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  • Show Me a HeroPolitical disillusionment elevates a strongman before Brazil’s election
  • Joel Pinheiro Da Fonseca (bio)

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April 7, 2018, was a day of historical importance for Brazil. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was arrested for corruption and money laundering. Aside from being immensely popular, the center-left former president was, up until that day, also the leading contender in this year’s national election. [End Page 77] His arrest makes disqualification a near certainty. At the moment, there is no candidate on the left who comes close to his popularity or poll numbers. It is unclear how much of the goodwill toward his Workers’ Party (PT) will be transferred to a new candidate, and how much of it will flow elsewhere.

Lula is an unique figure in Brazilian politics: He’s a charismatic leader associated with left-wing and progressive causes (though far from a radical), as well as an able politician who can work backstage to stitch up unlikely alliances when needed. An outsized figure in the political establishment, he has also been involved in several corruption scandals, including the one that resulted in his arrest, in which he was found to have accepted a luxury beachfront apartment as a kickback from a major construction company. This came to light thanks to Operation Car Wash, a sweeping police operation that began in 2014 and has revealed the deep roots of corruption entangling the federal government, powerful political parties (including Lula’s PT), the country’s largest private contractors, and the state-controlled oil company Petrobras, which embezzled billions of reais. The scope of the scandal fueled the perception that no single party is to blame, and that the political establishment itself is inherently corrupt. Lula’s arrest satisfies both right-wing voters and a much larger group: those who have simply had enough of politicians and are deeply cynical about all of the country’s parties and candidates.

Like the U.S., Brazil has a presidential democracy in which people vote for local, state, and national leaders and elect representatives for the two houses of Congress. Unlike the U.S., there are no congressional districts, meaning that each state allocates a certain number of seats to the candidates with the most votes, and when a threshold is surpassed, votes are redirected to the next most popular candidate in that party. Brazil has 35 political parties; 28 currently have seats in Congress. Campaigns follow very strict rules: Political ads can’t be privately bought, and the state allocates primetime TV slots to each party according to the number of seats they hold in Congress. That same logic is applied to the distribution of public money for campaigning and party-building. Since 2015, there has been a ban on corporate donations to political campaigns, which makes it almost impossible for a candidate to win without forming alliances. During the presidential election season, a candidate’s ties determine their national base of support, the amount of money available to them, and the time they get for TV ads. With these incentives, even the most extreme politicians typically bend to the interests of moderates. At least, they did. Thanks to political disillusionment and the rise of social media, there is now more room for non-mainstream candidates.

This is where Jair Bolsonaro comes in. Currently at second place at the polls, Bolsonaro is Lula’s diametrical opposite. Seen as a political outsider, he is a retired army captain with socially conservative values and a tough stance on crime. He favors a reactionary moral agenda, opposes abortion and adoption by gay couples (he’s said he would prefer a dead son to a gay one), and proudly rebuffs progressive causes. Not one to hold his tongue, Bolsonaro has made remarks in the recent past that have led to lawsuits against him, including one that could, in theory, cost him his candidacy. (The suit, for alleged racist statements made at a Jewish club in 2017, is making its way through the system but will certainly not be heard by the election in October.) Regardless, these incidents hardly matter...