Let’s Talk Politics: Conversations on Brazil’s Elections

Tara Ghandour

Ina Kim

Ina Kim

On October 28th, the Brazilian people will elect one of two candidates to become president of the country. The runner-up, Jair Bolsonaro, is far scarier than any Halloween costume you could think of. Member of the Social Liberal Party (don’t let the name fool you), the retired military Captain has been spearheading the rise of the Brazilian far-right with an anti-establishment campaign centered around neo-nationalism, traditional values, law and order, economic isolationism and privatization of business. In addition, Boslonaro plans on cutting back affirmative action projects, paving a highway that cuts through the Amazon, reigning in on social programs, rolling back LGBTQ advances, and maintaining the whopping 23% gender pay gap. Finally, he is known for his (often untrue) incendiary remarks and his populist type speeches. Sound familiar? They don’t call him the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ for nothing.

This fascist-sympathizing candidate comfortably advanced through the first round of elections that took place on October 7th. Earning 46.2% of the vote, Bolsonaro considerably surpassed the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, Fernando Haddad, at 29.1%. If Bolsonaro is the Donald of Brazil, Haddad is the Hillary. Undoubtedly experienced in the political arena, Haddad is nevertheless hindered by the tainted legacy of his party. The PT’s rule, spanning from 2002 to 2016, is universally recognized as a series of bribery accusations and political blunders. Indeed, Operation Car Wash was arguably the biggest corruption scandal in history, causing the arrest of the unilaterally beloved former President Lula da Silva (in office from 2003 to 2011) and the impeachment of his successor, President Dilma Rousseff (in office from 2011 to 2016). The fall of Petrobas directors also led to the economic crisis of 2014-2016, with the worst recession the country had ever seen.

Haddad was also impeded by his late entrance in the race. It was not until August 31st that the Brazilian court officially barred former President Lula Da Silva from participating in the 2018 elections from prison. This then gave Haddad only a few months to start campaigning and take Lula’s place in the race. In a recent poll, the Datafolha Research Institution asked participants who they would vote for in the hypothetical situation that Lula could run. Lula received a score of 39%, followed by Bolsonaro’s 19%. The same question was asked for a hypothetical wherein Lula could not run. This time, Bolsonaro led with 36% followed by Haddad’s meager 22%. One explanation for this is Brazil’s love for Lula rather than the PT as a whole. President Da Silva was cherished for his populist persona and his championing of the lower class.

All things considered, this election represents a pivotal moment in Brazil’s history. Determined to gain more insight into this remarkable event, I went hunting for fellow Wesleyan students who could educate me. I came across three brilliant, and brilliantly informed, Brazilian peers: Letícia Cardoso (Class of 2019), Lucas Eras Paiva (Class of 2021), and Maya Karp (Class of 2019). Through our conversations, they were able to elucidate the situation on the ground in Brazil, all the while offering insightful comparisons between our president and Brazil’s president-to-be.

Rather than ramble on about topics I have only read about in the news, I thought it better to highlight the opinions of these three students who have experienced the turmoil of this election firsthand. I have organized their thoughts below, bringing together quotations based on themes I noticed in all three discussions with Maya, Leticia, and Lucas.

Economic reasons people may vote for Bolsonaro:

Leticia: One reason people voted for Bolsonaro is the economy—a lot of Brazilians are economically liberal and they felt Bolsonaro was the only candidate that represented that sincerely.

Maya: There was this myth that uneducated people voted for Trump. This is the same in Brazil. And in Brazil there is this idea that people voting for Bolsonaro are uneducated. But, the truth is that there's an economic elite that's voting for him because they're so afraid of the PT and its socialist tendencies affecting and further depressing the economy. So, they are one issue voters because Bolsonaro says that he's going to fix the economy and they think to themselves, “Well, maybe we need that strong hand to fix the economy, and that’s the lesser of two evils.”

There is a large portion of society that feels alienated. In Brazil, there were many upper class citizens who felt that they were unfairly taxed. This idea of lesser of two evils is very shocking to me, as someone who bases vote off of moral and ethical values, whereas other people have other priorities. Some people are simply one-issue voters.

Leticia: When I see educated people voting for Bolsonaro, that’s when I feel that people don’t care about a better country and they just want to keep their privilege. I think it’s the only explanation that I can find.

Maya: For educated people, the focus is on the economy. It’s simple, rich people want to stay rich.

Lucas: In Sao José, my city, there’s a very famous university called ITA. It is a military university so most people there are going to vote for Bolsonaro. I talked to one of my professors at ITA and he said that their reasoning is that it is better to face the danger of Bolsonaro who can potentially become a full-blown fascist because at least there is the possibility that we are going to improve economically. It’s worth the risk for them.

