Brazil’s 2018 Elections and the Strength of a Weak Campaign

By Andreza De Souza Santos

– Why are you voting for Bolsonaro?
– I am voting for him because with PT I know what happened, with Bolsonaro, I have at least hope in the unknown.

Brazil is electing its next President on Sunday the 28th of October. This is a presidential race where people are voting not necessarily for their preferred candidate, but mainly for the candidate they reject the least, which often is the candidate they know the least, as demonstrated by the conversation above.

To simulate ignorance, to avoid direct confrontation, to be evasive in propositions, and to remain invisible, are important tools in a race where candidates are combating their rejection numbers as much as they are battling for supporters. In this scenario Jair Bolsonaro is being successful using the “weapons of the weak”.

Political strategies among those without political power include civil disobedience, false compliance, simulated ignorance, sabotage, and prevarication, as discussed in academic literature. In Brazil the saying manda quem pode e obedece quem tem juizo, which we could be translated as, “those who command do so because they can, and those who obey do so because they are conscious of those positions” represents very well the need to avoid direct confrontation to escape political persecution, economic isolation, or interference in kinship and friendship ties – often one’s source of economic survival. Especially in small Brazilian towns, instead of directly confronting those in power, people commonly opt for civil disobedience. For example, to skip fines or house removal when living in informal settlements, people build up houses during weekends and vacation periods, and when government inspectors arrive a family is already well settled in. Quietly squatting is one example of getting by in cities with great housing deficits while at the same time avoiding direct confrontation.

If invisibility in house building can be an important resource for those houseless; politicians, however, as members of Brazil’s economic upper class and with access to a broad communication system (television, radio, and social media), have not only the social and economic power to, but also the duty, to remain visible and accountable.

Politics of avoidance

knife attack in the beginning of the presidential race prevented Jair Bolsonaro from participating in political debates. His opponents would certainly have challenged the leading candidate, especially on his negative remarks regarding gender equality, and human rights and environmental protection. But he had the possibility to avoid such confrontations and kept most of his political agenda to himself while in the hospital. He also stopped those already announced as part of his government from talking to the press, such as his running vice-president and finance minister.

Though avoidance can be blamed on the repugnant attack on his life, simulated ignorance is part of Bolsonaro’s campaign. The candidate is a member of the parliament for the past 27 years, but he is running as an outsider by emphasizing a position in the baixo-clero (how members in the lower bottom of Brazil’s Congress are known). Politicians in such positions highlight ignorance of the political system to avoid any trace of compliance with corruption schemes.

President Michel Temer already used a similar strategy when he was Dilma Rousselff’s vice-president. Temer called himself vice-decorativo, or a worthless politician in Dilma’s government, thus dissociating himself from the political crisis of Dilma’s second mandate. Despite the impressive political trajectory of Temer (former president of his party and former president in the House of Chambers), by hailing his role in Dilma’s mandate as decoration-only, he promoted his future government as part of Brazil’s solution even though he was part of the problem.

Campaign through Social Media

In a world where algorithms can decide what news one sees in timelines, it is not difficult to imagine that we can have the same candidate presented differently to different people. In the case of Jair Bolsonaro, who is chiefly only using social media, we have a meme-like dissemination of ideas, which are not only demeaning in content, but also, such short messages distributed via mobile phones, offer little room for confrontation. Such confrontations are important to guarantee a reality check – that propositions are trustworthy, feasible, and that contradictions are solved.

Fear regarding a forthcoming Bolsonaro’s government is reaching a crescendo as Brazil approaches the Election Day. Anxiety is justified as ideas, programmes and a list of could-be ministers and ministries are sorely lacking in his campaign. While the unknown raises apprehension, one thing we already know, Brazil’s democracy is already harmed when information and accountability are undermined by a candidate whose strength is a weak campaign.

Dr Andreza Aruska de Souza Santos is a Lecturer and Director of the Brazilian Studies Programme in the Latin American Centre at the University of Oxford.

Originally posted 27th October 2018

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