During the past years, Brazil has been featured in several international newspapers, though not always for great reasons. After the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the country has made headlines for several corruption scandals, the controversial impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and the increasing violence against marginalised communities.
International media has not been silent on the issues that surround the current election and, more broadly, the current political climate in Brazil. The rise of what the Guardian has called the ‘Trump from the tropics’, Jair Bolsonaro takes the second place on the presidential race sparking worry amongst international commentators worldwide. Jair Bolsonaro is well-known for his misogynist remarks, pro-gun stance and for opposing human rights, especially for LGBTQ+ communities.
Among his most well-known moments, Bolsonaro was interviewed by Stephen Fry in his documentary Out There, portraying the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Brazil, Russia and India. In this interview, Bolsonaro stated that “we Brazilian people do not like the homosexuals”. The presidential hopeful has also been fined for declaring to a congresswoman that he would not rape her because she was ugly. Just yesterday, Bolsonaro declared that Brazil will leave the United Nations if he is elected president, as the organisation is “communist”.
While the prospect of Bolsonaro’s presidency is very damaging to the maintenance of human rights in Brazil, the election campaign has barely begun. In order to understand the complexities of the current presidential race, Words in the Bucket talked to Flávia Bozza Martins, a researcher on electoral behaviour and public opinion from IESP-UERJ (Institute of Social and Political Studies of the State University of Rio de Janeiro).
Who are Bolsonaro’s voters?
Bolsonaro performs better among college-educated young men, but faces strong opposition by women (only 12% have declared they intend to vote in him, whereas he holds the support of at least 27% of men). While the candidate will have only 8 seconds of television time, he has the largest reach on social media, with over 7 million followers. Martins has discussed how it is hard to define whether or not social media will have a powerful impact on Bolsonaro’s campaign.
“The television still has a great deal of strength. In the most recent research on the communications habits of the Brazilian population, the Secretariat of Communications discovered that 89% of the Brazilian public has the TV as their preferential source of information.”
Nonetheless, after the closure of several Brazilian Facebook accounts by Facebook itself due to the dissemination of fake news, I asked Martins whether or not this new phenomenon could also be a defining force in the electoral period.
“Even though fake news are now an unprecedented issue, especially due to the speed in which they get disseminated, a study has discussed that despite their wide reach, they have little impact on the election process.” She adds that much of the discussion on fake news and elections right now is based on the 2016 US presidential elections, and that a more tailored analysis of the situation of fake news in Brazil will be possible after the elections this October.
Television and campaigning: what can happen until October
Bolsonaro will be given television time to appear on debates between the presidential candidates, which have begun this month. Due to the importance of TV in informing potential voters, his media strategy, both in television appearances and on social media, will also likely impact the outcome of his presidential run.
“Traditionally, voters tend to dislike aggressive negative propaganda by a candidate who is at the forefront of the presidential run” says Martins. Nonetheless, due to the nature of his candidacy, Bolsonaro might have more “leeway” to do such aggressive propaganda during the debates. On the other hand, oppositional campaigning to Bolsonaro will likely come from a variety of parties and can serve to create a network of information that argues against the candidate’s proposals.
The main concern, according to Martins, is the question of the undecided voters. News website R7 has reported that over 59% of the electorate has not firmly decided on a candidate. Earlier this year, El País Brasil discussed that the high rejection of the electorate to the main candidates could result in a “free for all” campaign season.
“While the scenario is currently highly unpredictable, the “free for all” theory relies on the maintenance of this high rejection rate” declared Martins, “and the latter might diminish as we approach the elections”.
What does this mean for Brazil?
The main discussions raised on the current presidential run in Brazil try and compare the candidacy of Bolsonaro to the one of Trump in the US presidential elections of 2016. While the countries have very different historical legacies and political landscapes, it is not helpful to completely discard the comparison.
“The electoral behaviour of Brazil follows broadly the same patterns of the world, via the economic vote. This means that if the voter feels like the economic policy of the government has been damaging to them, they will vote in the opposition.” explained Martins, “Nonetheless, in the 2014 election of Dilma Rousseff, the economic vote could not be identified, which raises questions for the current election.”
“The electoral behaviour of Brazil follows broadly the same patterns of the world, via the economic vote. This means that if the voter feels like the economic policy of the government has been damaging to them, they will vote in the opposition.”
Martins refers to the reelection of Dilma Rousseff in 2014 among the financial crisis, describing the vote as a confidence vote in the Worker’s Party after 12 years of government. But this was an unprecedented result in the last 20 years of Brazilian democracy, and should not be considered as a new trend without further data.
The growth of Bolsonaro as an anti-establishment candidate also has echoes of the Trump candidacy. As the Atlantic discussed in relation to the Trump campaign, the maintenance of Bolsonaro’s media strategy with his less savoury comments that shock potential voters might backfire, Bolsonaro’s current success is worrying not only because of his opposition to human rights and marginalised communities, but because he is part of a worldwide phenomena of anti-human rights politicians.
It is necessary for both the media and political commentators to analyse the Brazilian elections carefully so as not to bolster a dangerous candidacy.