After a decade of being a darling of the international business and diplomatic community, Brazil appears to have run off the rails. The confluence of economic troubles and political uncertainty is a toxic cocktail that threatens not only the country’s laudable economic gains but also its democracy.
After experiencing an average annual growth rate of 4.05 percent between 2004 and 2013, the South American giant experienced a recession in which the economy contracted by an average of 2.17 percent annually between 2014 and 2016. In the midst of this, and not coincidentally, Brazil’s political system entered a meltdown, first with the revelation of the massive Lava Jato corruption scandal, followed by the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rousseff over unrelated budgeting matter and last, a badly splintered presidential field and profound voter anger heading into the Oct. 17 congressional and presidential elections.
The leader in the crowded field of candidates is Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and member of congress who has promised an iron fist against criminals and has mocked women, the human rights community and LGBTQ citizens. Bolsonaro’s rise (he’s now leading the polls ahead of the first round of the election, with more than 20 percent of the vote) reflects widespread voter anger over the economic downturn, a contracting new middle class, a perceived corrupt political system and personal insecurity, with more than 63,800 murders across the country in 2017.
Bolsonaro’s lead in the polls was given a boost in August when Brazil’s constitutional court barred center-left former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption, from running for election. After raging against his exclusion and rallying his supporters, Lula decided to remove himself from the candidacy in early September and allow his vice president — and former mayor of São Paulo — Fernando Haddad to run in his stead.
Prior to exiting the race, Lula was leading in the polls. According to surveys, his exclusion from the ballot may well lead many of his followers to stay home on election day in October or to vote by incorrectly marking their ballots to show their displeasure at the alleged politicization of the judicial system. Such action — should it happen — would demonstrate a lack of faith in Brazil’s 33-year-old democracy and potentially undercut the legitimacy of any winner. It would also likely result in no candidate gaining the necessary 50 percent of the vote to win the election outright, prompting a second round on Oct. 28. That would leave the election wide open, with the likelihood that more traditional political parties and leaders would rally behind the second-place finisher of the first round to prevent the election of right-wing populist Bolsonaro. That would require an odd coalition that, regardless of the candidate, would likely span environmental activists, moderate conservative parties, social democrats and evangelicals.
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