Brazil between the first and sec­ond rounds of gen­er­al elections

On Octo­ber 2, Brazil­ians went to the bal­lots to vote for pres­i­dent, state gov­er­nors, sen­a­tors, as well as fed­er­al and state rep­re­sen­ta­tives. In the pres­i­den­tial race, the cen­ter-left-wing for­mer pres­i­dent Lula da Sil­va from the Work­ers Par­ty (PT) received 48% of the votes, where­as the incum­bent far-right-wing pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro from the Lib­er­al Par­ty (PL) obtained 43%. Accord­ing to opin­ion polls on the eve of the elec­tion, around 50% of vot­ers declared they would vote for Lula and around 35% for Bolsonaro.

Apart from the nar­row­er mar­gin of dif­fer­ence between Lula and Bol­sonaro, the fact that can­di­dates for gov­er­nors, sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives sup­port­ed by and sup­port­ing Bol­sonaro per­formed well above what the polls pre­dict­ed has sur­prised actors from pol­i­tics, acad­e­mia and the media. In São Paulo, Bolsonaro’s can­di­date for gov­er­nor, who occu­pied the sec­ond place in the polls, received 42% of the votes, while the PT can­di­date (whom polls pre­dict­ed would take first) achieved 37%. In the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, Bol­sonaro sup­port­ers respec­tive­ly achieved 59% and 56% of the votes for gov­er­nor – which means they have already been elect­ed as the Brazil­ian elec­toral sys­tem only demands a sec­ond round when can­di­dates for exec­u­tive offices receive less than 50% of the votes.

For the sec­ond round of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, Bol­sonaro is count­ing on the sup­port of his tri­umphant can­di­dates for gov­er­nor in these three states, which are the three most pop­u­lous and wealth­i­est in the coun­try. In the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Bol­sonaro in fact emerged from the first round with more votes than Lula. Lula, in turn, gath­ered sup­port from the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates who end­ed up in the third and fourth places: Simone Tebet from the Brazil­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Move­ment (MDB) and Ciro Gomes from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Labor Par­ty (PDT).  The elec­toral map of Brazil shows that Bol­sonaro won more votes than Lula in the rich­er south­ern, south­east­ern and cen­tral states of the coun­try. On the oth­er hand, Lula had an advan­tage in the North­east and North of Brazil. For exam­ple, in the city I live and teach, Sal­vador, cap­i­tal of the north­east­ern state of Bahia, Lula obtained 67% of the votes and Bol­sonaro only 24%. This geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion of votes between, so to say, the left and right is, per se, not a nov­el­ty in Brazil – it has been con­sis­tent since the ear­ly 21th century.


What is, how­ev­er, nov­el is the tec­ton­ic replace­ment of neolib­er­al forces – which, since the ear­ly 1990s fol­low­ing the re-democ­ra­ti­za­tion and the enact­ment of the new con­sti­tu­tion, have occu­pied the niche of the right – by the forces of Bol­sonaro and the polit­i­cal con­stel­la­tion around him that has been called Bol­sonar­ism. Those neolib­er­al forces were inter­nal­ly het­ero­ge­neous but grav­i­tat­ed around the Par­ty of Brazil­ian Social-Democ­ra­cy (PSDB), found­ed in the late 1980s by for­mer oppo­nents of the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. PSDB ruled the coun­try from 1995 to 2002, with PT as the most impor­tant con­tender in the 1994 and 1998 elec­tions, while the lat­ter won the elec­tions between 2002 and 2014 with PSDB as their main con­tender. Since the 2018 elec­tions, how­ev­er, Bol­sonaro was able to present him­self as the polit­i­cal hege­mon with­in the field of the right and to gal­va­nize this lead­er­ship position.

Bolsonaro’s pro­pa­gan­da is based on an engi­neered fear of the tri­umph of ‘evil’.

The broad­er region­al divide pre­sent­ed above goes hand in hand with oth­er divides such as income and reli­gion. Like PSDB can­di­da­cies before, Bol­sonaro has more sup­port than Lula among the mid­dle and upper class­es nation­wide. Addi­tion­al­ly, Bol­sonaro draws sup­port from most Brazil­ian evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians – a reli­gious seg­ment spread across dif­fer­ent church­es that has con­sis­tent­ly been grow­ing over the past four decades in the coun­try. Unlike the first group, the lat­ter is main­ly com­posed of peo­ple with low­er incomes.
Through the hands of pas­tors aligned with Bol­sonaro, evan­gel­i­cal church­es have worked as con­vey­or belts for Bol­sonar­ism among the poor­er, even though this income group pre­dom­i­nate­ly votes for Lula.

