Election preview: first round Brazil

Possibly the year’s most important election starts this Sunday (Monday in Australia), with the first round of the Brazilian presidential election, plus elections for congress and for state governors and legislatures.

Brazil matters. It is on any measure (area, population, wealth) the biggest country in South America and the eighth-largest economy in the world. Do not be misled by its almost total absence from our television screens.

As has become sadly common, the election will take the form of a last-ditch stand against authoritarianism. The Trumpier-than-Trump contender for the presidency is Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme nationalist and open admirer of military dictatorship. If he wins – and he has a very real chance – it will make the world a much more dangerous place.

The presidential election is a standard two-round system. No candidate will win a majority on Sunday, so the top two will contest a runoff three weeks later, on 28 October.

The contrast with last year’s French election is interesting. There, the first round was a matter of serious doubt, with four candidates quite evenly matched. But (despite some breathless media commentary) there was never any doubt that Emmanuel Macron would win, provided he made it to the runoff.

Brazil is the other way around. Although there are 13 candidates, we know who the top two will be: Bolsonaro, who took over the old Social Liberal Party, and Fernando Haddad, from the Workers’ Party. But the second round contest between them is still very much in doubt.

The Workers’ Party has won the last four presidential elections: in 2002 and 2006 under Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, and in 2010 and 2014 under his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff. (You can read my 2014 preview for some of the background.)

Lula’s two terms in office were generally seen as very successful, and he remained popular, despite major problems of cronyism and corruption. But things started to go downhill badly under Rousseff, and less than half way through her second term she was impeached and removed by a hostile congress.

Her replacement, former vice-president Michel Temer, is a centrist with little power base of his own; he is not seeking re-election. The traditional centre-leftright opposition, represented by the Social Democracy Party, has failed to make up much ground: its candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, will fight out third place with Ciro Gomes from the centre-left Democratic Labor Party.

In the meantime, Bolsonaro’s populist campaign against corruption and traditional politics had gained significant traction. In the face of such a challenge, the Workers’ Party turned again to Lula, still at age 72 the country’s most popular politician, and endorsed him to run for a third term. (Presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but non-consecutive terms are unrestricted.)

Lula, however, was no longer a free man: he had been caught up in a comprehensive investigation of corruption and jailed for 12 years for accepting a bribe. His supporters were probably quite right to think that he was no guiltier than the rest of the country’s political class, but after some debate he was ruled ineligible to stand.

The Workers’ Party endorsement instead passed to Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo and by all accounts a moderate centre-left politician – without Lula’s charisma, but also without much of his baggage.

On his shoulders now rest the hopes of Brazilian democracy. Bolsonaro’s poll ratings climbed a month ago when he was stabbed at a campaign rally, and he is set to lead by several points in the first round. But hypothetical polls for the runoff are much closer; if anything, Haddad seems to have a slight edge. (The Portuguese Wikipedia has the best compilation.)

Again the comparison with France is instructive. Not only was Marine Le Pen much less of a chance than the media claimed, but there was also confidence that the institutions of French democracy were strong enough to survive even had she won. No-one is nearly so confident about Brazil, whose experience with democracy (apart from brief intervals) dates only from the mid-1980s.

The danger that Bolsonaro poses is clear, and there are signs that Brazilians are waking up to it. Sunday will set the scene for the decisive contest.


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