Personality and power in Brazil’s elections

Sep 18, 2022
Brazil Independence Day Illustration with Colorful Party Flag on Light Background. 7 September National Celebration
Image: iStock

Brazil has the largest population and economy in South America and is a member of BRICS. It is as important to the continent as Indonesia is to South-East Asia. Brazil’s national elections will be on 2 October. Elections will select the President, the Congress, a third of the Senate, State Governors and State Legislatures. If there is no clear victor, there will be a final round of voting on the two leading Presidential candidates on 30 October.

7 September is when the nation commemorates its independence from Portugal. The following day last week, the UN published its 2021-2022 Human Development Report. It concluded that Brazil’s ranking had fallen to the 87th position amongst 191 nations. The UN ranked China higher as were Latin America’s Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico. Brazil had 680,000 Covid deaths, which was the second largest total following the United States, while life expectancy fell by 2.5 years. Influential was the President’s refusal to be vaccinated. There are serious inadequacies in education, compounded by responses to Covid, and severe social and economic inequities. For example, despite its status as one of the world’s most important exporters of food, the Government estimated that at least 30 million citizens do not have food security. These data were known within the country before the UN report, and they are the context for the events of 7 September this year. The occasion was an opportunity for national leadership, but what occurred was not that.

Imagine the response if, last Australia Day, Prime Minister Morrison had devoted the occasion to praising his political party and campaigning for re-election. Also imagine if next Australia Day, Prime Minister Albanese devoted the day to his political party and achievements. This did not happen in January 2022 and it will not happen in January 2023. However, it happened in Brazil this 7 September.

This year was the 200th anniversary of independence so that it had special meaning. A journalist compared the occasion with the nation’s 150th anniversary in 1972. In that year Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship, political activity and press freedom were limited, and commemorations enforced military rule. She did not want to celebrate under those conditions, and hoped that the 200th anniversary would be more celebratory and less controlled. It is doubtful that her hopes were satisfied, and it is improbable that she will be part of the 250th anniversary commemorations.

The traditional commemoration is a military parade in Brasilia and a parade along a main avenue in Rio de Janeiro, the former national capital. There was a military parade in Brasilia this 7 September but it differed from earlier occasions. Similar to predecessors, President Bolsonaro accompanied by his wife stood on the podium to acknowledge the parade. A man in a green suit with a yellow tie was beside him. He was dressed in the national colours of green and gold, which are also the national colours of Australia and South Africa. The man is a billionaire retailer and a financial supporter of the President, and he regularly attacks the Constitutional Court to undermine its credibility. The Court is investigating him and a group of other businessmen for unreported funding of the President’s campaign and for using social media to spread false information. The businessman in the green suit and yellow tie was on the podium at the President’s invitation. Bolsonaro also invited the President of Portugal to the historic commemoration. The businessman was placed between the two Presidents, which suggested their relative importance to Bolsonaro. It was also a diplomatic slight to the Portuguese President. The Vice-President was located far behind the man in green and gold. Since the Constitutional Court is investigating the businessman for breaches of the Constitution, the President was defying the Court and questioning its judgement.

On the same national day last year, President Bolsonaro described the Constitutional Court Justice responsible for electoral law as ‘canalha’ which is translated as ‘scum’. That Justice has the task of confirming that the national elections in October will be conducted fairly and produce valid results. Bolsonaro was a state and federal Congress Member for almost thirty years before becoming President, and he was elected to Congress using the electoral system that he now criticises. His 2018 election as President was based on the same electoral system. Independent assessments of the electoral system’s capacity and ability to produce valid counts of votes confirmed its integrity. Notwithstanding, Bolsonaro continually attacks it because if he loses in October, he can blame it on a flawed system. This grievance would become a reason for overturning the results through a coup d’etat. In the last four years, he has raised the spectre of military rule several times.

Congress is the other arm of the state. On 7 September, the Chair of the Chamber of Deputies remained in his home state distant from the capital, and the Senate Chair also stayed away. Later the Senate leader explained that he distanced himself from commemorations in Brasilia because they would be party political. A result was that the podium did not include these two Congressional leaders nor any member of the Constitutional Court. Consequently, only one of the three components of the state participated in the nation’s commemoration of 200 years of independence.

