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Brazil election: Headed for autocracy?

October 7, 2018

After a surreal election campaign, once-booming Brazil is voting for a new president. Amid economic crisis and corruption scandals, a new societal divide is looming on the horizon.

Combo photo of Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad

No one can know where Brazil will be headed when the country's new president takes office in January. The election's outcome has been difficult to predict for some time. Five candidates were once competing to qualify for a run-off vote on October 28. Now, it looks like it may be a head-to-head race between ultra-right former military officer Jair Messias Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, the candidate for the leftist Workers Party (PT).

"It's a little more foreseeable now, but still not decided," political scientist Sergio Praca from the Getulio Vargas foundation in Sao Paulo told DW.

For months, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who served from 2003 to 2010, was the clear frontrunner in the polls. But the former folk hero, better known simply as Lula, is barred from running by the courts after being jailed on corruption charges. Lula and his supporters say he is the victim of a political conspiracy by the right.

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Bolsonaro, who was largely unknown until two years ago but is now leading the polls, was also absent from the campaign trail in the final run-up to the vote. He has been in intensive care for weeks after a knife attack during a rally last month. Bolsonaro says he was called by God to lead, and won't accept defeat. He has expressed support for Brazil's brutal former military dictatorship and has even suggested the military could intervene in the event of his defeat.

German journalist Alexander Busch, who has been reporting from Brazil since 1993, says he has never experienced a candidate expressing views that veer so far from democratic norms. "Until now, there has always been a democratic consensus," he said.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Until he was barred from running, Lula was the clear frontrunner in the electionImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Peres

Political upheaval

This turbulent campaign is the culmination of the chaos that began during the last election in 2014. The country underwent an economic boom in the mid-1990s, but by 2014 Brazil was dogged by rampant corruption involving its largest private companies, state-owned enterprises and politicians from almost every party. It remains to be seen who will ultimately survive the Operation Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) anti-graft investigation politically and legally.

Read more: Brazilians struggle to escape violence in Rio de Janeiro

The most prominent victim to date has been Lula. In mid-September, his deputy Fernando Haddad took over the PT candidacy and inherited his votes.

Bolsonaro has scored points with his supporters by arguing that Lula is responsible for Brazil's corruption and economic woes. He claims that PT wants to transform the country's government into a system resembling Cuba. PT argues that Bolsonaro wants to reintroduce the military dictatorship.

Sao Paulo: Fernando Haddad at a campaign rally
Haddad took over the PT candidacy after Lula was barred from runningImage: picture-alliance/AP/A. Penner

'Hostile' atmosphere

At women-led mass protests late last month, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the country made it clear that a victory for Bolsonaro, who has often expressed homophobic, racist and misogynistic views, was unacceptable. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro's supporters have gone so far as to claim that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had been a left-wing movement.

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Bolsonaro is the main culprit to blame for the country's deep divisions, in political scientist Praca's view.

"The people are aggressive and hostile towards each other," he said. "And not only polarized — after all, there has always been polarization in Brazilian politics, such as between the PT and the center-right parties PSDB and PMDB. But what is new is the aggressiveness — and that comes from Bolsonaro."

Jair Bolsonaro
Praca: Bolsonaro is to blame for the deep divisions in Brazilian society during the campaignImage: SWR

Economy in crisis

Brazil's economy, one of the world's largest, contracted by 8 percent between 2014 and 2017. Millions of jobs were lost and the country found itself in crisis. And yet, the economy was hardly discussed during election campaign, said Busch, who covers Brazil as a DW columnist.

Brazil "is worse off than Argentina in terms of its budget deficit and domestic debt," he explained. "The risk is that both Haddad and Bolsonaro will downplay the problems."

Neither side is conveying the seriousness of Brazil's struggling economy, Busch said. "The country is not racing towards the abyss, but is constantly moving towards it."

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The current debate is limited to whether PT's spending policies or the right-wing opposition's parliamentary sabotage is ultimately to blame for the misery. In any case, Lula's political protege Dilma Rousseff did not survive the crisis and was overthrown in a 2016 soft coup on behalf of her own coalition partners.

Dilma's impeachment still dominates the PT discourse, but it "doesn't have much influence in the elections," Praca said. "Lula's arrest, however, does, because it was more polemical."

The result of this ideological trench warfare, said Praca, is that all sides "are full of hatred."

Protest over burning of the National Museum in Rio
The loss of the National Museum in Rio sparked protests in the streetsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Izquierdo

History lost for good

While right-wing circles are already dreaming of Brazil's militarization under Bolsonaro, left-leaning intellectual circles feel stricken in the face the far-right's rise.

A symbolic low point was the fire at the 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro last month, when part of Brazilian history literally went up in flames.

Despite the tragic loss of countless artifacts, political scientist Marco Aurelio Nogueira cautioned against blaming it for Brazil's charged atmosphere.

Read more: Brazil museum fire a loss 'for the whole world'

"The museum fire has a symbolic power, but one should not interpret too much into it," he told DW. "Brazil has not caught fire, it doesn't melt. But we are in the midst of collective blindness and indignation, and seriousness and moderation have no place at the moment."

Nevertheless, Nogueira believes that things will ultimately quiet down after the election. "When the dust has settled, the moderates will return to the stage in the next term," he said. "At least to extinguish the fires and mediate among the survivors."

Museum fire turns history to ashes