2018 Elections in Brazil: Political Reorder or ‘Gatopardism’?

This post is the introduction to our virtual special issue on the 2018 Brazil elections. The issue was edited by Adrián Albala and André Borges, from the University of Brasilia, who also wrote this introduction.


Brazil’s 2018 Election have widely been commented for three main reasons. First, the emergence, or better said the meteoric ascension, of a hardcore right-wing populist to the presidency. Second,   the unprecedented and dramatic polarization of the electorate, conducing to a centrifuged electoral campaign. Finally, as a consequence of the two previous points, the emergence of a far-right political force and the decline of traditional central political parties (namely the MDB and PSDB).

If the conflagration in 2014 of the Lava Jato corruption scandal constitutes the main background to this hinge electoral contest, the potential effects of this election are still unclear and unpredictable. However, the proposal of this virtual issue consists in highlight some explanatory elements that may further an understanding of the emergence of Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral linkages, and the impacts on the Brazilian political system.

As a matter of fact, the emergence of populist figures have widely been documented and treated by the literature in political science, mostly in the 1990s and 2000’s (see for instance Taguieff 2007, Taggart 2000, Mudde 2004, and for Latin America: Weyland 2000 Knight 1998 and Roberts 2006). By the same token, their conversion to neoliberal doctrines is also well understood and documented (see for instance Weyland 2003).

Also, the emergence of such figures to the highest political responsibilities usually leads to a polarization of the whole society (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). While this polarization carries evident preoccupations in terms of political and democratic stability, it also fosters a rapprochement between political parties and significant parts of the civil society (Albala 2017). Indeed, in such a context remaining neutral may reveal costly in terms of political organization and identity.

This may, thus, conduce to a return of political parties into the political game, in a country marked by an atomised party system (30 parties where represented in the lower house between 2014 and 2018), where party brands mostly serve individual interests and/or lack on programmatic identity.

On another hand, the Brazilian party and political system may reveal a strong political constraint to any personalistic and unilateral way of government.

The elements presented above, and their potential consequences are well analysed by the authors of our selection, which may bring us some analytical keys to what is at stakes after this election.

Our selection

This special issue brings in six articles picked from the Politics’s archive.

First, Paulo Sotero’s article “Brazil’s Rising Ambition in a Shifting Global Balance of Power”, shows an interesting picture on how the country used to behave and feel a few years ago, under the first mandate of Dilma Rousseff. The context was of an – apparently- consolidated and stable democracy. The economic context was of solid expansion with a GDP growth rate rounding the 5%/year, and unemployment rates historically low (5.5% in 2013). These extremely favourable conditions increased Rousseff’s popularity which, in March 2013, registered astronomic levels of 79% approval[1].

However, this positive context began to reverse, quickly, by the end of Rousseff’s first mandate, for three main reasons. First, in June 2013 the country experienced a massive “a-politic” social movement, with social demands for better redistribution of Brazil’s growth. Rousseff failed to respond to this movement, which ended up spreading over the course of a month. This contributed to erode her popularity. By July 2013, she had lost more than half of her approval rates.

Additionally, 2013’s socio-economic context was marked by a sudden slowdown, registering a 0.9% (Barbosa Filho 2017). Rousseff incapacity to respond to the systemic cause of this economic stagnation, increased the perception of her governing incapacity. This perception was rather present among her coalesced partners whom repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction against Rousseff centralism and rigidity.

Last but not least, in 2014 the lava jato judicial operation was all over the media and revealed the most important corruption scandal in Brazil’s recent history. Several members of Dilma Rousseff’s workers’ party (PT) where involved and incarcerated. Eight years after the mensalãoscandal, this event contribute to freeze the image of the PT as a corrupted party among significant parts of the electorate.

Under this context, the 2014 electoral contest was marked by an increasing radicalization of the electorate, which led to Rousseff re-election. Hence, the inauguration of her second mandate occurred under a much less favourable context, marked by economic depression (Barbosa filho 2017) and political tension with her coalesced allies (mostly the MDB).

