Brazil presidential election: Political violence sweeps across country as electorate prepares for divisive vote

Incendiary presidential frontrunner and backlash from large-scale corruption investigation creates tense political atmosphere

Ciara Long
Rio de Janeiro
Sunday 21 October 2018 17:50
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Brazil presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro stabbed at campaign event

Walking through Belo Horizonte’s city centre on a hot afternoon on 10 October, 20-year-old student Gabi Coelho had been on her way to a meeting. But a young white man walking behind her noticed a political sticker on her backpack and began to yell at her.

“He called me a Workers Party monkey, a dirty black woman,” says Coelho. Taller and stronger than Ms Coelho, the man grabbed her by her backpack and shook her violently. Her attacker only stopped when a homeless man intervened, choosing to then run away. “Hatred has spread from social networks to the streets,” she says.

Coelho’s case is one of more than 100 that have happened across Brazil in the days surrounding incendiary candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s near-landslide during the first round of the country’s presidential election. In the most polarised election of Brazil’s young democracy, already-inflamed tensions have triggered political violence across the country as the 28 October run-off vote approaches.

Bolsonaro remains the frontrunner, currently polling at 59 per cent against Workers' Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, who captures 41 per cent of voting intentions, according to investment firm Ibope.

Known for preaching the politically incorrect and praising Brazil’s military dictatorship, Mr Bolsonaro’s current popularity is also partly due to distrust in the PT. But since 1 October, civil discontent has mutated into violence among voters.

In the days after the 7 October vote, a capoeira master in Bahia state was stabbed 12 times by a Bolsonaro voter, after revealing that he had voted for the PT. The sister of assassinated Rio de Janeiro city councillor Marielle Franco was recognised and threatened as she walked down the street with her daughter. In Amazonas, a gay man was threatened by his driver on a ride-sharing app while they discussed politics.

Dozens of other threats and attacks, where victims were targeted for expressing political views but were also often minorities, were recorded by police across the country. Mr Bolsonaro, instead of condemning the violence, simply stated that he has “nothing to do” with it.

Famous for remarks that his fellow congresswoman was too ugly to “deserve” to be raped and that he would rather his son die in an accident than be gay, Mr Bolsonaro this week even earned an endorsement from the Klu Klux Klan.

“Elections have always been polarised. But now you have a candidate who says that minorities must bow down to the majority, and who says he’ll gun down opponents,” says Thiago Krause, a history professor at Unirio. “Respect for the freedom and physical safety of others is being eroded”.

Already-frequent verbal attacks have become a part of daily life since the first round of elections for Benny Briolla, a 26-year-old black transvestite in Rio. “They yell ‘Bolsonaro 2018’, and 'When Bolsonaro is president we’ll be able to kill people like you,'” she says.

Vanessa Silva, a pro-bono lawyer who works with vulnerable women and female activists, says her workload has grown in recent weeks as threats from Bolsonaro voters have proliferated.

“People are already intolerant and this authoritarian political slant is only worsening things,” she says. “People are unable to debate their opinions, because it generates criticisms and violence.”

Violent crime has spiked in recent years, breaking its own murder record in 2017 with some 63,880 homicides. For Mr Krause, Brazil’s ordinarily high levels of violence are a part of the reason for the current wave of attacks. “The perpetrators are people who already feel that violence is a resource to be used,” he says.

Yet Brazilians remain starkly divided. While Mr Krause says not all Brazilians share Bolsonaro’s views on minorities, plenty of voters would rather elect anyone than the PT.

For many among the electorate, the PT is to blame for Brazil’s devastating recession, which saw an unemployment spike and forced the country’s new middle class to tighten their belts. Voters also believe the party is responsible for widespread political corruption, unveiled by large-scale investigation Operation Car Wash which has embroiled almost a third of Congress and put former president Lula da Silva behind bars.

Elections have always been polarised. But now you have a candidate who says that minorities must bow down to the majority, and who says he’ll gun down opponents 

Thiago Krause, history professor

“Many Brazilians make a connection between these two crises, putting corruption as the cause for the economic crisis,” explains Maurício Santoro, an international relations professor at Rio de Janeiro’s state university.

“This generated an even greater rejection of the PT, which was only deepened this year due to the polarisation around Lula.”

Meanwhile Mr Bolsonaro, despite his 28-year-long political career, boasts that he has never been involved in political corruption. In recent weeks, a series of headlines accusing his vice, his pick for Minister of Economy and his right-hand man of corruption, have done little to discourage Bolsonaro voters. Among his supporters, even Bolsonaro’s track record in Congress – just two bills approved out of more than 600 proposed during his career – reinforce his image as an anti-establishment crusader.

But for Maurício Canêdo, a professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas’s economics institute, Bolsonaro’s likely victory may not result in the economic growth that Brazilians are desperate for.

The International Monetary Fund projects that Brazil’s GDP growth will sit at around 2.2 per cent until the end of 2022, when the next presidential elections will take place. Essential measures for public debt in relation to GDP growth, such as pension reform, are as reviled among Brazilians as they are applauded by international investors.

“Although he has a very liberal economics team, it’s unclear if Bolsonaro will want to carry out these reforms when the times come, due to their high political cost,” says Canêdo. “His honeymoon with the markets could be interrupted if he delays with these reforms.”

Historian Krause says that violent intolerance could remain a resource for Bolsonaro as he seeks a scapegoat in the face of public dissatisfaction. “The dictatorship didn’t need popular support, but Bolsonaro needs his supporters to love him fervently,” he says. “My expectation is that things will gradually deteriorate and this violence will become normalised.”

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