Corruption and crime dominate dramatic Brazilian election campaign
A study released earlier this year shows that violence in Brazil costs the world’s eighth-largest economy more than 4 percent of its gross domestic product. Last weekend, it nearly cost the country a presidential candidate. Jair Bolsonaro, the leading contender ahead of next month’s election, was stabbed during a rally in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais and seriously injured.
Bolsonaro lies in hospital and may not be able to resume his campaign. Were he too badly injured to continue, it would just be the latest bizarre episode in an election season that lurches from one shock to another. In late August, an electoral court debarred Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the popular ex-president who ruled from 2003 to 2010 — and the frontrunner in pre-election polls — from the elections because of his conviction earlier this year in a corruption scandal.
It is less than a month until the world’s fourth-largest democracy goes to the polls — and voters still don’t know who is going to be in the race come election day. All this comes on the back of four years of political chaos, with Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, being impeached (also for corruption) and her unelected and unpopular successor Michel Temer then also becoming embroiled in a corruption scandal.
At least this sordid history of sleaze and graft provides a context for the rise of a politician as unreconstructed as Bolsonaro. He is a former army man whose meteoric rise has come despite — or perhaps because of — a history of derisive remarks about women, minorities and homosexuals. He presents himself as an outsider who will flush out corruption and crack down on crime, and he has a giant following on social media. It is not hard to see why he has been labelled “the Trump of the tropics.”
And, in some ways, the attack on Bolsonaro could even play into his hands, generating a wave of sympathy for him and giving credence to his arguments for harsher policing. Brazil is the world’s murder capital, with more than 60,000 homicides a year, mostly perpetrated with guns. This is the legacy of decades of racism, poverty and inequality, and also of Brazil’s geographical location as a transit point in the flow of narcotics from South America to the rest of the world.
Corruption and crime are the two main issues in Brazil's politics and they are the major forces knocking out candidates one by one in an election campaign rife with drama and uncertainty.
Policymakers in Brazil have long been conflicted over the right strategy to tackle the endemic problem of crime. The mayors of many large cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, have drastically reduced crime rates in the last decade with a slew of inventive measures more sophisticated than Bolsonaro’s grand rhetoric.
But absolute rates of crime continue to be high, and Brazil has the third-largest prison population in the world, behind only the US and China. Add to this the persistent malfeasance of the political class and a looming economic crisis (the real has fallen more steeply against the dollar this year than any other emerging-market currency) and the situation is ripe for an anti-establishment provocateur like Bolsonaro to channel protest votes and orchestrate a swing to the right, with all the losses this entails for the progress and prospects of liberal democracy.
Thankfully Brazil’s election system — which mandates a second round run-off between the two most popular candidates if no one wins a simple majority in the first round — will likely mean that Bolsonaro’s high rejection rate would likely see him bested at the very end. The question — unsettling in itself — is by whom? Who will bell this cat?
It all seemed so different a decade ago. Then, Brazil was one of the world’s rising economic powers on the back of a boom in commodity prices, and the government headed by Lula’s Workers’ Party was in the process of implementing an ambitious program of economic and social reform, cutting poverty by almost half and giving the most marginalized sections of society a real voice.
Programs such as the widely hailed “Bolsa Familia” — a countrywide initiative giving families small cash transfers in return for keeping their children in school and attending preventive health check-ups — gave ordinary Brazilians a warming new view of state-society relations.
Last year, as far out as the Amazon rainforest, I met people in remote villages who said they had never thought anything would change about their prospects and those of their children until the age of Lula. That’s quite a heartening story of how political power, used responsibly and creatively, can forge social bonds and reduce economic insecurity.
Yet even Lula and his successors could not escape the legacy of graft and malfeasance in Brazilian politics, whereby the very inequality they were trying to moderate required an embrace of and engagement with the country’s illicit vortexes of power and money. Today the ex-president watches the election season play out from his jail cell in the city of Curitiba.
Lula’s replacement as presidential candidate for the Workers’ Party, ex-Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, has just been charged with corruption himself. Corruption and crime are the two main issues in Brazilian politics and, right now, they are the major forces knocking out candidates one by one in an election campaign rife with drama and uncertainty.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets