Brazil is on Edge: The Two Most Important Civil Society Groups in the Brazilian Presidential Election 

Civil Society
Protest against the president on the Paulista Avenue in September 12. Photo by Lucas Landin.

Brazil is on Edge: The Two Most Important Civil Society Groups in the Brazilian Presidential Election 

by Dr Valesca Lima

What Happened in the Brazilian Election

The world’s eyes are on Brazil now, as South America’s largest democracy went into a polarized general election on October 1. After an election campaign marked by strong speeches and several incidents of political violence, the expected rebuke to Bolsonaro’s far-right government did not happen, as  electoral polls underestimated support for him. The Workers’ Party had the best performance in the history of a presidential candidate in the 1st round with 48.43% (57,257,036) of the valid votes. Lula’s performance was very strong, but he needed 50% + 1 of the valid votes to win in the first round.

Bolsonaro is much stronger than expected and fared better than he did in 2018. Despite a hecatomb of an administration, we cannot dismiss the power of ‘Bolsonarismo’. His party (Liberal Party – PL)  won a substantial victories in the Federal Senate (upper house) and in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) and will have the highest number of seats in both chambers. This was an important result that will be reflected in the next legislature, which will be one of the most conservative in the country’s recent history.

Evangelicals Vote for Conservative Values 

As the runoff takes place on Oct 30th, two political forces representing generally the Lula vs Bolsonaro divide show their relevance in the current political landscape. The first are evangelicals, who in recent years have grown in importance and size, expressing conservative values. These often included rolling back women’s rights, the end of secularization, and banning sex or gender education in schools. While there is a diversity of evangelical strands and not all of them are Bolsonaro followers, it is this cohort of the electorate that has attracted the campaign efforts of both candidates.

Interestingly, evangelicals tended to vote for the Workers’ Party in the last elections (2002 to 2014), but today they align around Bolsonaro’s anti-LGBT, pro-gun, and misogynistic positions. This turnaround was likely driven by decades of progressive policies that recognized the rights of indigenous communities, women, blacks, and LGBT+ people. This process was particularly accelerated in the four consecutive PT administrations, with the creation of affirmative policies aimed at  vulnerable groups, from expanding access to higher education to mass construction of social housing and creation of new social security benefits. The emphasis on progressive policies and the relative empowerment of civil society scared not only the business class, but also the more conservative sectors of society that were not satisfied with the improvement of workers’ rights (e.g. domestic workers) and progressive political reforms. This dissatisfaction led to the strong conservative reaction that we are witnessing.

Lula’s Diverse Civil Society Coalition

The second important group is a large mass of civil society groups, organized into social movements, professional, local communities, unions and activists who have highlighted in the last four years how Bolsonaro poses a threat to democracy through violent rhetoric and concrete violent actions. These are left-aligned groups, defenders of public policies and critics of the Bolsonaro government. In the four years of the Bolsonaro government, these groups faced challenges and risks due to the constant criminalization of political dissent. The promotion of attacks against journalists, prosecution social movement activists  and the incitement to hatred and discrimination against minorities through speeches and the dissemination of false information represented a real risk to their lives.

These groups still resist and have aligned themselves around Lula’s candidacy as the main (if not the only) option to resist the advance of the far-right agenda in the country. They demanded from Lula more investments in health, education, housing and science; promotion of human rights and demilitarization, expansion of the social and political rights of minorities, and environmental policies to protect the environment rather than financialize it. These progressive groups are one of the most significant and indispensable forces to resist new threats of authoritarianism and form a strong pillar in Lula’s supporter base.

Polarized Civil Society, Polarized Election

The difference between these two groups reflects the polarization of Brazilian politics and emphasizes the importance of the two political agendas at stake in the 2022 elections: one clearly anti-democratic, violent and exclusionary and the other that historically focused on the expansion of social rights, democratic values and respect for the difference. We will soon know whether Brazil will join the current ‘new pink wave’ of leftist governments in Latin America or if it will remain in a conservative wave for the next four years.

Dr Valesca Lima is Assistant Professor at Dublin City University. She specializes in governance, housing, social movements and Latin American politics. She is the author of ‘Participatory Citizenship and Crisis in Contemporary Brazil’ (2020) and also of the edited book ‘The Consequences of Brazilian Social Movements in Historical Perspective’ (2022).

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