During the first year of Rousseff’s second mandate, the caretaker government of Roussef’s vice-president, Michel Temer, has been mostly unsuccessful in dealing with the political and economic crises. Temer’s party, the MDB was the PT’s largest coalition partner at least until the first year of Roussef’s second term, but its leaders (Temer included) decided to join the opposition in an effort to impeach the president in 2016. Coalition breakdown was partly motivated by the PT’s decision to dispute the election for the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies against MDB deputy Eduardo Cunha in 2015.

Following his victory, Cunha used his position to take revenge against the president, with the support of the opposition PSDB (Brazilian Social Democratic Party). Popular protest against the government fueled by corruption and a severe recession gave Cunha and his allies the opportunity they needed to start the impeachment process. However, it soon became clear that the parties that led the impeachment – Temer’s MDB and Neves’ PSDB – were also implicated in the corrupt schemes of campaign financing uncovered by the Lava Jato operation. Two major scandals involving directly president Michel Temer and then senator Aécio Neves contributed for further demoralizing Brazil’s major parties. To make matters worse, Brazil’s economic recovery was much slower than expected by Temer’s economic team: GDP grew by only 1% in 2017, after a 3.6% contraction in the previous year.

Hence, Brazil’ current situation appears very similar to that of 1994 Italy after the Mani Pulite scandal, which led to the election of Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister and opened an era of political reordering that conduced to a dramatic reorganization of the Italian political and party system. As Italy’s “partytocracy” was hit hard by the uncovering of endemic corruption, the outsider alternative represented by Berlusconi and his Forza Italia rapidly occupied the political vacuum. The winning electoral alliance led by Berlusconi included both neo-fascist MSI and the secessionist Northern League, which revealed a clear electoral realignment. While the political center shrunk, Italian voters opted for granting a majority to the populist right in the lower chamber (Partridge, 1994; Carbone and Newell, 2008, in this issue).

Not different from Berlusconi, Brazil’s extreme right presidential candidate has gained support by promising to put an end to political corruption associated with traditional parties. In particular, Bolsonaro has taken advantage of popular rejection to the Worker’s Party (PT) and to former president Lula, who was arrested in April under charges of trading favours with a construction company in exchange for a beachfront apartment. Lula governed the country for two mandates (2003-2010) and he appointed as his successor Dilma Roussef, who was elected president in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.Economic mismanagement and a billionaire corruption scandal involving Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobrás, contributed for the fall of Roussef before the end of her second term. Although she was not personally implicated in the Petrobrás scandal, the president was impeached in 2016 under charges of illegally manipulating government accounts to improve fiscal results.

Although the PT sought to blame Temer’s government for the country’s poor economic performance, rejection to the party grew rapidly in the recent years. Voters attributed to the PT a substantial share of the responsibility for widespread corruption and rising unemployment, amidst one of the worst economic crises in Brazilian history. Throughout the electoral campaign, Bolsonaro presented himself as the “anti-PT” candidate, by articulating a moral discourse that combines the condemnation of corruption and the advocacy of conservative agendas against the alleged perversion of Christian values by the PT and the political left. By dividing the political space in two clear poles, those being the good Christian citizens represented by the extreme right, on the one hand, and the corrupt, atheistic and perverted political left, on the other, Bolsonaro and his followers successfully transformed the election into a cultural war, the severity and complexity of Brazil’s economic problems notwithstanding.

The focus on identity politics and on moral issues is surely not a peculiarity of the Brazilian extreme right. As pointed out by Neocleous and Startin in this issue, the rhetoric of the Front Nationalin France relies on the well-known narrative about the threat to national security and national values represented by immigration.

However, whereas the extreme-right in France and Italy has obtained disproportionate support from the least developed regions and from the white lower class, Jair Bolsonaro and his PSL performed best in the first-round election in Brazil’s wealthier areas, the Centre-West, South and Southeast regions. Also, in the same vein, the reemergence and recent consolidation of radica right-wing parties in Europe, and their characterisation as grass-rooted parties instead of mere “protest” parties, seem to differ from what characterizes Brazilian PSL (and Latin American right-wing anti-systemic parties, in general) as ideologically fluid and flexible[2].

