Jair Bolsonaro has almost done it in the first round of voting. Democracy is paving the way for an autocrat — a path that he might take to victory in three weeks. Brazil is headed toward the abyss, warns Francis Franca.
After four years of national crisis, voters on Sunday squandered the chance to start a new chapter of Brazil's history. They sent precisely the two candidates who most polarize the population to a runoff election, thus aggravating the country's problems still further.
With 46 percent of votes, the right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) has all but won the presidential elections in the first round of voting. In second place with 29 percent is the former mayor of Sao Paulo, Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers' Party (PT). Haddad stood as candidate in place of the popular ex-President Luiz Inacio da Silva, nicknamed Lula, who is sitting in prison for corruption and barred from running.
Fake news and fanaticism
This election result is, in large part, thanks to misinformation. The pollsters were badly informed and mostly wrong in their predictions. They underestimated Bolsonaro and overestimated the traditional parties as well as — most crucially — the effectiveness of television advertising in the election.
Because, in fact, voters primarily got their information via social media this election cycle, especially from WhatsApp groups. Moderate views and substantial debate were swallowed in a wave of fake news and fanaticism. In the end, very few voters were well-informed in making their decision.
It's not as if the Brazilians had no choice. With other candidates in the runoff election, the country would have had a real chance of calmer times. But voters opted instead for a confrontation between ideological opponents. Radicalism is also an option in a democracy.
This election says a lot about the Brazilian people's inconsistency. On the one hand, they want to fight corruption, but then they flirt with authoritarianism just as the fight against corruption begins to make real progress. They want to finally get past the economic crisis, but decide in favor of candidates who will have massive difficulties forming a coalition government with a parliamentary majority.
This serious crisis in Brazil has emerged from a mixture of factors that have been festering in society since 2013. That year, millions of people took to the streets to protest corruption, increases in fares on public transport and the construction of expensive stadiums for the World Cup.
Conservatives without a candidate
Traditional Brazilian politics failed to respond credibly to the diverse and sometimes diffuse protests, losing voters' trust. The political center first became lost in the struggle over the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff and then supported the government of the unpopular President Michel Temer. And now it has failed to nominate a candidate who could appeal to conservative voters.
The center-left, in turn, collapsed with the candidacy of Lula, Brazil's most beloved and simultaneously most despised politician. For a long time during its election campaign, the leftist PT was narrowly focused on the ex-president and presented him as a victim of legal and political persecution — even after his barring from the election was virtually a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, defending Lula damaged the left-wing camp, as a majority of the votes for Bolsonaro are actually votes against the PT.
The incompetence on the right as well as the left drove voters into the arms of the populists — populists who openly stand for authoritarianism, racism, homophobia and misogyny. With seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, they have won over a broad range of voters whose attention span is up to no more than reflecting on a short post on social media. Voters who, first and foremost, take pleasure in their own prejudices.
Given the outcome of the first ballot, all signs suggest that right-wing populism will emerge victorious in the runoff election on October 28. If the consensus on shared values is so weak in this society, what chance do democrats have against populists?