Elections in Brazil: Blank and null votes are the favorite

Disillusioned with the political system because of corruption, more than half of Brazilians will stay home during elections in October.


Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website, esglobal. To read the original piece, click here.

“A few years ago, I decided to fill out a null ballot. It’s my way of telling the parties that I don’t trust them and that I don’t feel represented. I know it’s a protest that will not have any effect, but it’s the only thing I can do.” Claudio Nunes, a 49-year-old mathematics professor who lives in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, is the embodiment of 31 percent of the Brazilian electorate.

According to a recent study by the market research company Ibope, a third of Brazilian voters say they will fill out a blank or null ballot in October, while 28 percent are still undecided as to whether they will vote at all. In total, 59 percent of Brazilians show disillusionment with the country’s politicians.

“The disenchantment of citizens has much to do with corruption scandals, which have ensnared almost all parties. This has led to widespread distrust. The voters think that it is not worth voting because all politicians are going to be corrupt in some way,” says Sergio Praça, professor of political science at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in Rio de Janeiro.

The Ibope data confirms Praça’s theory. Forty-five percent of the electorate declares itself “pessimistic” or “very pessimistic” about the October presidential elections. According to the data, there’s a clear disinterest in elections behind this pessimism. The survey shows that 38 percent of citizens say they have “no interest” in the elections and 21 percent say that they have “little interest,” which accounts for 61 percent of those interviewed.

The reasons for this pessimism are varied. In the survey, “Brazilian Society 43: Perspectives for the elections” (Retratos de la Sociedad Brasileña 43 – Perspectivas para las elecciones), Ibope asked voters about the reasons behind their disillusionment. 30 percent pointed to corruption; 19 percent to the lack of confidence in the government and the candidates; 16 percent to the lack of choice among the candidates; and 11 percent to the lack of change and renewal. “This shows that the majority of voters do not believe in politicians and political parties. I estimate that in October, the abstention rate will be between 48 percent and 52 percent,” said Paulo Baía, professor of sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“Absenteeism will be quite high, especially in elections for Parliament, because choosing a deputy is much more complicated than electing a president. There are many candidates from different parties and even more information on television. For many voters it’s very difficult to form an opinion,” says Praça.

The typical profile of an absent voter, says Baía, is essentially a cross-section of Brazilian society: “It includes the poor and the rich, men and women. The archetype of the non-voter corresponds to the demographic profile of Brazil and to all social categories. In this sense, the disenchantment is very democratic.”

Even so, the data from surveys conducted in the build-up to the October elections show that women are responsible for the majority of the blank and null votes. According to the Ibope poll, six in ten voters who do not plan to vote are women between the ages of 35 and 44; they are disappointed with the corruption scandals that surround the political class and worried about the direction of the economy. Though women represent 52 percent of the electorate, they make up 55 percent of voters who have yet to choose a candidate.

For Hannah Maruci, a political scientist at the Department of Gender and Politics at the University of São Paulo, the fact that initiatives that address the needs of women are often the first to be sacrificed in the face of budget cuts helps to explain the increased disenchantment among female voters. The restructuring of the Secretariat for Policies for Women, which the Government of Michel Temer demoted from its status as a ministry, is a clear demonstration of this phenomenon. “They feel the greatest weight of the economic crisis and unemployment,” says Maruci.

To attract female voters, many candidates for the presidency have chosen women as vice presidential candidates. This includes Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB), who has chosen Senator Ana Amelia Lemos; Ciro Gomes (PDT), who has chosen Senator Katia Abreu and has promised to form a gender-equal government; and Guilherme Boulos (PSOL), whose running mate, Sônia Guajajara, is the first indigenous Brazilian on a presidential ticket. For his part, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in jail since April 7 for corruption and money laundering, has temporarily appointed former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad as his running mate, but everything points to fact that he’ll confirm Manuela D’Ávila of the Communist Party of Brazil as his running mate this month.

According to Esther Solano, professor of sociology at the Federal University of São Paulo, the high rates of abstention are very worrying and, at the same time, very understandable. “I call it the most Lava Jato effect. In Brazil there was always very low confidence in political parties and in Parliament. It is a country that historically does not trust in its structures of party representation. But after Lava Jato, disenchantment and frustration have reached a very high level because the impression is that all parties are corruption machines. This is very dangerous because it leaves room for populists like Jair Bolsonaro, who feed on this frustration,” says Solano.

In the most recent poll available, Bolsonaro appears as the second vote-getter, with 15 percent of the vote, in a scenario in which Lula is able to run. If the Superior Electoral Tribunal prohibits Lula from running, however, Bolsonaro leads the race with 17 percent of votes. Bolsonaro, who positions himself as an outsider, anti-system candidate despite having spent 30 years in the Rio de Janeiro government and Parliament, has another peculiarity: 23 percent of voters between the ages of 16 and 24 favor the right-wing firebrand, according to a Datafolha survey. Currently, of the 147.3 million voters in Brazil, about 23 million (15.6 percent of the electorate) are between the ages of 16 and 24.

