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Why is Brazil becoming politically radicalized?
On Sunday 7 October 2018, Brazilians will go to the voting booths to elect their next President, Vice President, and National Congress. With the far-right and leftist candidates vying for President, how is it that Brazil has become so politically radicalized?
In recent years, politicians and institutions in Brazil have been losing respect. The ongoing political and economic crisis that Brazil has been experiencing since 2014 could have been a catalyst for towards reforms for democratic consolidation. However, Brazil’s radicalized political climate points towards a democratic decline.
Surveys reveal the current lack of confidence Brazilians have in their institutions. One such survey shows only 25% of citizens trust their federal government and less than 18% trusts the National Congress.
The current historical discrediting of democratic players and institutions in Brazil indicates a disillusion of Brazilians in their democracy. This disillusionment coincides with the presidential elections being held on October 7th this year, making them the tensest and the most unpredictable elections since the democratization of Brazil. Amid political tensions, the "politics of disillusionment" increasingly dominates the campaign for the presidency of Brazil.
The politics of disillusionment in Brazil has a central feature: the electorate has little expectation that politicians and institutions will respond to their everyday issues. In this context, anti-system politicians have the potential to be victorious. In these elections the politicians who are managing to tap into the voters’ disillusion with politics are leading the race for the presidency of Brazil.
This dominant dynamic of voter distrust of the political establishment increases the possibility of voters electing anti-system candidates in the 2018 presidential elections. Under this logic, the candidates with the anti-system agenda and discourse such as the far-right Jair Bolsonaro or the former leftist president currently imprisoned for corruption, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, have been the main leaders in this year’s elections. Despite the considerable differences in ideological and political trajectory between these two politicians, both candidates adopt an anti-system discourse.
As candidates at the extremes of the ideological spectrum successfully use an anti-system strategy, voters are more divided than ever between those extremes. Until the Brazilian Electoral Tribunal disqualified the candidacy of Lula da Silva a few weeks ago, the candidates with the highest poll figures were Lula himself, with approximately 37% of those surveyed, followed by Bolsonaro with 18%. Ironically, these two candidates also maintained the highest percentage of rejection among the voters, Bolsonaro with 37% and Lula with 30%.
How do candidates exploit voters’ disillusionment? Bolsonaro uses anti-system rhetoric in an attempt to capitalize on the voters' frustration with political corruption and the growing violence in Brazil. Bolsonaro, with his homophobic, misogynistic and racist statements, focuses his campaign on specific platforms. Platforms including the reduction of the minimum age of criminal responsibility, the universalization of the right to bear arms, the defense of the death penalty, the elimination of racial quotas at public institutions, among others. His assertions in defense of dictators and authoritarianism, such as "The error of the dictatorship [in Brazil] was torturing and not killing" and "Pinochet should have killed more people", have become a constant in his speeches.
Also following the anti-system path, but focusing on fighting the alleged political persecution of the anti-corruption initiatives of the Brazilian judiciary, Lula regularly attacks democratic institutions. Lula’s victimization discourse also makes clear the lack of any concrete proposal to change the current context of crisis that grips Brazil. In a video used in his electoral campaign, he emphasizes his victimization tactic: "I am an innocent and judges attempt to prevent this innocent man from once again making a good government for Brazil".
Undoubtedly, these elections are unusual. Beyond the successful anti-system strategy, there are other peculiarities. The first being that approximately 30% of voters remained undecided at the beginning of the campaign. Although the number of undecided vote is quickly declining, this is the highest number of undecided voters in the last seven presidential elections.
Adding to the uncertainty, another anomaly is the banning of Lula to participate as a candidate in the elections due to corruption charges, which creates uncertainty about his capacity to transfer votes to his deputy, Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo. Based on a recent survey by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE), Lula has not managed to transfer his 37% of vote intention to his deputy, and Hadadd is currently left with an estimated 23% of the votes.
Finally, Bolsonaro suffered a politically motivated assassination attempt just 30 days before the elections, marking a new precedent of political violence in Brazilian presidential elections. This episode highlights the negative consequences of radicalization in Brazilian politics.
The current politics of disillusionment in Brazil leaves little space for reforms and changes towards democratic consolidation. In the current climate the success of Brazilian politicians depends increasingly on the radicalization of politics, which condemns Brazil to an almost inevitable democratic decline.
Helder Ferreira do Vale is an associate professor at the Graduate School of International and Areas Studies (GSIAS) at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.