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2018 Brazilian Election Results: Initial Takeaways on Political Renewal and the Role of Women

Lara Bartilotti Picanço

Historically high turnover rates and gains in female representation are encouraging, but political renewal remains in question. 

This year, over 140 million Brazilians exercised their right to vote, electing a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, as well as fifty-four senators and 513 federal deputies to Congress, governors for all twenty-seven states, and 1,059 state legislators. The Organization of American States (OAS) Election Observation Mission congratulated the country’s Superior Electoral Court for the successful execution of elections, a considerable task for a country the size of Brazil. Despite an increasingly polarized context—and concerns of violence raised by the stabbing of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro at a campaign rally—the mission emphasized that Brazil’s elections were democratic and peaceful.  

Established Parties Come Out as Losers

Candidates representing a record-setting thirty political parties were elected to Congress, making this meeting the most fragmented in Brazil’s history. However, the final number of parties represented is likely to be lower, due to a 2017 measure that established a minimum vote threshold for parties seeking national representation. Some fourteen parties are estimated to be at risk of extinction based on their poor electoral support this cycle, and several deputies and senators elected from those parties will be forced to switch to other parties in order to keep their seats. The barrier clause also limits access to public funds and air time on television for parties that do not meet the threshold—an effort to strangle underperforming political parties and thereby reduce political fragmentation. 

The Chamber of Deputies had its highest turnover rate since 1994 (51 percent), while the Senate made history with a striking 85 percent turnover; only eight of thirty-two incumbent candidates were reelected. Traditionally dominant parties, such as the Workers’ Party (PT), the Democratic Movement (MDB), and the Social Democracy Party (PSDB), lost seats, while less established parties with little previous representation made significant gains. Most remarkably, President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) won an overwhelming forty-eight congressional seats, becoming the second-largest party represented in Congress, behind the PT. 

Although turnover was less notable in Brazil’s state assemblies, the number of PSL state deputies quadrupled, making it the party with the third-largest number of state assembly representatives. Keeping with trends at the federal level, the PT, MDB, and PSDB suffered a net loss in state deputies. More firsts came in Brazil’s gubernatorial elections, with a record-setting thirteen different political parties represented by incoming governors in 2019 and only ten of twenty incumbents achieving reelection. 

These numbers suggest that political renewal was high in the 2018 elections, but they present an incomplete picture of the forces at play. High turnover rates indicate reelections were low, but do not necessarily mean fresh faces entered Brazilian politics—truly new actors may indeed be few and far between. Many of those elected to the National Congress, for example, were former elected officials, such as nine-time federal deputy, and now Senator-elect for Rio de Janeiro, Arolde de Oliveria. The average profile of an elected federal deputy continues to be male, white, married, and highly educated. 

However, voters also elected a number of young politicians connected with emergent civic and political organizations like RenovaBR and Agora! These newly elected officials, like Federal Deputies-elect Tiago Mitraud (NOVO) and Tábata Amaral (Democratic Labor Party, PDT), stand out as potential policy innovators, who are committed to transparency and the long-term project of political reform in Brazil.

Political Participation of Women

Women make up 52.5 percent of Brazil’s population, but remain underrepresented in politics—an issue that had greater visibility this election cycle, due in part to female-led movements like #EleNão. Speaking at the Brazil Institute, former Swiss Fellow at the Wilson Center Malu Gatto explained: “Women’s political underrepresentation in Brazil is not a consequence of voter biases… it is much more a consequence of the challenges women face in accessing resources or gaining party support, rather than in terms of them convincing voters to vote for them.” The 2018 election was the first to address this by enforcing a new law that requires 30 percent of party campaign funding to be allocated towards female candidates. However, the long-term impact of this new policy remains to be seen.

Female candidates in the October elections amounted to 30.7 percent of the total requests for registrations sent to the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), but few of these women won a chance to take office. Brazil’s presidential race saw two female presidential candidates and five women vice presidential running mates: none were elected. A record sixty-two women candidates ran for Senate; one was the first trans woman to run, Duda Salabert. Yet, with only seven female senators elected, the female caucaus in the Senate did not expand. Only one woman, Fátima Bezerra, was elected governor (Rio Grande do Norte).

In the Chamber of Deputies, on the other hand, female representation increased from 10 to 15 percent. Though far from parity, this represents a marked increase from the results of previous elections. One of the women elected was Joênia Wapichana (Rede), the first indigenous woman to hold a seat in the Chamber. The state of São Paulo elected the most women as federal deputies, doubling female representation—the woman with the most votes was Tábata Amaral with a total of 264,450 votes. Additionally, 163 women were elected to state assemblies this year, compared to 119 in 2014. 

More broadly, the 2018 elections saw Brazilian women claiming a space within the political landscape, as candidates, activists, and voters. Meanwhile, pushback against female political voices is diminishing. A study by Ibope and UN Women revealed increasing support among Brazilians for female participation in spheres and positions of power. Although the election results show only mild gains for women this round, to reiterate Gatto’s point, Brazilian society is getting on board. 

From a bird’s-eye view, the election results may not present a vastly different picture compared to past political landscapes in Brazil, but there are pockets of progress that are encouraging for citizen participation and sustained engagement in the democratic process. It will take months, if not years, to understand the implications of the political currents that underly the big-picture narrative of the 2018 elections in Brazil. Political reform that expands representation—to include more women, minorities, young people, and policy innovators—takes time, and small steps are needed to make big strides. 

Image by José Cruz/Agência Brasil 

About the Author

Lara Bartilotti Picanço

Lara Bartilotti Picanço

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Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and US institutions in all sectors. The Brazil Institute plays this role by producing independent research and programs that bridge the gap between scholarship and policy, and by serving as a crossroads for leading policymakers, scholars and private sector representatives who are committed to addressing Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.  Read more