Brutal Stabbing of Candidate Further Clouds an Already Uncertain Presidential Race in Brazil

The article below was updated 9/13/2018 by the author to reflect the latest public opinion polls and recent developments in the presidential campagin in Brazil.

Before the September 6th stabbing of ultraconservative presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro during a campaign rally in the city of Juiz de Fora, this year’s presidential and general election season was already the most tense, divisive, and unpredictable in memory. The attack made it even more so. It certainly generated sympathy for Bolsonaro, a congressman known for his extreme views. An Ibope survey published on Tuesday, September 11 showed voters’ preference for the congressman rose from 22 percent to 26 percent,. But his rejection rate remained high, notably at 50 percent among women. The four viable contenders for a spot in the runoff against Bolsonaro appeared technically tied. Further clouding the picture, on the evening of September 12, the congressman was rushed back to the operating room for an emergency procedure to deal with the causes of a swelling of his intestines. The doctors said surgery went well but, according to the campaign, will prolong Bolsonaro’s stay in the hospital until at least the first round of voting on October 7, and may also prevent him from personally campaigning before the runoff scheduled for October 28.

 Aware of voters’ frustration with rampant crime, massive corruption scandals involving all major political parties, and the lingering effects of Brazil’s longest and deepest economic recession, as well as the public’s distain for traditional politicians, candidates had engaged from the start in a debasing spectacle of public recrimination instead of addressing Brazil’s pressing problems and offering solutions. The aggressor, a 40 year old bricklayer who was arrested on the spot, told police he had acted for personal reasons. Despite his past affiliation with a small leftist party, his incoherent postings on Facebook and information provided by relatives about his poor mental state suggested the crime had no apparent political motivation (but it remains under investigation).

A poisoned race

Brazil has been plagued by crime for years. There were more than 160,000 homicides in the past year alone. But violence has been rare in national politics. The attack on Congressman Bolsonaro, who was leading in the polls, poisoned the race and moved it into uncharted and dangerous terrain. The commander of the Army, General Eduardo Villas Bôas, found it necessary to say, in rare newspaper interview, that the stabbing of the congressman confirmed the military’s preoccupation with the “worsening of [political] divergences” in the country. He described it as “a gesture of intolerance” that creates instability for the next government, “which could even have its legitimacy questioned.”

The other candidates toned down their rhetoric and resumed their campaigns after a two-day pause. Bolsonaro—who just days before being attacked had said at a public rally, machine gun in hand, that he would “gun down the petralhas”, a reference to leftist followers of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—issued no public statement. One of his sons tweeted a picture of the candidate in a blue patient’s gown making the gesture of carrying a weapon while recovering from his wounds in a hospital in Sao Paulo.

It will be challenging for Bolsonaro’s adversaries to constantly criticize him while he is recovering in a hospital. It is unclear, however, whether the right-wing candidate will be able to win undecided voters, who represent more than half of the estimated 140 million voters, and will determine the winner of both rounds of voting.  

Before the stabbing, Bolsonaro was projected to lose the runoff, except if his opponent were former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad. A professor of political science, Haddad officially replaced Lula at the head of the Workers’ Party (PT) ticket on September 11, after the two superior courts affirmed that the former president, currently serving a 12-year sentence for corruption, was ineligible to run for elective office—ironically because of a statute he signed into law as president in 2010.    

Before the attack, Bolsonaro and Lula, who founded the PT, had led in the polls but also shared the dubious honor of having the highest rates of voter rejection. It remains to be seen, however, whether Lula’s popularity is transferable to the uncharismatic Haddad, who is likely to also inherit the former president’s high rejection numbers.

Ciro could benefit from being rebuffed by the PT 

Another founding member of the PT, former Senator and Environmental Minister Marina Silva is running for president for the third time. She issued the most vehement repudiation of the assault on Bolsonaro. “The attack is unacceptable,” she said. “It is an attack against the physical integrity of the candidate and also against democracy; society has to strongly refute any use of violence as a political statement.”  The only woman, the only Black individual, and the only evangelical among the viable candidates, Marina seemed at one point positioned to attract an important share of Lula’s voters, but she now seems to be fading away.

Ciro Gomes, an able politician of the left who over the years has served as a mayor, governor, cabinet minister and federal representative, had surpassed Marina in the last poll released before the stabbing of Bolsonaro, and could yet emerge as a second round contender. To do this, however, Ciro will need to convert most of Lula’s voters to his side, especially in the Northeast of Brazil.

As the campaign entered its final phase , attention had shifted to former São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, a member of the center-right Social Democracy Party (PSDB), who leads the largest coalition. An unappealing leader who served four times as chief executive of Brazil’s richest and most populous state, Alckmin has performed poorly in initial polls. He was stable at 9 percent in the latest Ibope poll but appeared unlikely to benefit from the ample time he has on television (nearly half of the total available to all candidates) to attract moderate voters from his natural base who have migrated to Bolsonaro and several minor candidates to Alckmin’s right.

A changing electorate not looking for moderates

Complicating predictions of the outcome, Brazilian attitudes have changed over the past four years in ways not yet understood by experts in these matters. The most important variable on election day could be protest votes (in the form of spoiled ballots or blank votes) and voter  absenteeism, which is projected to be as high as 30 percent—a record—reflecting citizens’ deep disenchantment with politics and politicians. It is unclear how the attack on Bolsonaro will affect turnout. Analysts also note that changes in media use are likely to play a role, with many Brazilians getting information on candidates and their proposals through social media, such as WhatsApp chats, instead of relying solely on traditional sources like television. Researchers and pollsters say social media and fake news will have a greater an impact in this year’s elections, but estimates of scale vary.

Antonio Britto, a former governor, congressman, business executive and columnist, says that the picture will become clearer two weeks after the televised ads start being aired, or by September 15: “Low audiences will be bad news for Alckmin and the PT, which have the largest slices of television time, and good for Bolsonaro” who has just seconds on television and relies on social media. “High audiences will have the opposite effect,” says Britto. Currently, television audiences have remained flat. “It is highly unlikely that this election will favor candidates who favor consensus and pacification,” wrote Marco Ruedinger, an expert on data analysis at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas-RJ, who predicts social media will play a more decisive role than traditional means of political propaganda in the outcome of this year’s election.

Despite the popular demand for a change of direction in Brazil’s tired, corrupt, and ineffectual political system, in the end this year’s elections may produce fewer fresh faces and less political renewal than the electorate is hoping for, given the discredit of the current political class. Although lacking new ideas to move the country forward, traditional parties have acted to protect their positions and postpone for as long possible the inevitable political reform that will lead to a reduction in the number of parties and a more representative government. Despite the popular demand for change, the presidential and legislative choices available to Brazilians are, for the most part, more of the same.

Paulo Sotero, Director of the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute, has covered the evolution of his native Brazil and U.S.-Brazilian relations for nearly forty years as an award-winning journalist and analyst. 
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