Election preview: Brazil runoff

Brazilians return to the polls on Sunday for the second round of the presidential election. Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro led by 16.7% in the first round, three weeks ago, and although that gap may narrow, it is hard to see him losing.

His opponent, Fernando Haddad, has been hampered by the corruption scandals surrounding his centre-left Workers Party, as well as a general impatience with it after 14 years in office. No opinion poll has shown him less than five points behind Bolsonaro; most put the margin in double digits.

Even more than the obvious comparison with Donald Trump, Bolsonaro is reminiscent of the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte: an authoritarian with no respect for law and a hankering for violent suppression of his enemies, real or imagined. But Brazil is much more powerful than the Philippines, so the thought of where someone like that might take it is deeply disturbing.

The election itself is straightforward; it’s a single nationwide ballot, albeit a big one. More than 117 million people voted in the first round, and the runoff will probably be similar. Official results should appear here from late Monday morning, eastern Australian time (in Portuguese, but it’s not hard to get the gist).

Regular readers will be familiar with my constant refrain that electoral systems matter. Elections are not unmediated expressions of the popular will – indeed, there is no popular will, only individual wills, and the way they are aggregated matters a great deal. We know how the archaic electoral system of the United States contributed to the rise of Trump; is there a similar story in Brazil?

Interestingly enough, Bolsonaro seems to have been able to imitate Trump despite a different electoral system. Brazil has a standard two-round system, with nothing resembling the electoral college (or, for that matter, the Philippines’ single-round plurality system). But he has been able to ride the same wave of populist resentment and desire for change.

A common theme is the complicity – one might say the obliviousness – of the ordinary loyal centre-right voter. Millions of Republicans in the United States, not themselves in any way Trumpists, voted obediently for Trump because he was their party’s candidate. Party loyalty prevented them from reflecting too hard on the suitability of its choice.

The same is happening in Brazil, but without the rigid party system. Most voters identify with “left” or “right”, and they line up behind the candidate who seems best placed from their own team. All too few of them scrutinise that candidate’s personal qualities.

The multi-party environment does at least mean, however, that Bolsonaro is not likely to be able to control Congress as easily as Trump has. His badly misnamed Social Liberal Party will have only 52 of the 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and four seats out of 80 in the Senate; other centre-right and centrist parties will probably provide a majority for most purposes, but may not be willing to do everything the new president wants.

Whether or not this is a real consolation is hard to say. It means that a Bolsonaro presidency will not have complete power, as long as it stays within the bounds of the constitution. But an effective check by Congress may simply encourage Bolsonaro to follow his natural instincts and dispense with constitutional government entirely.

This is the big difference from the US, and it’s why Brazil is so worrying. The institutions of American democracy, frayed and imperfect though they are, are still strong enough to withstand all but the most determined frontal assault. It would take a more able antagonist than Trump to drag the country into dictatorship.

Brazil has no such assurance. The current period of civilian government is only 33 years old, and no-one can say how much more time it might have left.

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