Paul Nicoll: Uncertainty and confidence in the Brazilian election

Aug 14, 2022
(Brasília - DF, 24/04/2019) Pronunciamento do Presidente da República, Jair Bolsonaro.
Image: Flickr / Palaceio do Planalto

At this stage, it appears most probable that most will opt for Lula.

Here is the milieu:

  • A declining economy with more millions experiencing poverty and hunger;
  • An expanding state debt;
  • Severe reductions in expenditure on education;
  • Confusing and contradictory Presidential leadership during the Covid epidemic, contributing towards almost seven hundred thousand deaths;
  • Foreign investors reviewing risk investments of future capital allocations;
  • Difficult relations with most neighbouring countries;
  • Dramatically destructive environmental policies with international implications;
  • Support for mass armament of the population;
  • A hostile Constitutional Court; and
  • Lula, a popular opposition candidate who was a former President. Despite his popularity, many citizens are ambivalent about supporting him.

This is matched with government control of the Congress and a largely supportive Senate. Brazilians and the media categorise most congressional representatives as belonging to one or more of the following groups, called ‘Bala, Centrão ou Evangelico’. Translated this means that most members of Congress are associated with those who want fewer controls over weapons for personal use, are members of conservative rural parties, or are members of an evangelical church. Australia’s Prime Minister until defeat in the 2022 elections was a member of an evangelical church. Brazil’s President was raised a Catholic but was re-baptised in the Jordan River by an evangelical minister. Influence of evangelical churches is a surprising similarity between Australia and Brazil.

The above is the milieu for Brazil’s national elections in October 2022.

Similar with Australia, Brazil’s society is stratified although more so. For instance, the middle class is a smaller proportion of the population than in Australia, with most Brazilians being of far lower income. Recently I lunched with a group of middle-class Brazilians and, perhaps because I am a foreigner and without my inquiry, they communicated strongly and repeatedly their hope that President Bolsonaro would be defeated in the October 2022 elections. Most of this group of friends supported Bolsonaro in the 2018 Presidential elections. Change within four years is based on their strong criticisms of the President, and anxiety about his response in commemorations on 7 September, shortly before the elections, to highlight Brazil’s Bicentenary as a nation. Nationalism is a powerful force.

Three Letters About Democracy

The lunch followed three widely-read letters promoting democracy. The first was prepared by academics and students within the prestigious University of São Paulo. It was inspired by a letter prepared by earlier academics and students from the same University in 1977 during the military’s rule. The 1977 letter undermined the military government’s legitimacy and was a factor in the government’s weakening. Many members of the Brazilian political and economic elites supported the military government during its more than twenty years’ rule from 1964, but in the end the elites abandoned it.

The 2022 letter addressed similar themes to the 1977 document. It affirmed that:

“…. We call on all Brazilians to remain alert in defence of democracy and with the results of the elections. In Brazil at this time there is no space for a retreat into authoritarianism. Dictatorships and torture belong to the past. The solution to the immense challenges in front of Brazilian society is in the result of the elections. Civil vigilance is necessary against attempts to rupture….. democracy and the law’.

After its early August release, the letter quickly had hundreds of thousands of signatures. A principal motive for its release was President Bolsonaro’s criticism of the electronic voting system and direct and indirect threats to conduct a coup if he were unsuccessful in the October elections. The Ministry of Defence has supported him and accepted the Electoral Commission’s invitation to review computer codes of the voting system. The invitation is warranted although the military’s domination of electoral processes during the more than twenty years of dictatorship continues to cause apprehension.

An Electoral Commission supervises each federal election, and the Commission is directed by a senior Constitutional Court Justice. Successive Justices have affirmed the integrity of the voting system, and there has never been credible evidence that it lacks integrity or accuracy. An irony is that, before he became President, Bolsonaro was a member of Congress for more than twenty years, and he always communicated satisfaction with the electoral system. Some commentators observed that President Donald Trump was President Bolsonaro’s example. Just as Trump doubted the results of the US Presidential election, Bolsonaro doubts the integrity of the Brazilian equivalent, but before the latter occurs.

