As Brazil gets ready to go to the polls, Trumpian politics is on the rise

Ben Wray

Jonathan Peters reports from the streets of Rio De Janeiro ahead of the Brazilian elections next week, as corruption, austerity and sexism amount to a tense and toxic political brew

AS BRAZILIANS head to the polls next week, anger over corruption scandals and economic austerity fuels a tense atmosphere among voters.

In cities across the country, campaigners are on the streets each day, weaving between traffic on highways and shoppers on main streets, canvassing support for their candidates.

On 7 October, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect the next president, who will serve for four years, as well as all members of the house of deputies and two thirds of the federal senate. A huge number of positions are up for grabs at all levels of government, elected in a mixture of first past the post and proportional representation. 

Although the 26 states which comprise Brazil exercise some autonomy, with their own elected mayors and chambers, the Brazilian President holds significant power, and much of the focus in this election is on who will replace the unpopular Michel Temer.

Four years of corruption scandals have soured relations between voters and the establishment, helping fuel the rise of far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who leads the first round of the presidential election in many polls.

Over the course of the campaign two front runners have emerged, Fernando Haddad from the left-leaning Workers’ Party, and Bolsonaro, from the Social Liberal Party. 

Former president Lula da Silva was the Workers’ Party candidate, but his conviction for corruption was recently upheld by the Supreme Court, which legally bars him from standing. Despite this conviction, and a lengthy prison sentence, Lula led many polls in the run up to the election, and the challenge for the Workers’ Party has been to transfer these votes to current candidate Haddad. 

Although a recent poll by Ibope shows Haddad 6 points behind Bolsonaro, this result would also lead to a second round of voting, where Haddad is predicted to win. 

In the busy streets of Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, a popular destination for students, talk soon turns political as groups of friends anxiously discuss the upcoming election. Between street vendors selling beer in the crowd, a young student told me how this election has left her feeling worried for the country’s future. 

The rise of far right candidate Bolsonaro is a concern for many of these students, though they admit his Trump style of politics has some appeal among other young people.

Some of Bolsonaro’s most controversial statements have been made against women, and this has led to the remarkable success of the Facebook group ‘Women United Against Bolsonaro’, which recently gained three million new members in 10 days.

While a lack of genuine options on the ballot paper frustrates many of these students, the presence of Bolsonaro leaves them with little choice.

“I’ve decided to vote strategically in the first round to beat Bolsonaro,” she said, “and I know a lot of people will do the same. It will be a group effort.”

Politics in Rio has been unusually charged since the murder of Marielle Franco on 14 March this year. Franco was a black councillor in Rio and an outspoken critic of police violence and extrajudicial killings. She was also a prominent supporter of LGBTQ and women’s rights. 

Her killers have not been caught, and the circumstances around her death have led some of her colleagues to accuse the police and paramilitary groups, according to France 24.

Messages of support for Franco are sprayed on walls in cities across Brazil, vendors sell ‘Marielle’ t shirts on many street corners. Six months after her death, her legacy adds to an already strained relationship between voters and the establishment.

Under the shadow of the Copan, the huge concrete apartment building designed by Oscar Niemeyer, which dominates the district of Vila Buarque in São Paulo and sent three construction companies bust trying to build, a local resident told me of his concerns over the polarisation of politics in Brazil.

He placed the blame for years of economic crises and austerity on establishment politics, exemplified by the Workers’ Party and Bolsonaro’s Liberals. 

“I hope that a centre candidate can come through,” he said. 

Once the business centre of São Paulo, companies have left the district around the Copan, now home to several abandoned buildings. The giant concrete apartment complex is covered in a grey net, to prevent tiles falling on the street, with a multi-million dollar restoration on hold indefinitely. 

In Curitiba, the capital of Paraná state, frustration at Brazil’s establishment is evident, even as the main streets fill with stalls and paid campaigners for many different parties and candidates. 

One group of young people here have little hope for the future in these elections. 

The choice, they say, is between “the Workers’ Party, who have been in power for over a decade and made this crisis, and Bolsonaro, a facist.”

Another crowd of young people go by, though they seem too young to vote. One wears a t-shirt, ironically in the style of Che Guevara, with the words “Bolsonaro Presidente” under a stylised portrait of the candidate. 

Bolsonaro, whose political career thus far has been notable for his sexist, racist and homophobic comments, as well as his outright support for Brazil’s former military dictatorship, remains in hospital with serious injuries after being stabbed at a rally in the city of Juiz de Fora in Southeastern Brazil on 6 September.

Though polls predict Haddad will beat Bolsonaro in the second round of voting, years of corruption scandals and austerity have left voters with little hope for their next president.

Pictures courtesy of Jonathan Peters