In his speech the President referred to his virility. This was unexpected in a Presidential address. Additionally, he encouraged men to look for ‘Princesses’ like his wife and marry them, and boasted about her in comparison with earlier First Ladies. A few years ago, he criticised President Macron’s wife because of her age and compared her unfavourably to his wife. His remarks about ‘Princesses’ immediately generated responses from the two female Presidential candidates and from many women who affirmed that they wanted work, salaries similar to males, and sufficient food for their families. Bolsonaro’s remarks also targeted Lula, who is his main opponent and leading in the polls. Lula’s wife is a sociologist, and the next day she emphasised publicly the necessity of equal rights for women. Poll data after Independence Day were that 46 per cent of female voters intend to vote for Lula compared to 29 per cent for Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro reduced the price of diesel oil to satisfy truck drivers’ demands, and his political party arranged for hundreds of trucks filled with supporters to follow the military parade. However, the Federal District’s Governor did not agree that a truck convoy was necessary for the celebration. Consequently, trucks were absent. After the military parade Bolsonaro removed his Presidential sash. There were many thousands before him waiting for an address to the nation about, for instance, health, education, and social injustices. Instead, he gave a campaign speech with the national flag and military equipment in the background.

Later he flew to Rio de Janeiro for the second part of the commemorations. As described earlier, the custom is for a parade along one of the principal avenues in the city centre. However, he cancelled this and organised an election rally along Copacabana Beach. Copacabana is to the city what Bondi and Manly are to Sydney and St Kilda to Melbourne, except that Copacabana is far larger. Thousands of supporters came and most were dressed in national colours. There were trucks loaded with loudspeakers broadcasting information about campaigns of Congressional candidates aligned with the President, much music, and many signs and posters critical of the Constitutional Court. Common signs included ‘God, Fatherland and Family’, and ‘Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone’, while a popular plaque was ‘3 Beers for $6”. More than one hundred thousand persons participated.

Four naval vessels were anchored within easy view, paratroopers dropped from the sky, and the Air Force gave an impressive display of aerobatics. Shortly afterwards, social media circulated images of paratroopers floating down to the sound of the national anthem. The President spoke after the military display. Of note was the composition of the group on his raised platform. It included the billionaire businessman in green and gold, and a former Member of Congress who had threatened Constitutional Court Justices with physical violence. Congress expelled him and the Court sentenced him to prison because of his repeated intimidation. The President pardoned and released him from prison. However, the Court banned him from nomination as a Congressional candidate in the October elections. His presence alongside the President was another example of the latter’s attack on the Constitutional Court.

Of note is that the President’s campaign invited a key Trump adviser to Independence Day celebrations in 2021 and 2022, and he attended on both occasions. Bolsonaro mirrors former President Trump’s attacks on the US electoral system.

Bolsonaro’s speech was another campaign event and, similarly with his address in Brasilia, he did not reflect on Brazil’s achievements and challenges throughout the 200 years. He used both occasions to bolster his re-election chances and largely disregarded the day’s significance. Other principal candidates criticised his abuse of power, and use of taxpayers’ money and the military to aid his campaign. They also criticised his lack of acknowledgement of Brazil’s progress over two centuries and many challenges for the future. Rather than speak for the nation, Bolsonaro ignored the opportunity to speak on behalf of the country and guide it forward. This year, commemorations for the National Day were replaced by a focus on what matters to him, and this is re-election. Afterwards, the Electoral Court prohibited the President from using images of the Independence Day commemorations in Brasilia and Copacabana because they were electoral rallies. It is likely that he will appeal the decision.

Both Congressional Chambers marked the bicentenary of independence with ceremonies on 8 September. All Congressional leaders, the Constitutional Court’s Chief Justice, and the President of Portugal attended. The Brazilian President was invited but did not attend. A difference from the 7 September celebrations was that the man in the green suit and yellow tie was not present. 8 September was also the last day of the Chief Justice’s tenure. His official address emphasised the Constitutional Court’s role in upholding the Constitution, and described his defence against very many attacks on the Judiciary. He implied that the Executive was undermining the Court.

To summarise, President Bolsonaro’s many previous statements together with behaviour on 7 and 8 September have attempted to push the nation towards a constitutional crisis. This is a redefinition of national leadership.

Polling following the national day revealed that:

  • 51 per cent of members of Evangelical churches will vote for Bolsonaro compared with 28 per cent for Lula;
  • 54 per cent of low salary earners will vote for Lula compared with 26 per cent for Bolsonaro; and
  • 49 per cent of medium to high salary earners will vote for Bolsonaro compared with 34 per cent for Lula.
  • Overall, 45 per cent of voters will choose Lula and 34 per cent will vote for Bolsonaro.

These data show that, although Lula has a greater probability of election, the percentage of the population opting for Bolsonaro has increased.

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