Brazil’s Election in the Shadow of the Impeachment


Earlier this month the final deadline arrived for political parties in Brazil to register their candidates for the presidential election in October 2018. The official launch of candidates allows us to discuss more concretely the political forces and players that will be shaping the election. It means that coalitions, alliances, and vice-president choices have taken place. So we asked, what can be said about the first candidates leading the polls? What are the main political forces underlying this election?

The Brazilian political landscape has been extremely polarised since the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. If the left-right dichotomy has recently been considered blurry or outdated, in Brazil one can argue that, due to the impeachment, this dichotomy has a new face, with the coup winners on one extreme and the coup losers on the other.

The nuances between right and left on the political spectrum have largely been overshadowed due to this dichotomy, with one side leading a moral crusade for a clean and corruption-free country and the other side highlighting the ongoing attack on democracy. The political mayhem reached its peak with Lula’s trial and conviction in April, which has led to a great deal of uncertainty over this period (see recent Lula’s Op-Ed from prison in the NYT).

President Termer may have been able to “keep the markets calm in” throughout such political instability, but Brazil’s economic recovery has been weaker than expected, hardships for many families have increased (see IBGE indicators for increases in income inequality, poverty, unemployment and insecurity) and the country has just set a new record for homicides at 63,880 deaths in 2017, with violence against women also increasing. There is a lot at stake in this election.

What’s new

The political alliances forged resulted in a strong centre-right block supporting Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB) [1]; a medium to weak left block supporting Lula (PT); and weak far-right block supporting Jair Bolsonaro (PSL).

Despite an important alliance with Manuela D’Ávila (PCdoB, far-left), the PT failed to capture other expressive far-left parties and even the centre-left candidate Ciro Gomes (PDT, centre-left), while Ackmin forged a broad nine-party coalition with the “centrão” [2], which assures him great political party funding, and Bolsonaro forged a political alliance with an inexpressive far-right party.

Alckmin’s choice of vice-president (Ana Amélia of centre-right PP) reflects a sharp turn to the right for the party. The PP has a long tradition of being led by conservative politicians and economists, and has generally enjoyed close support from both the military and the Evangelical bench. One could argue that in a multi-party system like Brazil, such an alliance may not have much ideological meaning since the PP has formed political alliances with both Lula and Rousseff in the past, but it is notable that Amélia was one of the pro-impeachment frontline figures. Given the country divide over the impeachment, the PSDB choice seems to target voters who have a strong pro-impeachment view. Further, this turn to right poses challenges to far-wing candidate Bolsonaro.

Lula’s choice for vice-president, Fernando Haddad, is a clever attempt to put in place a candidacy that gives the PT some room for manoeuvre given the unclear situation regarding Lula’s future. As for now, the United Nations Human Rights Commission officially requested that the Brazilian government allow Lula to run for president and access the media and members of his political party until his appeals before the courts have been completed in fair judicial proceedings.

On one hand, it seems that the PT is maintaining Lula’s candidacy for the presidency so that he can use the campaign as a defence strategy against the accusations that weigh against him. Lula’s defence will try to reverse the conviction on the grounds that there is no evidence against him, and will use legal strategies to keep him in the electoral contest through different appeals and injunctions. On the other hand, as Lula’s vice-president, Haddad will be able to participate in the electoral debates, have greater TV time and travel the country with Lula. This might be able to help increase the votes for Haddad as president, which is currently predicted to be around 4%. If Lula will likely be barred from running by an electoral court due to the so-called clean slate law, this strategy is ideal for the PT, as in that case Haddad would ultimately become the presidential candidate with Manuela D’Ávila as his vice-president.

The poll

Following the polling institute DataFolha [3], we plot two scenarios, the first with Lula and the second without Lula. The poll shows five big players in this election: Lula, Bolsonaro, Marina Silva (REDE), Ciro Gomes and Alckmin. In both scenarios, the dispute is between far-right candidate Bolsonaro and centre to centre-left options, Lula or Marina.

