Struck by the worst recession on record and widespread corruption, voters in Latin America’s largest economy headed to the polls last Sunday for crucial elections.
Brazilians, who voted for executive and legislative branches at state and federal levels, chose between 13 presidential candidates, with many gravitating to opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Former military officer and far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) came out in first place after the vote, taking 46 percent of the vote. However, after he failed to reach the majority that would have seen him win outright, the former military officer will now a run-off vote on October 28 against leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, the former São Paolo mayor who has taken the baton from former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the Workers' Party (PT) candidate.
Haddad, who visited his mentor Lula in prison a day after the vote, took 29.3 percent of votes, indicating just how much ground he will have to make up.
In an interview conducted prior to the vote, Matthew Taylor, a professor at the American University’s School of International Service and a former Brazil Institute fellow, discussed some of these key issues in the election, painting a picture of what could be the most important election in Brazil’s history.
What are some of the major issues driving voters to the polls?
What is driving the dynamic between the two leading candidates, Bolsonaro and Haddad, are at least four issues: corruption, unemployment, healthcare and public security.
After the Lava Jato [corruption] investigation, Bolsonaro has really picked up on desire to change the way politics works. So even though he is a politician and has been a politician for a long time, he has managed to make the case that he is different. Of course the PT’s narrative is that the corruption investigation is a partisan investigation.
As far as the economy, the [Dilma] Rousseff administration have been blamed for the past five years of recession. The PT has tried to make the case that the situation is largely a result of the austerity measures put in place by [President Michel] Temer, and that it’ll get worse if Haddad isn’t elected.
Bolsonaro instead has made a slight conversion. He hasn’t always been a reformist on economic matters but he has an economic advisor, Pablo Guedes, who is seen as somebody who will reform the economy. The key question is whether both candidates will be able to do what they are promising.
Another key point is the healthcare provision. Brazil has universal healthcare, but it is also a middle-income country, so it doesn’t have endless resources to invest in it. And that’s difficult to handle because so much of policy is determined at a local level. This is one of reasons for which we haven’t seen healthcare becoming a central issue in the presidential debates, but it is a major issue for the Brazilians.
Which candidate do you see having a better chance of building a strong relationship with the United States?
It’s hard to say. I think that whoever will become president in the next round will be more focused on domestic issues than foreign affairs. I suspect that the US State Department will advocate keeping an arm-length distance from Bolsonaro due to his authoritarian proclivities. On the other hand, Haddad is not seen as a particular threat.
However, given the importance of Venezuela these days, I also believe the PT’s unwillingness to address Maduro as a dictator will represent an element of distance between Brazil and the US in the case Haddad wins.
Bolsonaro has often been referred to as the Brazil’s Donald Trump. What are some of the similarities and differences between the two?
I think that is not a good metaphor. Bolsonaro has been a politician for 30 years. He does like to play the role of the outsider – and this is where the parallel with President Trump comes from – but he is a politician, a professional politician.
I think the correlation with Trump has more to do with his social media savvy. Bolsonaro has been very good at keeping the focus on himself through social media and moving the public debate toward issues he thinks he can gain a political point with.
The other parallel with Trump is the relationship with parties – neither of them has a strong inherence or respect for political parties. But I think Bolsonaro is a much less of a Trumpian candidate that sometimes we like to think.
How is the gender divide affecting the elections?
There are so many dimensions to these elections. Women are women, but also employees, users of healthcare, and concerned with corruption issues. So the central question is which dimension of women is going to be the most decisive.
Recent polls showed some movement of women toward Bolsonaro, but there were also many protests against him during the past weeks – Bolsonaro has been very misogynist in the past and his public declarations about women are extraordinarily offensive.