Brazilian Elections and its “Bottom Billion” Struggles

Despite having advanced economically in the last few years, Brazil still needs to manage to overcome the political barriers that characterize the bottom billion countries.


Photo: Favelas in Rio de Janeiro by Pat from Pixabay.

Regarding electoral technology, the processes Brazil has carried out have represented a reference point for the world. Since its implementation in 1996, the electronic ballot box has been one of the main strategies used by the superior electoral court (TSE) to curb attempts at manipulation.

However, this same innovation brought about distrust among the electorate, given the complex system behind the ballot boxes. This same mistrust has been used as an instrument by candidates who, foreseeing their defeat, tend to disqualify the entire electoral process.

This narrative is not exclusive to Brazil. Electoral democracies, in general, are used to dealing with these sorts of attempts to generate instability in the electoral process, either on the part of the candidate who is incumbent and wishes to remain so or by a candidate who, foreseeing defeat, ventures to go against the whole electoral system and engineer a different result.

Among the consequences of inciting popular revolt against the institutions responsible for conducting the election and not accepting a result is the escalation of political violence. In the Brazilian reality, political violence is more intense at the subnational level, but this scenario also seems to have been extended to the general elections, in which the electorate chooses some of the highest positions in the public administration.

Among the explanations for this phenomenon is the fact that the transition from the authoritarian period to democracy was made through agreements that did not necessarily extinguish previous political conflicts. That is, like other countries that went through a democratization process in the mid-1980s and 1990s, Brazil used elections as a balm for pre-existing tensions. Thus, it can be argued that the fierce tempers in the recent elections are due not only to emotional polarities but also reflect the compromise that transition leaders saw as the best solution for the country, but one that did not help Brazil advance toward full democracy.

Thus, despite the initiatives of the electoral administration body to curb the manipulation of votes, we see the intensification of disinformation tactics and narratives that generate instability and violence, which, due to the young age of our democracy, are still present in the processes of choice.

Ideally, democracy and the economy should go hand in hand. In other words, in countries that are at least at middle-income levels, democracy is capable of systematically reducing the risk of political violence. In societies where poverty reigns, democracy amplifies dangers, making its processes more dangerous. Brazil is back on the hunger map, produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), indicating that despite the incentives given by the government, poverty has returned as a scourge, remaining difficult to combat. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the current election is one of the most violent in recent years, given this correlation.

Nevertheless, Brazil’s political environment resembles Paul Collier’s notion of “bottom billion societies,” or countries with weak economic growth that concentrate a large part of their efforts on poverty reduction. Above all, this reality reflects the strength of identities. Among the more prevalent values in Brazil, we have those more conservative—linked to more traditional concerns about family and religion—versus more progressive views—focused on the promotion of political and social rights of minorities. These values are exemplified by the proposals presented by the finalist candidates of the current campaign period, in the media, and especially on social networks. 

Democracy tends to work better in societies with large populations, such as the Brazilian one, but with fewer identity divisions. In general, all citizens have some sub-national identity, and usually several of them. So, a society can function perfectly well if its citizens have multiple identities, but problems arise when these subnational identities overlap loyalty to the nation. These Brazilian general elections demonstrate this idea well, with two presidential candidates with antagonistic worldviews and identification with one or the other vision overcoming that of national identity.

Even though they are similar in the aspects mentioned, the Brazilian elections diverge from those of the bottom billions in terms of electoral competitiveness. For the process still underway, it is already possible to see a renewal of parliamentary seats, with newly created parties, but which have launched candidacies for key positions such as state government and senate, of several personalities already known in national politics. It is also worth pointing out that the country is still struggling to achieve greater gender equity in politics, as almost no women were elected to the positions in dispute. Gender quotas for deputies clearly help because where such measures are not mandatory, there are very few women elected to political positions.

Despite having advanced economically in the last few years, Brazil still needs to manage to overcome the political barriers that characterize the bottom billion countries. For this exercise, I considered technical aspects, such as adopting the electronic ballot box, which represents a significant advance against the attempts to manipulate the elections. But, given the underlying identity issues present in the country, even apolitical measures have a strong tendency to affect and retrench polarization.

Dr. Paula Gomes Moreira is the coordinator for Brazil at the American Conference of Subnational Electoral Organizations (Caoeste), of Transparencia Eleitoral América Latina, and a consultant at the International Organization for Migration (IOM/U.N.). Follow her on twitter at @twipaulagomes.

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