Brazil’s 2018 General Election

Published on 19 October 2018

Paulo Teixeira da Costa

Postgraduate Researcher

After long months of doubts and concerns about its feasibility, it has eventually happened. The first round of the Brazilian presidential race took place on the 7th of October 2018. A race that started with the top poll candidate Lula da Silva, being incarcerated, and ended with his rival Jair Bolsonaro stabbed on the campaign trail.

Despite all these events, on the first Sunday of October, 117,364,560 Brazilians went to the polls. It is an impressive number even though this election saw the highest rate of abstention in recent Brazilian history, 20.3%, which amounts to almost 30 million people resisting the mandatory vote.

It was a two level general election. Both the executive and legislative for the National and regional offices were on the ballot. Representatives from more than 30 different political parties won a seat in the elections, leaving the national assembly as scattered as ever. This however was an expected outcome of the results.

Two unexpected results

There were however two results that were decidedly unexpected. On the left, the Worker’s Party (PT) came through as the largest party at the Commons despite all the challenges it has faced over recent years. On the right, few predicted that the far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro would take such a high proportion of the vote in the first round, with Bolsonaro Social Liberal Party (PSL) taking 46% of the vote.

The outcome of the election can be considered a partial victory for the Worker’s Party (PT). Their candidate Fernando Haddad will go to the second round with 29% of the vote, making them the largest and most influential leftist party in Brazil. This means that, even if they lose the presidency to Jair Bolsonaro, they will lead the opposition in the Congress.

For Bolsonaro it was a massive victory. His party, that in 2014 had only one elected congressman, has now 52 seats in the Commons and is set to take the reins of power in Brazil. The outcome of the first round gives Bolsonaro a chance to build a coalition with other parties that will allow him to implement the ultra-liberal reforms that he has been promising. Before the election, he was seen as a lone wolf. Not anymore. Now, his pack is formed.

Who lost the elections?

There is no doubt, the centre-right parties that pushed the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 where the big losers of this election. They were replaced by Bolsonaro’s party as the primary force of the right in Brazil. The old centre-right parties, especially the party of President Temer (MDB) and the Social Democrats (PSDB), are no longer the favoured representatives of Brazilian elites. Instead, just 2 years after the impeachment of Rousseff, they have shrunk into mid-size parties with relatively little power in the Commons.

In the Commons, in rough terms, the left has a little bit more than 1/5 of the seats, the right another 1/5, and the centre, composed of dozens of mid-size parties not formally articulated but generally liberal, has a little less than 3/5. At the High Chamber of the Brazilian Senate, the political spectrum has remained more centre-right.

Despite this virtual equilibrium, one of the distinctions between the right and left in the Commons is that within the right-wing parties, there are more novice MPs. Among Bolsonaro’s party for example, 49 out of 52 are newcomers to politics. Many of these rookie MPs have come from law-enforcement corporations other public institutions such as the Judiciary, the Army or Police Forces. Many campaigned with a strong anticrime agenda, not necessarily following Bolsonaro`s own economic reform message.

At the other end, the leftists are mainly comprised of experienced politicians with decades of parliamentary experience. This might give a distinct advantage to a strong opposition coalition in building an efficient parliamentary strategy.

At the centre, who usually present themselves as the “guarantors of governability”, little has changed. They have already declared neutrality on the second round and seem to be ready to support anyone who wins, as long as the new incumbent properly manages the same old political incentives historically used by Brazilian presidents to rule.

A new party, lots of new political players, and a great deal of uncertainty towards many old governmental challenges. In the end, no matter your opinions about the final results, The 2018 elections can be viewed as another step on the long learning curve of democracy. What Brazil needs and has always needed is space to think, a forum to debate and regular free and fair elections.


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