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  • Bolsonaro and the Inequalities of Geographical Development in Brazil
  • Nelson Rojas de Carvalho and Orlando Alves dos Santos Junior

The election of Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency in 2018 shocked the world. Renowned for his conservative views and accused by many of defending fascist ideology, Bolsonaro ran as the candidate for the previously insignificant Social Liberal Party (PSL), as part of a coalition calling itself “Brazil Above Everything, God Above All.” This coalition was formed by the PSL and another small party, the Brazilian Labor Renewal Party (PRTB), with which Bolsonaro’s vice president, General Mourão, is affiliated.

In the second round of the elections, Bolsonaro ran against left-wing candidate Fernando Haddad, affiliated with the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), and won with 55.13 percent of votes cast, to Haddad’s 44.87 percent.

This stunning victory has led to various interpretations, in an attempt to comprehend and explain how a candidate with such conservative views was victorious in a country that between 2003 and 2017 was governed by a progressive left-wing party, the PT. Main explanations for Bolsonaro’s victory include the strong feelings of opposition toward the PT that have swept the country, and rising conservatism across society at a time when a general movement toward conservative values is being observed around the globe.

The purpose of this essay is to problematize these explanations through an analysis of the votes won by Bolsonaro and Haddad in the second round of the elections, and to raise some possible explanations that consider the complexity and heterogeneity of electoral behavior in Brazil, as well as the geographical expressions and implications of this.

We start with the understanding that electoral behavior is complex and cannot be explained by any one single cause. It is related to structural variables such as voters’ social and demographic traits (Berelson, Lazarfeld, & McPhee, 1954) and party identification (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1980), as well as to variables such as propaganda strategies used by parties and candidates and the struggle to set the political agenda and the main issues (Schattschneider, 1960). Given this perspective, explanations [End Page 198] for Bolsonaro’s victory should be sought by looking at a combination of various concurrent factors. In addition, it is important to remember that narratives used to explain the election results can also be contested, as these, too, are a part of the struggle to classify society (Bourdieu, 2001).

In line with approaches from critical theory (e.g. Brenner, 2010) and critical geography (e.g. Harvey 2001), it is our understanding that the interpretations of Brazil’s electoral results should take into consideration inequalities in geographical development and put “emphasis on the political and ideologically mediated, socially contested— and therefore malleable—character of urban spaces [and of territories in general]. In other words, their continuous (re)construction as places and environments, and the result of socially and historically specific power relations” (Brenner, 2010, p. 21).

Given the above, we point out some aspects that we believe should be taken into consideration in any analysis of the electoral results that won Bolsonaro the presidency of Brazil, and their different geographical expressions across the country.

emerging ultra-neoliberalism and the end of the polarization between the pt and the psdb

The 2018 elections marked the end of a long cycle of partisan competition between the center-left PT and the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSDB). These two parties had faced off against each other in the second round of the previous four presidential elections (2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014). The break from this cycle in 2018 was not due to weakness within the PT, which managed to elect a significant number of federal deputies and did field a candidate (Haddad) in the second round. Rather, PSDB’s poor showing in the 2018 elections and, above all, the failure of this party to reach the second round, attests to the fact that the country’s political center shifted during these elections in a way that benefited the far right, which until then had never achieved any significant political or electoral sway in Brazil.

A combination of several factors was undoubtedly behind the election of...