It must be mentioned that in the second scenario Bolsonaro, who openly cheers dictatorship and publicly insults women, people of colour and homosexuals, leads the elections by a large margin among men, young voters (16-24 year-olds), the next age group (24-35 year-olds), college-educated individuals, and households with relatively high income.
Screenshot 2018-08-24 at 15.54.39.png

The main political forces

The outcome of this election is harder to predict than usual. Looking beyond the polls, we see four main political forces shaping this election: centre-left Lula, a progressive band with Ciro Gomes and Marina Silva, centre-right Alckmin, and far-right Bolsonaro.

Lula has moved away from an alliance with far-left parties. However, the historical conditions that allowed the PT broad class alliances in 2002 are no longer existent or possible. Thus, the only way to guarantee a left and strong candidate in the second-round is if Lula manages to pass his voters to Haddad in the next two months. Then, we may see a configuration of a strong left block.

Lula’s campaign is likely to be based on both his defense, as mentioned above, and challenging the legal basis for Rousseff’s impeachment. This seems to be a plausible strategy considering his faithful supporters (Lula’s Northeast base), and the undecided groups that, despite not being PT supporters, are sceptical about both the anti-democratic turn Brazil has taken and the social and economic deterioration of the economy in the last five years. Part of the strategy is corroborated by the DataFolha polls showing that 32% of interviewees believe that Lula is the most prepared candidate to “accelerate the growth of the economy”, as against 15% for Bolsonaro.

Ciro Gomes came out weakened after the political alliances forged in early August. Buttressing a centre-left project for the country, he aims to go after PT’s voters, but in reality, his resistance to forge an alliance with the PT left him with a small space in the national media to strengthen his candidacy. Further, his previous association with the PT moved him away from the centre-right, but public statements such as “Brazil does not need, and cannot endure, a leftist government” and his choice of vice-president, Kátia Abreu (MDB), prevented him from allying with the far-left. As a lawmaker and also a land baron, Abreu has continuously taken pro-agribusiness positions, against workers in this industry. She is strongly disliked by social movements and environmental groups close to either the left or the PT.

Moving to the right of the spectrum, but keeping within a progressive box where Ciro Gomes belongs to as well, we have Marina Silva. Marina is the only candidate with a green agenda, but her campaign is mainly based on a conservative rhetoric of moral goodness, with a strong Evangelical stance. She is known for her progressive pro-environmental views and her conservative social views (being opposed to both abortion and gay marriage, for example). In the past, when pressured, she opted for alliances with parties with a clear pro-market agenda and conservative views in social matters. This imposes a limit to the number of voters she can swing from the PT in the next two months. Both Ciro Gomes and Marina Silva’s potential to swing either to centre-right or left will certainly add more tension to the second round where their choice of alliances will have the power to tip the scale of the election.

On the centre-right, we have Alckmin, the candidate of the ruling class, especially the wealthy class from the state of São Paulo. Alckmin has actually been considered the candidate of the centre, and his politics underlines “the pacification of social extremism”, but his political alliances, DEM, PP, PR, PRB and SD, known as the “centrão”, are all of centre-right political orientation, some of them with a strong Catholic stance. Despite representing a party tainted by scandals over corruption, Alckmin, with a moralising rhetoric about democracy, has promised to “give back the stolen dignity of the Brazilian people”. Posing no challenges or changes for Temer’s government and economic policies, Alckmin’s centrism pleases both the financial markets, including international investors in Latin America’s largest economy, and the traditional media, as argued here.