A few days after the above Letter for Democracy and the Law, President Bolsonaro issued his own letter supporting democracy. In his view, his letter showed that he supported the Legislature and Constitutional Court and did not threaten them. Many Brazilians doubt his affirmation. A reason is that – a few weeks beforehand – he invited a large group of ambassadors to a meeting. There the President attacked the electoral system’s integrity without providing evidence. His attack was an attempt to generate international support for unorthodox action after the October election. There is no information about how the ambassadors responded, but it is doubtful that he convinced them.

As we saw, the first letter was prepared by jurists and the second by the Executive. Additionally, industrialists in São Paulo decided that they must voice a defence of democracy, so that FIESP, which represents the State’s industries, published its “In Defence of Democracy and Justice’. São Paulo is the largest and richest city. The industrialists’ letter addressed similar themes to those in the jurists and students’ letter. It had a wider group of signatories, with a prominent one being the national organisation representing trade unions. Additionally, more than one hundred employer and social groups signed this third letter.

Previously the President accepted FIESP’s invitation to lunch with its leadership, then declined it after FIESP published its letter. Later, there were signs that he would lunch with FIESP. This uncertainty reflects his campaign’s questioning of industrialists’ support for his re-election.

Publication of three letters within little more than one week in defence of democracy indicates concern about the President accepting the results of the October election. As mentioned, São Paulo is one of the most important political centres and its economy is the largest of any State. Therefore, it appears as if many members of the political and economic elite have moved beyond questioning Bolsonaro to acting against him. Without the elites’ support, Bolsonaro must reply on the popular vote.

Uncertain Support by Low-Income Classes

One of the largest groups of supporters is the membership of evangelical churches. As in many other countries, inflation is rising and various surveys showed that there were more than 30 million citizens with inadequate amounts of food. Brazil is one of the largest exporters of grain and meat in the world, and for so many millions to exist in hunger is tragic and disgraceful. A significant number of these 30 million citizens are members of evangelical churches, so there is uncertainty about their voting preferences. To address concerns about poverty, the President has introduced a modest social security scheme which will provide cash to millions of the poor. However, there is no budget for the scheme’s continuation beyond early 2023. This awareness appears to be weakening the President’s support amongst the millions of low income and poor citizens who are affiliated with evangelical religions.

International Implications

Recently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military was in Australia for consultations with the Australian military and with military from regional countries. At the same time, the US Secretary of Defence was in Brazil for consultations with the Brazilian military and with military representatives from the region. The Brazilian economy dominates South America and its population is larger than the combined population of all Spanish-speaking South American countries. Its importance explains the visit of the US Secretary of Defence.

Brazilian foreign policy continues to uphold its three principles of:

  • national defence;
  • Independence; and
  • peaceful resolution of international conflicts.

These principles are the basis for the Brazilian Government to propose negotiations between conflicting parties in Ukraine. Until the time of writing, the Australian Government has not argued for negotiations in Ukraine. After discussions with the European Union, the President of Portugal visited Brazil in July to meet with the current and former Presidents. He sought to convince the Government to abandon its principled neutrality towards combatants in Ukraine and adopt the European Union’s policy and strongly criticise Russia. The Portuguese President did not succeed, and Brazil remains largely neutral on the conflict, while continuing to argue for negotiations and a ceasefire. The above three principles have also secured the country’s refusal to take sides in disputes between the US and China, unlike Australia which always take sides and has little grasp of the benefits of neutrality in international affairs.

Whoever wins the October elections, it is probable that the above three principles will remain the foundation of Brazilian foreign and defence policy. For the US, this foundation creates some uncertainty.

Between now and the October elections, more political and economic elites will communicate their support for either Bolsonaro or Lula. At this stage, it appears most probable that most will opt for Lula.

Paul Nicoll has lived and studied in the US, Indonesia and Brazil. Post-Covid, he divides his time between Australia and Brazil where he is living. He has been a student and observer of Brazilian politics for many years. Previously he worked for the Commonwealth Government and Parliament, and for the Indonesian Government.

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