On the other hand, the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, concentrated the bulk of his vote in the impoverished Northeast, where he obtained 50% of the votes against 26% of Bolsonaro. In constrast, in Brazil’s most industrialized region, the Southeast, Bolsonaro won by a large margin: 53% x 19%. The Northeast has become the electoral fortress of the PT thanks to the positive effect of large-scale income transfer programs and public investment on infrastructure on the overall levels of employment and welfare, especially during the Lula administration (Rennó and Cabello, 2010; Zucco, 2008).  Unemployment rates are higher in the Northeast – in the first quarter of 2018, 16% of the working force was unemployed in the region, as compared to a national average of 13% – and the dependency of the regional economy on the public sector reduces the appeal of the liberal economics of Bolsonaro.

The geography of the presidential vote is closely related to class differences in voting behavior. Indeed, opinion polls demonstrate that support for the extreme right is positively related to income and schooling.  The latest poll released by DataFolha three days before the runoff elections showed that 37% of voters earning up to 2 minimum wages intended to vote for Bolsonaro, as compared to 61% of voters at the top of the income ladder (10 minimum wages and over). The same patterns were observed with regard to schooling: Bolsonaro led the polls among voters with colleged education (54% against 34%), whereas Haddad performed best among voters with primary education or less (45% x 39%).

Regional and class differences between the supporters of Bolsonaro and Haddad, indicates that the former’s electoral success cannot be attributed to mobilization of the ‘losers of globalization’, or more specifically, to the sectors of society most affected by Brazil’s poor economic performance in the recent years. In this sense, the Brazilian extreme right relies on constituencies that differ from traditional supporters of the Front National in France or the MSI in Italy.  Bolsonaro also differs from cases of right-wing populism in Latin America analyzed by Weyland (2003) and Levitsky (1999). For instance, whereas Alberto Fujimori succeeded in mobilizing the lower strata of Peruvian society against the mostly white political elite, Bolsonaro obtains stronger support among upper class, white voters.

In a more global analysis, one can conclude that the political consequences of the 2008 world economic crisis have just arisen, carrying a wave of popular discontent and the appearing of an anti-systemic and illiberal wave all around the world. In this sense, Bolsonaro’s emergence inscribes as a similar phenomenon to Donald Trump’s election to whom he has openly expressed his admiration. As a matter of fact, Chryssogelos, in this issue, highlights pretty well the causes and consequences of an internationalization of populism, populist rhetoric and their relations to the State.

One can find similar patterns with what have been occurring in Europe in the last decade, with the emergence of political leaders like Viktor Orban or Reçep Tayyip Erdogan, among others, even if the causes diverge somehow (around the question of the European identity and values). Indeed, in this issue, Pirro et al (2018) point out the conditions to the electoral progression and attractiveness of far-right movements in Europe, and the growing porosity of the identity lines between those movements and the more traditional conservative parties.

By the same token, the appearing of these anti-systemic movements has been marked, in every case, by rejection of the traditional elites and led to deep political realignments of the party system. In the Brazilian case, the involvement of all of the major parties in a corrupt scheme of campaign financing has boosted the vote of Bolsonaro’s PSL in Congressional and regional elections: the party obtained 52 seats in the 2018 election, whereas the current delegation is comprised of eight parliamentarians. But the PT still maintained the largest delegation in the lower chamber with 56 deputies and it elected the governors of three states, including the state of Bahia, the fourth largest in population. On the other hand, the major Centre parties – the MDB and the PSDB – suffered heavy losses in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies. Gubernatorial elections also revealed voters’ disposition to punish traditional parties and reward conservative political outsiders, most of which benefited from Bolsonaro’s coattails in the concurrent presidential race. In two of the three largest states, previously unknown politicians, backed by small political parties – Romeu Zema in Minas Gerais and Wilson Witzel in Rio de Janeiro – are leading the polls released just before the runoff election to be held on Sunday 28 October.

In spite of their obvious significance, electoral changes should not be interpreted as a sign of party system collapse. The good performance of the political right notwithstanding, the PT remains as Brazil’s most organized and socially rooted party. Voters identifying with the PT represent a sizable 23% of the electorate according to the latest DataFolha opinion poll released this year, whereas no other party counts on more than 5% of voters’ preferences.

