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Jair Bolsonaro’s ‘beef, bible and bullets’ coalition is here to stay

Jair Bolsonaro may have finished in second place in Sunday’s presidential election in Brazil, but his tally of 43.2 per cent outperformed pre-election polls and propels him into the runoff with fresh momentum. Many of his allies and former cabinet ministers were elected to congress and to state governorships. His Liberal party will form the largest bloc in the senate.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftist former president, won 48.4 per cent of the votes. He remains the favourite to win the second round on October 30, but his initial reaction that Sunday’s result was merely an “extension” to the campaign belied the magnitude of the left’s disappointment.

Results from the presidential, congressional and state governors’ races suggest that Lula and his Workers’ party (PT) have yet to convince most Brazilians that they have learnt the lessons from past economic mistakes and corruption scandals. Lula “hasn’t really felt the need to come up with new ideas”, says Anthony Pereira, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. “He is a little bit stuck in the past.”

The 76-year-old former president’s vote held up well in Brazil’s poor north-east after a campaign focused on combating poverty. But he was less successful in the three most populous (and wealthier) states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. Here Bolsonaro’s allies led the governors’ races or won them outright.

There will thus be no rerun of the “Pink Tide” leftist momentum that swept Lula into office in the 2000s with more than 60 per cent of the vote. His coalition was projected to improve its showing in congress slightly, but will fall well short of a majority.

If the former president does prevail in the second round, it will be much harder for him to govern an intensely polarised country. The hard left also increased its strength in congress.

The first-round result reflects deep changes that have taken place in Brazil over the past decade, in particular the growth of the agribusiness lobby, the evangelical churches and the gun lobby, all key allies of Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s hard right “is now much more organised and sophisticated”, says Monica de Bolle of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. If Lula does win a third term, “the chances are that he will end up disappointing, not because of anything he does, but because the country is so extremely polarised”.

The big losers were the parties of the centre, and the “third way” presidential alternatives. The PSDB party of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso had its worst election this century, failing to reach the runoff for governor of São Paulo state and seeing Eduardo Leite, one of its brightest future presidential hopes, only narrowly squeak into the second round for the governorship of Rio Grande do Sul, the state he governed before.

A highly polarised presidential campaign fought largely over the personalities of Bolsonaro and Lula left little space for reasoned policy arguments. Simone Tebet and Ciro Gomes, the third- and fourth-placed presidential candidates, managed only 7.2 per cent of the vote between them. Neither offered an immediate endorsement to the frontrunners. Gomes’s 3 per cent support is likely to lean left, but Tebet’s 4.2 per cent may split more evenly.

Investors took heart from Sunday’s result, believing that Lula will have to move further to the centre to win. Some believe that a Bolsonaro win and more market-friendly economic policies are now possible.

But those hoping for an end to the personal attacks and near-total absence of debate about policy that have blighted the campaign so far will be disappointed. The second round is likely to bring further polarisation and a greater risk of violence.

Fears of a messy final outcome to the presidential election, with Bolsonaro and his highly organised movement of well-armed supporters contesting the result, will grow.

The president has frequently questioned the validity of opinion polls and the legitimacy of Brazil’s electronic voting system. On Sunday, Bolsonaro claimed that “in a clean election we will win with over 60 per cent of the vote”. The result, which showed that pollsters had underestimated his support, will only have emboldened him.

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