perception that the two are the only available options. However, there is no obvious challenger to their supremacy as of now. And, if one arises, it will be a tough uphill battle.

  • Can any one candidate gather consensus and stop the fragmentation of a third-way?
  • Will there be enough time for a third-way candidate to muster enough support and make it to the run-off?
  • How would Lula and Bolsonaro react to the rise of a challenger?

Suggested Readings

Fuks, Mario, Ednaldo Ribeiro, and Julian Borba. “Antipartisanship and political tolerance in Brazil.” Revista de Sociologia e Política 28 (2021).

McKenna, Elizabeth. “Taxes and tithes: The organizational foundations of bolsonarismo.” International Sociology 35.6 (2020): 610-631.

Samuels, David, and Cesar Zucco Jr. “Lulismo, petismo, and the future of Brazilian politics.” Journal of Politics in Latin America 6.3 (2014): 129-158.

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