There is less than a year until Brazilians deliver their verdict on President Jair Bolsonaro.
With next October’s presidential election slowly approaching, Bolsonaro, whose popularity has crashed amid his desperate handling of the COVID crisis, is expected to face a stiff challenge at the ballot box. The main threat to the far-Right incumbent is expected to come from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, as he is widely known.
Lula, who governed Brazil between 2003 and 2010, was convicted of corruption and sentenced to more than nine years in prison in 2017. That conviction was then overturned by a supreme court judge in March 2021, leaving the centre-left candidate free to pursue another presidential campaign.
The divisive nature of both candidates has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, the Brazilian media’s portrayal of the battle between Bolsonaro and Lula has been one of ‘polarisation’. A vote for one or the other is seen as emotionally charged, a preference that pushes the country to the extremes of the political spectrum. Instead, many see a middle path, a so-called terceira via or ‘third way’, with a moderate candidate as the best way forward for Brazil.
After all, both men will have to deal with disaffected voter bases. Despite Lula’s acquittal after long-running judicial battles over alleged corruption, he is saddled with the image of the ladrão (thief) in the eyes of many, especially among Bolsonaro’s base. This is one reason that many vow never to vote for Lula again.
As for Bolsonaro, he is often labelled a maluco (madman), even by some of his own supporters. Informal conversations with Bolsonaro voters ahead of pro-government demonstrations on 7 September, Brazil’s independence day, generally had the same theme. Those who said they were disappointed by Bolsonaro referred to him as “mad” or “crazy”, especially in the context of managing COVID and the vaccination effort. They saw Bolsonaro’s management of the pandemic as cruel, indifferent and largely incompetent governance. Interestingly, however, even disillusioned Bolsonaro voters seemed unwilling to associate him with corruption. This is despite the fact that Bolsonaro and members of his family face several ongoing corruption and money-laundering investigations.
That said, a recent Datafolha national poll showed Bolsonaro’s approval rate plummeting to a record low. With more than half of those interviewed rating his government as “bad” or “terrible”, Bolsonaro appears politically weakened and more reliant than ever on the most ‘faithful’ parts of his constituency. But even this support may not be unconditional. The Datafolha poll showed that just 22% of respondents had a positive or very positive image of the president and his government, a marked decline from 30% approval in December 2020. For much of his time in office, Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have hovered around 30%. But where do the disillusioned voters go? The answer is tricky.
It would appear that Bolsonaro’s unpopularity is directly causing Lula to surge in the polls. But disenchanted voters do not always migrate to another candidate, much less to Lula. A June 2020 study by political scientists Camila Rocha and Esther Solano noted that “regretful” voters – who chose Bolsonaro in 2018 but now feel let down – admit they might support his re-election. That is mostly because they see no political alternative.
But “regretful” voters appear to face a dilemma. Most say they will stick with Bolsonaro “if they have to” – mostly meaning that if Bolsonaro faced Lula in the second round, then he’d be their preferred candidate unless a third option with a credible chance of success emerged. Some of these voters, however, confess to being uncertain about either candidate. Bolsonaro is “crazy” and Lula a “thief”.
Who might be a viable, third-way candidate for Brazil’s disaffected voters?
Five days after the 7 September pro-government protests, a collection of Right and centre-Right groups organised anti-government protests. Some of them were former Bolsonaro allies attempting to find another acceptable candidate to support.
The groups had agreed to spare Lula and target the government alone – an agreement that enabled some groups from the Left to join the protests. Despite that, many of the banners read “Neither Lula nor Bolsonaro” and a huge inflatable doll – of Lula and Bolsonaro joined at the hip – was on display. The Lula doll wore prison garb and Bolsonaro was in a straitjacket. Potential presidential candidates, such as João Doria, governor of São Paulo and former Bolsonaro ally, and Ciro Gomes from the centre-left of the political spectrum, addressed the crowds in a joint effort to build momentum for Bolsonaro’s impeachment.
The anti-government protests had only a small turnout, but a survey by Atlas Político showed that a growing number of disappointed voters were hoping a third way candidate would run in 2022. Much of the media, including national news broadcasters, also say a third way candidate is the only solution to the current polarisation.
The political comeback of Sergio Moro, a former judge in the Car Wash corruption investigation, was warmly welcomed by third-wavers. Moro, who had joined Bolsonaro’s government, accused him of seeking to interfere with the work of the federal police and to gain access to secret intelligence by appointing a confidant as head, resigning as his justice minister in April 2020. Earlier this month, Moro officially stepped into the political arena by joining Podemos, a right-wing party that has mostly voted in favour of the Bolsonaro government’s legislative proposals. He subsequently confirmed his intention to run for president during a television interview.
It seems relevant then to examine how the third way is politically situated. Nearly a dozen people are jockeying for this vote. Some of the third way’s likely standard-bearers, including Moro, Doria and Rio Grande do Sul governor Eduardo Leite are former Bolsonaro allies. They are seen by parts of society and the press as representative of a moderate political right that is willing to negotiate with the centre and even the centre-left. That is why third-way enthusiasts believe they symbolise hope and change for the country. But it is worth asking how alternative or more moderate would such a third-way candidate really be? Would any of these men really offer a distinct alternative to Bolsonaro, their former ally?
For the moment, it’s safe to say that all may not yet be lost for Bolsonaro, who could yet recover some of his disenchanted voters. Lula is not necessarily benefiting from Bolsonaro’s unpopularity because a chunk of the electorate vehemently rejects both candidates. Should a third-way candidacy not gain traction, voters may decide to choose between what they consider to be the lesser of two evils.
It’s also important to note that Brazil’s mainstream media is failing to show the asymmetric nature of the polarising dynamics of the two current frontrunners. In contrast to Bolsonaro’s generally incendiary discourse, Lula speaks of national unity and conciliatory politics. To describe Lula as a “populist”, as the media usually does, is just another way to discredit him along with his popular appeal, since the term has such pejorative connotations in everyday parlance in the country. It also creates a false equivalence between a moderate leftist candidate, with a party that increasingly leaned towards the centre during its time in government, and a far-Right populist President. The creation of this false equivalence and, hence of a supposed polarisation between two sides that are unequally thrown into this dynamic, ultimately benefits the extremist side – which feeds off the polarised political landscape to sustain itself.
Much can change in Brazil’s shifting horizon of political (im)possibilities, especially between now and next October’s election. It remains to be seen if Lula will continue to maintain his lead against Bolsonaro, or whether a third candidate will break through. What is certain is that the stakes have never been higher for Brazilians, in the aftermath of a pandemic and faced with environmental devastation, a deepening economic crisis, food insecurity and rising unemployment.
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