Finally, there is Bolsonaro who, despite leading the polls, is isolated politically. After switching parties and struggling to form political alliances, he ended with a [military] vice–president as extreme as him, and a coalition party (PRTB, far-right) that will not have much to add to his candidacy. He has neither political party funding nor great TV/radio time. Yet, Bolsonaro is the main right-wing candidate, bringing together the military, which is probably the most trusted institution in Brazil today, and sectors of Brazilian society that have openly called for a military intervention to end corruption in the country and crack down on criminals, amongst other things. Bolsorano also counts on the support of newly formed right-wing groups, such as MBL (Free Brazil Movement), Revoltados On Line (On Line Rebels) and Vem Pra Rua (Let’s hit the Streets) [4].

With the risk of oversimplifying, Bolsonaro’s success in the polls can be understood by bearing in mind two points. First, his extremist views over many social issues and lack of political support are overshadowed by the decline in support for democracy and increasing support for the military in Brazil since the impeachment, see here. Second, his pro-market agenda, with a strong de-nationalisation and de-regulation take, makes him a candidate that does not scare the financial markets. It is very difficult to predict which party would accept a possible alliance with Bolsonaro in the second round of the election. He will most likely remain isolate politically, despite his large electoral support.

Final comments

The latest DataFolha poll has Lula rising to 39% predicted votes, against 30% last June. This would mean his election as president without a second-round runoff. For this reason, candidates are very likely to increasingly use the country divide over Dilma’s impeachment and Lula’s arrest in an attempt to win voters. See, for example, former PSDB president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s Op-Ed in the Financial Times. This is a dangerous manoeuvre, as it has spillover effects on the right-left wing debate and social movements more broadly, which in turn fuels political violence and persecution in the country. See, for example, the increase in killings of social, indigenous and environmental activists since the impeachment, especially in rural areas, and the brutal murder of Marielle Franco, a 38-year-old activist and rising political star known for defending Rio’s black, LGBT and favela communities.

In general, the next two months will now witness sensitive topics strengthening this political landscape (and its tensions). For example, the privatisation of Petrobras will certainly weigh on the electorate’s voting behaviour, especially after the truck drivers’ strike last May. Other topics such as corruption, crime and violence, agenda for minorities and abortion will most likely be watersheds in this election as well.

This reminds us that this election is unique, and will be historically remembered, not only because of the sorry state of democracy in Brazil and the divide between coup winners and coup losers, but also because of a reactionary wave that Brazil, like many other countries around the globe, is going through right now. Human rights are under threat in this country. So does the very short attempt to create a welfare state in an economic reality where poverty and highly skewed income distribution are still serious issues.

Brazil may take a huge backward step, economically and politically, depending on the outcome of this election. As the moral crusade against corruption has not meant a qualitatively and structural change, the political regime in Brazil has been accentuating its reactionary and authoritarian traits.


[1] The acronym in brackets refers to the political party of the candidate. Please, refer to annex for a complete list of the parties mentioned and their respective abbreviations.

[2] “Centrão” refers to small centre-right parties that do not have strong candidates but together represent one-third of the Deputies in Brazil, so they can assure good electoral resources and greater TV/radio time, which make them the “desired object” in Brazilian politics.

[3] Period: 21-22 August 2018. Candidates who did not reach 1% of voting intentions were left out of our tables.

[4] Both the newly formed right-wing groups and the call for military intervention came into existence after the Rousseff’s impeachment.

Annex. Partial List of Brazilian Political Parties
Party Abbreviation Party Abbreviation
Brazilian Democratic Movement MDB Party of the Republic PR
Workers’ Party PT Communist Party of Brazil PCdoB
Brazilian Social Democracy Party PSDB Brazilian Republican Party PRB
Progressistas PP Solidariedade SD
Democratic Labour Party PDT Brazilian Labour Renewal Party PRTB
Democrats DEM Sustainability Network REDE

Thanks to Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven and Feyzi Ismail for helpful comments. All remaining errors are my own.

Carolina Alves is a Joan Robinson Research Fellow in Heterodox Economics at University of Cambridge, the U.K.

Photo: São Paulo – Political demonstrations against corruption in then President Dilma’s government. (Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil)

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