Leticia: Brazil has been in such economic and political chaos that for Bolsonaro supporters, the fascist risk is one worth taking.

The PT’s corruption and Bolsonaro’s anti-establishment appeal:

Maya: This anti-establishment character [Bolsonaro] rose up in the ranks because, well, first of all, why does anti-establishment gain traction? Disaffection with the weak party system and frustration with the institutionalized corruption.

Maybe the 14-year tenure of the PT in the executive office was too long? Because there wasn’t an alternation, there was this backlash- people were tired of this establishment, tired of the PT.

Also, it's so easy to point a finger. It’s so easy to blame the PT for all the economic issues even if you're poor and even if you benefited from the short-term social policies of the party. The fact that all these corruption scandals erupted during their reign makes it seem as if it was on them even though we know that they're not the only corrupt politicians. Corruption in Brazil is institutionalized, it is part of the structure of the government. It doesn’t depend on the regime or the party in power. Corruption is a way of business in Brazil. In that sense, the PT politicians were victims of circumstance, victims of a tide of cracking down on corruption. It was collateral damage, the economy could have tanked with any other party in power.

Lucas: The reason I think Bolsonaro is going to win this second round is specifically because of the history of the PT. The Workers’ Party while Lula was in power was mostly a very good government. But then, you had Dilma and well, it was the worst thing ever. People just assume that Haddad would be like Dilma, another trainwreck.

Maya: People are so disillusioned by the political establishment, by the PT,  that they don't care about Bolsonaro’s fascist tendencies. Here is a parallel. People were really thinking that they were choosing the lesser of two evils during the US elections. Some people might have chosen Hillary as the lesser of two evils because she had more experience in politics and had more progressive, open-minded policies. But, some people despised Hillary because of her political dynasty and the Clinton established politics. It was frustrating because people were wondering why we couldn't get newcomers into politics and in that sense Trump was seen at the lesser of two evils. He was seen as a fresh start. People might not have been racist or misogynistic—they voted for him because they were fed up. It was irrelevant to his supporters that Trump showed support for authoritarian and even fascist leaders.

Leticia: But, we have to remember that Bolsonaro has been in Congress for a very long time, 26 years. What bothers me is that people say, “he PT has been in power for too long, we have to put a new face out there.” But Bolsonaro is definitely not a newcomer to politics. He has been in politics for so long and has made no significant change, actually voting for a lot of laws that were ineffective.

Overshadowing of other candidates:

Leticia: A lot of people associate the PT with corruption and they want to change the political landscape, which is understandable. But, they forget that there were other candidates that were way better than Bolsonaro.

Maya: Lula stayed in the election so late in the game despite the fact that it was very clear he wasn’t going to be able to run. No matter how much support he was able to garner, he’s still in jail. So, he hurt the chances of any other candidate outside of the PT to do well.

In that process of Lula being unrelenting and not giving up this hope to lead the country again, there were so many other candidates from other parties that were leftist moderate, that maybe would have gained more attention. All the media’s focus was on whether he [Lula] would be able to get out of jail and run and so no one was focusing on the other candidates. It took away from them.

Misinformation and impatience amongst Brazilians:

Lucas: Actually, Haddad was a really good mayor but people didn’t recognize that. For example, he decreased the speed limit of most highways in Sao Paulo. This decreased the number of accidents by a huge amount and decreased the overall commute time—that makes sense because less accidents means less traffic jams and shorter commutes. But, since they were seeing that sign that said say 60 kmph, people got angry and decided to go against it. This is just one example of something that he did right but people can’t even recognize that—a lot of people in Sao Paulo still criticized his government.

The role of social media: fake news or a tool for good?

Leticia: Brazilians use Whatsapp a lot, and there is a lot of fake news circulating on there- things so obscure that you don’t even see them on Facebook. And, people don’t take the time to investigate the sources and see that it’s clearly fake.

Lucas: It was interesting I had a conversation with a professor of mine about social media and its role in the US elections—social media was insanely important in aiding Trump to win. The professor asked me if I thought this was going to happen in Brazil as well. I told him that I had actually heard about Facebook execs saying they would change some Facebook parameters before the Brazilian election so that things like that wouldn’t happen. But, it’s still happening, just through other social media outlets. Whatsapp is so out of control.

Maya: These fears are unfounded, the PT is not a communist party nor do they wish for a communist republic—this speaks to the power of fake news.

Leticia: People keep saying that the PT is going to turn Brazil into a Venezuela. They were in power for 14 years and just look at us: we are not Venezuela, this is far from a dictatorship. It’s 2018 and people are still talking about communism? The communist threat is dead.

