Political polarisation intensifies ahead of Brazil’s elections

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Political party canvassers were busy on Sunday at Rio de Janeiro’s Gloria market in a last-ditch effort to persuade passersby to vote for their candidate, ahead of next weekend’s elections.

A canvasser for a local leftist politician lambasted one man after he declined a leaflet and pledged support for far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

“Shame on you,” the campaigner said, prompting a sharp stare in reply.

The small, but telling exchange came just a day after battling protests for and against Bolsonaro gripped Brazil’s major cities, signalling a deepening divide within the country.

“It [polarisation] worries me a lot … there is much radicalism going on and it is something very sick,” Analice Moreira, a market stall holder, said.

“I ask god to change this, because the country is broken and I’m afraid,” the 56-year-old added.

Rising crime rates, a faltering economy and several high-level corruption scandals have unsettled Brazil in recent years.

But there is little unity about how to solve the problems, with division dominating the build-up to the first round of Brazil’s presidential election on October 7, when an estimated 147 million voters will choose the country’s next leader and more than 1,600 other positions.

The two most popular presidential candidates – frontrunner Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) and second-placed Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) – have high rejection rates, 46 percent and 32 percent respectively.

On Sunday, thousands of Brazilians participated in widespread pro-Bolsonaro rallies.

The demonstrations, which took place in cities including Sao Paulo and the capital, Brasilia, came a day after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets nationwide as part of women-led anti-Bolsonaro #EleNao (#HimNo) protests.

Bolsonaro, who has been unable to campaign in recent weeks after being stabbed last month while campaigning in the city of Juiz de Fora, in southeastern Minais Gerais state, is projected to win about 28 percent of support on October 7. Haddad, meanwhile, is forecast to win 22 percent of the vote.

Democratic Labour Party candidate Ciro Gomes is the closest other competitor among the 11 other candidates trailing behind the pair, with 11 percent of support.

Analice Moreira, 56, has been a figure at Gloria’s market for more than two decades [David Child/Al Jazeera]

Neither Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, or Haddad, the PT’s replacement candidate for hugely popular former president Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, are projected to secure the absolute majority support required to win office during the first round vote.

Instead, the pair appear poised to contest a runoff vote on October 28, which, if it takes place, would mark the fifth presidential election in a row to be decided by a second round poll.

For 18-year-old Pedro Augusto, on the cusp of voting in a presidential election for his first time, that’s a major disappointment.

“I still don’t have a chosen candidate, the options are very bad and between the two [Bolsonaro and Haddad], I prefer no one,” he said.

“I love my country but the prospects for the next administration are terrible and it seems as if things will get worse … people are very divided at the moment,” he added.

Social divisions

On one side of the divide are supporters of Bolsonaro, who has frequently made polemic remarks in the past on issues relating to race, gender and sexuality and criticised the PT’s economic legacy.

On the other is the PT’s pro-Lula base, which has transferred its support to Haddad in recent weeks.

Lula helped lift millions of people out of poverty while in power from 2003 to 2010 amid a period of economic growth in Brazil that coincided with a global commodities boom and left office with approval ratings approaching 90 percent.

And despite a corruption conviction in 2017, centred on him accepting a luxury seaside apartment as a bribe from a construction firm, the 72-year-old is still adored by many voters.

Lula topped opinion surveys gauging presidential candidates’ popularity levels prior to renouncing his candidacy last month after being barred from running by Brazil’s country’s top electoral court.

For Bolsonaro supporters, however, Lula and the entire PT represent everything they think is rotten about Brazilian politics.

“Now is a time when the country should be united, because we are in a crisis and the population should be together not divided,” Augusto said.

People demonstrate against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro [Ana Carolina Fernandes/Reuters] 


According to Geraldo Tadeu, a political scientist at the Rio-based Academic Insititute for Research (IUPERJ), the origins of Brazil’s current polticial divide stretches back over a number of years.

He said the polarisation Brazil is experiencing now is a product of the 2014 election results, which were questioned by the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). 

“It was the very beginning of this idea that the new president [the PT’s Dilma Rouseff] was not legitimate enough because of alleged fraud; this was a novelty in Brazilian politics,” he added.

In August 2016, Rousseff was impeached by Brazil’s congress and removed from office over allegations she broke budgetary laws.

In the months following her deposal, the opposition PSDB and new President Michel Temer – Brazil’s current leader – of the Brazilian Democratic Movement party were also embroiled in a number of corruption scandals, which until then had predominantly affected the PT.


By July 2017, when Lula was convicted, nearly Brazil’s entire political class had been discredited among the electorate.

A major anti-graft probe known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash, and other interlocking investigations have seen more than 150 Brazilian business leaders, corporations and politicians – including Lula – prosecuted for corruption since 2014.

Bolsonaro, a Rio congressman since 1991, has exploited that anger to attract a loyal following among some portions of the electorate and positioned himself as an antidote to a tarnished political class.

Several of the other more centrist candidates, including Gomes, Marina Silva of the Sustainability Network and PSDB contender Geraldo Alckmin, have run for the presidency at least once before.

“Bolsonaro realised there were people on the streets asking for change but they had no voice, so he became their voice,” Tadeu said.

“He assumed the discourse against politicians,” he added.

‘I won’t vote again’

The polarisation in Brazil forms part of a larger picture of widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s traditional political class and waning faith in the country’s institutions.

Only 13 percent of Brazilians are satisfied with democracy, according to a 2017 study by Latinobarometro, a Chile-based polling group.

But while discontentment has driven some towards Bolsonaro, or to double-down on their support for the PT, in Gloria, where discarded political campaign stickers litter the streets, manure salesman Richard de Oliveira has given up hope of politicians delivering change.

“The politicians only want to make money. The inequality in Brazil is very big and the politicians are cowards, we are nothing for them,” Oliveira, 53, said.

“I voted in previous elections but I swear that until I die I won’t vote again, I’m finished, I will annul my vote or pay the tax,” he added.

Richard de Oliveira, 53, the self-described ‘King of Manure’ said he had given up hope about politics in Brazil [David Child/Al Jazeera]

Voting in Brazil is compulsory for all “literate” citizens aged between 18-70, with abstention punishable by a small fine of about $1. Failure to pay the fine can result in citizens being barred from renewing their passport, obtaining government-backed loans or taking public office.

According to polling institute Datafolha, about 10 percent of the electorate – some 15 million people – intend to abstain from voting for any presidential candidate.

Stall-holder Moreira, like Richard, is one of them.

“It’s hard, I know that I’m wrong not to vote but this time I prefer to wait and see [who wins], I don’t want to regret my vote again,” Moreira said.

“I’m cheering for the success of the one who wins so that they can find a solution for the country’s problems,” she added.

“[Because] society wasn’t like this before, people respected each other more … now the opposing sides are not talking to each other. That is not democracy.”


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