Finally, Brazil’s political system is characterized by high levels of consociationalism, in that it combines separation of powers, extreme multipartyism, robust federalism, and increasingly active and independent courts. No President has ever governed without the support of a multiparty coalition  and it is likely that Bolsonaro will be forced to share power with other right-wing and centre parties, despite his promise of assembling a cabinet formed mostly by technocrats and members of the armed forces. The upper house may act as an additional veto point, especially considering that Brazil’s bicameralism is highly symmetric and the senate figures among the most powerful upper houses in world. Because senators are elected by majority rule whereas deputies dispute preferential votes in PR elections held in multimember districts, and only part of the Senate is renewed at each electoral cycle, the composition of the two chambers often differs. The PSL will control the fourth largest delegation , with only 4 senators out of 81; the MDB will maintain its position as the largest party in the upper chamber, followed by the PSDB. In order to pass legislation, Bolsonaro will need to obtain majorities in both chambers, which will create further incentives for sharing power with parties other than his own.

Further constraints on presidential power are likely to arise from the lack of vertical partisan alignment between the federal and the state governments. State governors are responsible for the implementation of key policies in the fields of education and public security and those in command of the largest states, such as São Paulo or Minas Gerais, are natural aspirants to the presidency. Although gubernatorial candidates from various parties have declared their intention to vote for Bolsonaro in the presidential race, there is no guarantee that such support, motivated mostly by short-run electoral considerations, will translate into political alignment with Brasília. Furthermore, Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL, will likely govern only three small states, located in the North and South regions.

Considering all these factors, this election may, in an optimistic view, derive to a mere gatopardism, that is the reproduction of common patterns of Brazilian politics, despite a profound change of the actors and/or institutions[3].



Albala, A. (2017) “Introduction: Political Parties and Social Movements in Latin America (2011–2016)”. In: Albala, A (Ed) Civil Society and Political Representation in Latin America. New York: Springer, pp. 1-30

Barbosa Filho, F. H. (2017) A crise econômica de 2014/2017. Estudos Avançados,31(89): 51-60

Knight, A. (1998)Populism and Neo-Populism in Latin America, Especially Mexico.Journal of Latin American Studies, 30(2): 223-248

Levitsky, Steven. (1999) Fujimori and post-party politics in Peru. Journal of Democracy10(3): 78-92.

Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D. (2018) How Democracies Die. New York: Crown

Mudde, C. (2004) The populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition39(4): 541–563

Rennó, L., and Cabello A(2010) As bases do lulismo: a volta do personalismo, realinhamento ideológico ou não alinhamento? Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais25(74): 39-60

Roberts, K. (2006) Populism, Political Conflict, and Grass-Roots Organization in Latin America. Comparative Politics, 38(2): 127-148

Taggart, P. (2000) Populism. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Taguieff, P.A. (2007) L’illusion populiste. Paris: Flammarion

Weyland, K (2003) Neopopulism and Neoliberalism in Latin America: How Much Affinity?Third World Quarterly, 24(6):1095-1115

_________ (2000) A Paradox of Success? Determinants of .Political Support for President Fujimori, International Studies Quarterly44(3):481-502

Zucco, Cesar. “The president’s ‘new’constituency: Lula and the pragmatic vote in Brazil’s 2006 presidential elections.” Journal of Latin American Studies40.1 (2008): 29-49.

[1]      https://noticias.uol.com.br/politica/ultimas-noticias/2013/03/19/dilma-cni-ibope.htm

[2]      The proper name of the PSL,”Partido Social Liberal” (Social Liberal Party) constitutes a proof of this flexible identity.

[3]      Gatopardism, from the novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa, is usually to refer to profound policies or institutional changes that led, n practice, to mere alterations of power structures. This phenomenon can be resumed by the sentence: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Javier Sajuria

Javier Sajuria

Dr Javier Sajuria is Editor in Chief of Politics. He holds a PhD in Political Science and a MSc in Democracy and Democratisation from UCL. He also holds a Law degree (Licentiate in Law - J.D.) from PUC Chile. His research interests include political behaviour, comparative politics, social media and politics, and political methodology. His current research projects focus on electoral politics, elite politics (candidates and legislators), techniques for latent variable estimation, and the study of false information.

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