Lucas: I think there is a category of Bolsonaro voters that are simply uninformed or detached from the elections. And this is interesting because it opens up the possibility of converting the voters who are not thinking too much about the election to vote for Haddad. There are also some Instagram profiles that are screenshots of conversations wherein someone was able to convince a Bolsonaro voter to change their vote and vote for Haddad.

Actually, I had changed my overlay on my Facebook profile picture with a filter that supported Haddad. A friend of mine, who was planning on voting for Bolsonaro, asked me why he should vote for Haddad. I made very simple, reasonable arguments, and I was able to convince my friend to vote for Haddad. It made my day.

Communication and polarization:

Lucas: It is very unlikely and very faint but there is a slim chance that Haddad might win. We are seeing people changing their minds and that’s nice to see.

I also think that if Bolsonaro becomes president, there will probably be the same feelings as people had here of “What happened?” followed by the process of realizing that “Oh, we are also part of this problem because we didn’t talk to the Bolsonaro supporters; we were too mad at them to communicate and change more minds.” I feel like Brazil will just go through the same process as the US. It’s funny though because there is still that option of going the other way. An option of changing the path and not repeating the Trump fiasco, but once again, this is very unlikely.

Leticia: Actually, my mom and my grandma, they just go around talking to everyone in our community, especially the ones not very educated about politics. They explain why they shouldn’t vote for Bolsonaro in simple, relatable ways. You know, a problem I see in Brazil is that left wing people don’t know how to talk to the majority of Brazilians. They throw out a lot of information that uneducated people don’t care about, and it’s just not accessible to them. I think that’s why my mom is so successful when talking to people. She went to college, but she doesn’t pretend to be the most educated person in the world. She just talks to people about their real problems and what they are going to face on a day to day basis if Bolsonaro wins. My mom even convinced my grandma, who dropped out of school in the fourth grade, to vote for Haddad. Now my grandma talks to people that she knows, elderly people who didn’t finish their education, and she tries to convince them as well. So, I think how you go about approaching people is definitely a part of it.

People just believe what Bolsonaro says without researching it or fact-checking it. It’s up to us to talk to them.

Civil and human rights, machismo culture:

Leticia: Honestly, even women in Brazil are misogynistic—they see being feminist as something bad.

Maya: There was no consolidated civil rights movement in Brazil. So, although people may have a heart (hopefully), this idea that everyone should be allotted certain privileges is not as strong or as prevalent. This notion of rights was however instituted by the PT and a lot of people felt as if it was forced on them.

There is still this very strong culture of machismo in Brazil. It’s not shocking to see this backlash against the proliferation of progressive ideas that originated from the West about gender and sexuality. These notions really infuriate a machismo and Catholic tradition that is embedded in Brazil’s culture.

Leticia: Bolsonaro had also introduced to congress a proposition that said if a woman is raped then the rapist would be forced to take pills to become chemically castrated. But, rape is a culture. He doesn’t seem to realize that it’s just a superficial law that wouldn’t make anything better. Everything he tried to propose is very superficial but it works because it’s what people want to hear.

Global radical right trend:

Maya: We live in such an interconnected the world that one thing can embolden the next. Honestly, as much as we say America is in decline, America still has undeniable influence so, the actions taken here reverberate around the world. Trump’s election certainly empowered anti-establishment politicians from all over the word, especially in presidential systems. I am hopeful that it is a tide and the tide will run its course and end soon—unless it actually turns into a military dictatorship.

Leticia: I think this far-right trend is definitely global, but even Marine Le Pen, the leader of the radical right FN, said that Bolsonaro is too extreme. And that is crazy to me.

Lucas: I remember a while ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who is very right-wing. He said about Bolsonaro, “I don't think he represents the right wing, it is an extreme that is beyond what people from the right believe, even what people from the far-right may believe.”

Final thoughts:

Lucas: It’s really upsetting and it’s really hard to explain as well because it’s so multi-faceted. There is so much history that’s particular to Brazil, but there is also so much correlation with Trump that it makes it even harder to understand.

Maya: With this Bolsonaro situation and the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, I feel like I am a citizen of the two worst democracies—while it’s democracy in a lot of respects and I feel lucky to be a citizen, I am also so ashamed of where this democracy has taken us.

Lucas: It’s very sad. When I was in Brazil, I was watching the US elections and I was already sad and wondering what is happening. And it’s the same feeling again but it’s a lot worse because it’s our home this time.

Leticia: And, I also think it’s worse because Brazil is a developing country. If something goes wrong, it’s going to be really hard to get to that developing country status again.