The high rate of abstention and the null and blank votes are not a novelty in the troubled political landscape of Brazil. In fact, it is a trend that has been reinforced since the last general elections in 2014, when in the first round the number of abstentions reached 27.6 million, blank votes totaled 4.4 million, and null votes totaled 6.6 million, together accounting for a striking 29.03 percent of all eligible voters. Three out of every ten eligible voters, or 38.6 million Brazilians, gave up their right to choose their president in a country in which voting is mandatory by law.

Since then, the situation has worsened, evidenced in local elections in 2016 and the extraordinary elections in the states of Amazonas in 2017 and Tocantins in 2018. “Two years ago in almost all 26 state capitals of Brazil, the average abstention rate reached 47 percent. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the number of non-votes was even higher than the votes received by the first place candidate,” says Baía.

In Rio de Janeiro, 24.28 percent of voters decided not to vote, paying a symbolic fine for not fulfilling their obligation to vote. There were 1,866,621 abstentions or blank and null ballots. In São Paulo there were 3,096,304. São Paulo’s mayor, João Dória (PSDB), who ran on an outsider platform, won the elections with 3,085,187 votes—11,000 fewer votes than abstentions and blank and invalid ballots.

“It’s a new phenomenon. Never before has the no vote exceeded the 30 percent threshold. Suddenly going to 47 percent is striking. Last year in Amazonas the total reached the 50 percent threshold. This increase, although it can be interpreted as disenchantment of the population with politics, is actually a dynamic that makes politicians happy. It’s easier for them to win elections since the number of no votes and abstentions doesn’t matter for the final result. In Brazil, elections are valid even if only one percent of the population votes,” explains Baía.

The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 states that only valid votes count. However, the Electoral Code of 1965 provides for the annulment of elections if there are more than 50 percent of null votes in a majority election (it doesn’t mention abstention). Still, many Brazilian sociologists and political scientists believe the threat of annulling the vote will do little to alter the strategy of the main political parties.

In elections in the state of Tocantins last June, 19 percent of voters opted to cancel their vote and 30 percent abstained. Half of the 444,000 voters in this northern state disavowed their elected representatives. “I believe that the disinterest in politics in Brazil goes far beyond the corruption scandals and Lava Jato. This may be the most present motive in the heads of voters at this time, but it has more to do with a much broader crisis of representativeness. People are not going to vote because they do not feel that politicians really represent them,” says Ricardo Pinheiro, a spokesman for the Worker’s Party (PT) in Rio de Janeiro.

In the face of this setback in electoral participation and the deep-rooted distrust of the population, where do Brazil’s major political parties stand? Baía maintains that political parties have no interest in encouraging voter participation because they are accustomed to working within a political system based on clientelism. “The discrediting of politics is beneficial for castes and oligarchies. Those with a good party structure will get good results in October,” he says. “The parties should be seriously concerned with this situation. In fact, what many medium-sized parties are doing is concentrating their funds and energy on elections for Parliament, instead of betting everything on presidential elections. It’s the only way to survive for them,” adds Praça.

We asked all of the major Brazilian political parties about the crisis of disenchantment, but only PT agreed to an interview. Pinheiro, the PT spokesman, acknowledges that he is very concerned with low participation rates in elections: “Our strategy to attract more votes is to show the people what Brazil was in the time of Lula and what Brazil is now. In this sense, we hope to convince the electorate that with Lula it will be possible to take Brazil back to the path of development.” Pinheiro adds that the party is making an effort to understand why voters are staying home from the polls and trying to convince potential voters that the party can represent them.

What does seem increasingly clear is that Bolsonaro’s far-right populism will be able to capitalize on popular discontent. The ex-Army captain, who has been denounced on more than one occasion before the Brazilian courts for sexist, racist, and homophobic statements, presents himself to the electorate as a strong and honest man who can help fight corruption and violence in a country where there were more than 62,000 murders in 2017.

Bolsonaro can concentrate the protest vote, especially if the Superior Electoral Court decides to invalidate Lula’s candidacy based on the Clean Record Act, which prevents politicians who have been convicted for crimes more than once from participating in elections. In fact, Lula will prove to be a key element in the presidential elections, both to prevent a Bolsonaro victory and to reduce the number of abstentions. Ibope data show that the number of null and blank votes, as well as undecided voters, increase in a scenario in which Lula is not a candidate. During the build-up to the election, it will be interesting to see if the Bolsonaro campaign is able to mobilize disenchanted voters through social media, since his small party cannot afford extensive television advertising.

Some political scientists in Brazil have begun research to see if there has been a decisive change in political communication and the behavior of voters in the era of social media. The result of the October presidential elections could become, especially if Lula remains jailed, a watershed moment for contemporary political science.

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