Bolsonaro’s pro­pa­gan­da based on an affect of fear par­tic­u­lar­ly res­onates with­in these groups. This sen­ti­ment is, first and fore­most, an engi­neered fear of the tri­umph of ‘evil’. Unlike in Europe or in the Unit­ed States, the issue of immi­gra­tion, which is often used for right-wing pro­pa­gan­da, is vir­tu­al­ly inex­is­tent in Brazil, mean­ing that threats to the integri­ty of the nation are above all con­sid­ered to be inter­nal. This ‘evil’ is rep­re­sent­ed by the umbrel­la con­cept of ‘com­mu­nism’ prop­a­gat­ed by Bol­sonar­ism. This con­struct rests on and nur­tures a moral pan­ic accord­ing to which the het­ero­sex­u­al fam­i­ly is in dan­ger of dis­so­lu­tion by a so-called ‘gen­der ide­ol­o­gy’ that seeks to turn young kids gay while Chris­tian­i­ty is under assault by ‘dev­il­ish’ prac­tices such as athe­ism or Afro-Brazil­ian creeds. ‘Com­mu­nists’ also attempt to engen­der unnec­es­sary divi­sions with­in the nation by address­ing the Brazil­ian colo­nial past of slav­ery, con­tem­po­rary racism and the lega­cy of the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship of 1964–1985.

Brazil­ian elites have opened a Pandora’s box. 

More­over, ‘com­mu­nist’ defense of social and eco­nom­ic inclu­sion and pro­tec­tion threat­ens mer­i­toc­ra­cy, that is, the sur­vival and advance­ment of the smartest and most hard-work­ing peo­ple. The mid­dle class­es, in par­tic­u­lar, have come to resent the empow­er­ment of the poor dur­ing the PT terms from 2003 to 2016: eco­nom­i­cal­ly in terms of access to goods and ser­vices as well as sym­bol­i­cal­ly due to the large expan­sion of high­er edu­ca­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties. The under­ly­ing mean­ing of the anti-PT mot­to ‘I want my coun­try back’ is that this access to goods, ser­vices and high­er edu­ca­tion should remain a priv­i­lege of a white elite – a claim that is a strik­ing exam­ple of what Aníbal Qui­jano calls the ‘colo­nial­i­ty of pow­er’. Entrenched in a dis­course pro­duced by a coali­tion of media, par­ti­san agents of the judi­cia­ry and the oppo­si­tion in Con­gress that equat­ed PT with cor­rup­tion, the Brazil­ian mid­dle and upper class­es took to the streets in 2015 and 2016 to demand the impeach­ment of Work­ers Par­ty pres­i­dent Dil­ma Rouss­eff, which came to fruition in August 2016. As oth­er schol­ars and activists in Brazil, I des­ig­nate this event as a par­lia­men­tary coup: the twist­ing of legal pro­ce­dures to serve ille­git­i­mate ends. The charges against Rouss­eff did not evince any crimes, yet the pres­i­dent was nonethe­less removed from office.

By under­min­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions in this man­ner, Brazil­ian elites have opened a Pandora’s box and the coun­try has sub­se­quent­ly had to deal with the beasts that emerged there­from. In line with the inter­na­tion­al trends, pol­i­tics with­in the Brazil­ian right-wing spec­trum has turned into anti-pol­i­tics under the lead­er­ship of an author­i­tar­i­an fig­ure. This has brought lies, con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and emo­tions to the fore. In 2018, Bol­sonaro embod­ied the anti-PT can­di­da­cy in a polit­i­cal atmos­phere adverse to the Work­ers Par­ty. In 2022, in con­trast, after almost four years of strik­ing incom­pe­tence, dis­as­trous mis­han­dling of the COVID pan­dem­ic lead­ing to over 680,000 deaths, brutish state­ments includ­ing high dos­es of misog­y­ny, and wide­spread impov­er­ish­ment of the mid­dle and low­er class­es, it seemed that his author­i­tar­i­an affront to democ­ra­cy would be more eas­i­ly coun­tered. Polls have appar­ent­ly been unable to grasp the ulte­ri­or moves of Bol­sonar­ism, i.e. to cap­ture the unde­clared, silent vot­ing ten­den­cies of those who have learned in the past few years that ‘any­thing is bet­ter than hav­ing PT back to pow­er’. After almost four years in pow­er and upon hav­ing re-struc­tured the field of the right in Brazil, Bol­sonar­ism has, to some extent, become polit­i­cal­ly nor­mal­ized and social­ly more ingrained. The Brazil­ian right has final­ly found a mass leader, one very dif­fer­ent from PSDB’s elit­ist intel­lec­tu­als and tech­nocrats. These are some lessons that we can learn fol­low­ing the first round of the elec­tions in Brazil. If Bol­sonaro is elect­ed for a sec­ond term, he will be able to fol­low the steps of Vik­tor Orbán in Hun­gary and Recep T. Erdoğan in Turkey by chang­ing legal rules and rolling back democ­ra­cy – a process in line with what the Bre­men Research Group has called “soft author­i­tar­i­an­ism” – espe­cial­ly as he would have a large major­i­ty in both hous­es of the con­gress. The sec­ond round will take place on Octo­ber 30 and, in between, demo­c­ra­t­ic forces should make every effort to iden­ti­fy and learn from fail­ing to counter these new dynam­ics among the population.


Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri

Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri is a professor at the Department of Sociology and at the Graduate Program of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) in Brazil. He is one of the leaders of PERIFERICAS – Research Group on Social Theories, Modernities and Colonialities.