An Easy, Foreigner-Friendly Guide to the Brazilian 2018 Presidential Election

Photo by Rafaela Biazi on Unsplash

Brazilians are gearing up to the 2018 general elections. On October 7th, voters all over the country will choose state governors, state and federal legislators, senators and, of course, president.

But if you’re not Brazilian, why should you care?

Maybe because Brazil is the largest, most influential country in South America; maybe because it has the eight largest nominal GDP; or maybe it’s just nice to be a little more informed.

First, the rules

Brazilian officials are elected by direct vote, so each individual vote holds the exact same weight. Voting is also mandatory, so if a citizen fails to show up on election day, he either has to justify his absence before the authorities or pay a fine.

This, of course, means election turnout is always high.

Brazilians have to register to vote, and also present a valid ID at the polls (how else would the State enforce mandatory voting?). Votes in Brazil are cast into an electronic voting machine, no paper of any kind is involved.

When it comes to electing executive officers (mayors, governors and president), there’s a chance that a second round of voting is required.

The rule for second round is simple: if the winner of the first round fails to achieve more than half of valid votes, then the two most voted candidates get to run directly against each other in a poll held about 20 days after the first. Brazil hasn’t seen a direct first round win in a presidential race since 1998. How the valid votes are calculated is another, more complicated question best left for an advanced guide.

Then, the candidates

This year’s race has 13 registered candidates. If you’re used to the American system, don’t get dizzy. Keeping track of them all is not very unlike keeping track of the contenders in a Republican or Democrat primary.

To keep this concise — and easy — however, let’s take a closer look only at the six candidates who’ve reached more than 1% of voting intention in the more recent polls (August 22nd).

The former president doing hard time

Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, best known simply as Lula, was the president of Brazil from 2003 to 2006, then again from 2007 to 2010. He managed to register his candidacy to this year’s election despite the fact that he’s currently serving a 12 year jail sentence for corruption. According to a proposal he signed into law himself, any politician found guilty by a court of law should lose his eligibility rights, even if the possibility for an appeal is still open. That’s exactly his case. He’s been found guilty not only in the first trial, but after an appeal as well. His defense, however, hopes to appeal yet again.

It’s expected that his candidacy will be ruled as irregular by the superior courts, but since that might not be done until September 17th, he’s still has to be counted as a candidate.

Lula’s candidacy deserves an article of its own, but so far it suffices to say that he holds roughly 39% of voting intention, according to a DataFolha poll published on Bloomberg in August 24th.

Lula first ran for president in 1989, and has been a candidate in every election ever since, except in 2010 and 2014, when he gave way to his successor, Dilma Rousseff.

The Brazilian Trump

Jair Bolsonaro is a former army captain and Brazilian legislator of 30 years. He’s been making headlines for the past few years for his controversial, often flat out prejudiced, statements.

Bolsonaro shows up right behind Lula in the polls, with 20.5%. He owes a great deal of his popularity to a host of disenfranchised voters who can’t stand the old political figures. Yes, despite being in politics since the late 1980’s, Bolsonaro enjoys an outsider perception, since he’s not as much of an old face to the public outside his home state of Rio de Janeiro as Lula and other candidates are.

The environmentalist

Marina Silva has been running for president since 2010, and constantly coming in third, with a vote margin of about 20%. Former Environment Minister under president Lula in his first term, Silva puts the environment at the top of her agenda. Her religion, however, makes her a anti-abortion, anti-homosexual marriage social conservative.

According to the same DataFolha poll, Silva is holding on to her third place with 12% of voting intention.

The “old face” on the right

Geraldo Alckmin, four times elected governor of the state of São Paulo and lifelong career politician, is running for president for the second time. In politics since the early 1970’s, Alckmin is seen as an old figure in the more right-leaning side of the political aisle.

Pointed as having roughly 7.5% of voting intention, Alckmin has not seen his numbers soar as expected. The major alliances between his party, PSDB (the fourth largest in Brazil, with over a million registered members), and other major parties has not materialized in real voters’ support. Also accused of corruption by the same investigation that caused Lula’s condemnation and arrest, Alckmin has a major uphill battle against voters’ rejection ahead of him.

Another “old face” on the left

Ciro Gomes has also been in politics a long time, since the early 1980’s. He’s served in various positions, from elected offices such as state deputy and governor, to appointed offices such as Minister of Finance and Minister of National Integration, each under a different president.

Gomes has been receiving between 7.5% and 5% of voting intention, depending on the poll.

The economic liberal outsider

João Amoêdo is an engineer and businessman, one of the founders of Partido Novo (literal translation: New Party). He’s new to politics, never having run for office.

Amoêdo’s biggest platforms are lowering taxes and creating a freer economic environment in Brazil, propositions not common among the more populist discourses of other candidates, from both the left and the right. He’s been reaching between 1% and 2% in the polls.

And the rest of them

Yes, 13 candidates is a lot to keep track. But don’t give up just yet. Here’s a quick list of the last 7, all of them with less than 1% voting intention.

The other seven are: former senator Alvaro Dias, former Minister of the Economy and former president of the Central Bank Henrique Meirelles, university professor Guilherme Boulos, former military fireman and federal deputy Cabo Daciolo, former state deputy João Goulart Filho, former federal deputy José Maria Eymael, and school teacher Vera Lúcia.

And finally, the parties

Overall, it’s important to know that left and right lines are a little blurred in Brazilian politics. No wonder, since the country has 29 registered parties. Therefore, it’s a bit tricky to speak of a “right” or “left” side of the aisle, especially in a country in which even more right-leaning candidates tend to have a populist discourse.

That said, there are clearly left leaning parties, such as the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) and the Workers’ Party (PT), which was co-founded by Lula; while parties such as the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which supports Alckmin in this year’s election, is generally viewed as more right-leaning.

Another important information about the Brazilian political system is that the candidates receive “free” (read: taxpayer subsidized) time on TV to run their electoral advertisements, which should happen from August 31st to October 4th. The airtime for each party depends in large part on how many federal deputies currently in office the party has. That’s why party alliances play a major role in Brazilian elections. By joining forces, a group of parties can pile up more airtime. The biggest alliance this year, Alckmin’s, should have about 6 minutes of airtime, while candidates of smaller parties, such as Bolsonaro, will have under ten seconds.

To close, an overview of the political scenario

There are many reasons to watch this year’s election very closely. The fact that there’s a candidate literally in jail, and another who’s basically Brazilian Trump is just the tragicomic tip of the iceberg.

From angry popular protests before and after the 2014 World Cup, to Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and the corruption scandals that shook the political scenario, Brazilians are anxious for major change.

The majority of this year’s candidates are seen as old, corrupt political figures, who’ve contributed in some form or another to bring the country down into its worse recession ever, from which its barely starting to recover.

People are tired of a country which has been the “country of the future” since the time of their grandfathers, only no one has ever seen that future really materialize. Voters’ dissatisfaction can be noted in the percentage of undecided, which is at about 11%, and in the pulverization of votes between the many candidates.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the new president will have to deal with a country that’s recovering terribly slowly from a major recession; will have to face an unemployment rate of 13.1%, and the necessity of urgent reforms, such as social security and political reforms, to cite only a couple. All of that in a political climate of general discontentment with the Government.

It will not be easy. For anybody. But we’ll be here to watch — and judge.

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