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Brazilian voters wanted change — and they got it. Now what happens?

- October 10, 2018
Voters from the Rocinha favela wait for polling stations in Rio de Janeiro to open on Oct. 7. (Marcelo Sayao/EPA-EFE)

Brazil’s financial markets enjoyed a bump on Monday, but the country’s troubles are far from over. Sunday’s election took place after record-setting corruption scandals, rising public insecurity, the country’s worst recession in history, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and an unpopular cleanup by her unpopular successor, Michel Temer.

The top two presidential candidates were on opposing poles — on the right, the Social Liberal Party (PSL) leader Jair Bolsonaro claimed 46 percent of Sunday’s votes; on the left, Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad trailed with 29 percent. Short of a majority, Brazilian electoral rules call for a runoff round, so the Brazilian president and 14 governor races will be determined Oct. 28.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/19/is-brazils-presidential-front-runner-jair-bolsonaro-the-latin-american-donald-trump-nope/?utm_term=.92b4036d6d87″]Is Brazil’s presidential front-runner Jair Bolsonaro the Latin American Donald Trump? Nope.[/interstitial_link]

To call the Oct. 7 elections for president, state governors, and federal and state legislators eventful is an understatement: 13 state governors achieved first-round majorities, there was a huge turnover in the national legislature, and many longtime politicians lost their jobs and the legal protections that go with them.

Here are key takeaways:

1. Brazilians are fed up with the political establishment

After seven terms in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, Bolsonaro rose from congressional backbencher to presidential contender atop a widespread rejection of Brazil’s politicians. Bolsonaro’s success on Sunday effectively ended the duopoly between the left PT and the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the main presidential contenders in every Brazilian election since 1994.

The PSDB candidate garnered only 5 million votes on Sunday (4.8 percent), in stark contrast with the 51 million it amassed in the 2014 runoff loss. The third-place finisher in the last two elections, Marina Silva (from the center-left Rede party), managed only 1 percent. The catchall party MDB, Temer’s party, got just 1.2 percent. The center-left Ciro Gomes came third with 12.5 percent of the vote.

2. Brazil has perhaps the world’s most fragmented legislature

The legislature saw an even greater purge. The Senate will be filled with political newcomers, as only eight of 33 senators up for reelection made it. Many prominent power brokers — including seven members of Temer’s MDB, the current president and vice-president of the Senate, and influential PSDB and PT politicians — did not get reelected.

Over 53 percent of the Chamber of Deputies turned over, the highest rate since 1994 with the PT, PSDB and MDB suffering the largest losses. Many of the newcomers are from small parties in the right. Bolsonaro’s PSL grew from one deputy to the second-largest party with 52 legislators (10 percent of seats in the lower chamber).

A record number of parties (21 versus 16 in 2014) were elected to the Senate, while the Chamber will now have 30 parties (up from 28 in 2014 and 16 in 1994). This will certainly make governing harder for Brazil’s next president. Prominent Brazilian political scientists have declared the post-authoritarian political system “dead” or “collapsed.”

3. Regional cleavages remain strong

The election results show the continuing polarization of Brazilian politics. Bolsonaro surged on the right by denouncing the left and PT as a criminal organization that plundered the state, defending the legacy of Brazil’s authoritarian regime, fiercely rejecting redistributive and identity-based politics and disregarding democratic norms while offering a hardline approach against crime. The PT doubled down on preserving former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s legacy and did not publicly acknowledge its share of the blame for Brazil’s current crisis, or let go of its chokehold on the left side of the political spectrum.

Haddad rose rapidly in the polls when he was anointed as Lula’s successor when the electoral courts barred the former president from running following his arrest on corruption charges. But fear of the surging Haddad further boosted Bolsonaro. As a result the remaining candidates are also the ones with the highest rejection rates by other voters.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/05/brazils-most-popular-politician-lula-wont-be-on-the-october-presidential-ballot-heres-what-comes-next/”]Brazil’s most popular politician, Lula, won’t be on the October presidential ballot. Here’s what comes next.[/interstitial_link]

This polarization overlaps with Brazil’s historical north/south cleavages. Bolsonaro carried 2,848 municipalities in 17 states in southern and western Brazil — areas that traditionally have been more developed. He won markedly in the states that score higher in the Human Development Index, such as Santa Catarina (where he took 65 percent of the vote).

Haddad won only nine states — eight were in the northeast, a relatively less developed region that had heavily supported the PT in the recent past. This reignites a debate about whether the PT’s recently acquired northeastern base supports them because of steady partisan and policy-based linkages like cash transfers — or whether Brazil’s poorer voters continue to reward charismatic strongmen who exploit links to federal resources to fund local patronage machines. Unsurprisingly, historical negative stereotypes of the region have resurfaced.

These socio-economic divisions also occur within states. Preliminary analysis by Fernando Meireles shows that municipalities with higher proportion of poor voters picked Haddad. While this relationship held across Brazil’s regions, a higher proportion of these municipalities are in the northeast.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/02/think-all-the-political-excitement-in-brazil-is-at-the-national-level-think-again/?utm_term=.9ee91ae73f26″]Think all the political excitement in Brazil is at the national level? Think again.[/interstitial_link]

4. We can’t be sure, but things will likely get worse before they get better

Short of an epic comeback, Bolsonaro will likely win the runoff, in part because he is a closer ideological alternative to the anti-PT center-right vote. Bolsonaro has also fed off popular frustration by attacking the legitimacy of Brazil’s formal and informal democratic institutions, using social media to challenge the media, question the neutrality of election authorities and the integrity of the country’s electronic voting system.

The recipe for a Haddad victory would necessarily involve a grand coalition to combat Bolsonaro’s authoritarian bent. To do so, Haddad would need support from parties on the left of center as well as the center-right — the candidates the PT has attacked harshly. It’s not impossible, but Haddad would have to make serious concessions to persuade these party leaders to now join him.

There’s little indication of what a Bolsonaro government would look like. He has no previous executive experience and a neophyte party. Following an assassination attempt on the campaign trail, he sat out presidential debates. In his absence his vice-presidential candidate, a retired army general, suggested a Fujimori-style autogolpe.  Though Bolsonaro recently disavowed these statements, he has an established history as a illiberal democrat.

Economic recovery is important to Brazilians, but Bolsonaro has an unpredictable relationship with his main economic adviser. Whoever wins on Oct. 28 will have to deal with pension reform, a rigid cap on public spending and address other fiscal matters left by the Temer government — but also restore the public’s faith in their government, following four years of scandals and political upheaval.

Jorge Antonio Alves is assistant professor of political science at Queens College, CUNY. Follow him on Twitter @jaalves11.