The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Brazil’s election, the traditional political class is wiped out

Supporters of presidential front-runner Jair Bolsonaro celebrate Sunday’s election numbers.
Supporters of presidential front-runner Jair Bolsonaro celebrate Sunday’s election numbers. (Eraldo Peres/Associated Press)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — From the Amazon region to the posh condominiums of Sao Paulo, a conservative wave swept over Latin America’s largest nation this past weekend.

Millions of Brazilians woke up on Monday to a drastically altered political landscape. Jair Bolsonaro, 63, an ex-army captain known for his tough talk on crime and his vitriol against women, blacks, native Brazilians and gays, had been expected to do well in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday. But not this well. Nearly 50 million voters — or 46 percent of the electorate — backed him in a contest with 13 candidates.

That made Bolsonaro the odds-on favorite in a runoff election later this month that could hurl Brazil into new political territory. 

Since Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985, presidents have mostly been cut from centrist cloth. The country shifted to the left in 2003 with the presidential victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known as Lula — and his Workers’ Party went on to govern for 13 years. Before Sunday, this young democracy had never seriously flirted with the far right.

Bolsonaro has slammed government-mandated quotas for minorities at universities, and wants to develop the Amazon. He favors looser gun laws so civilians can fight a crime wave. He has called the former dictatorship “beautiful,” raising questions about his commitment to democracy.

But he attracted a huge number of votes by pledging to jump-start the economy and fight crime and corruption.

The results from the presidential race told only part of the story. Brazilians on Sunday massacred a traditional political class widely discredited by a massive bribery scandal. Voters ousted an extraordinary two-thirds of incumbents. Bolsonaro’s own party — once a political afterthought — scored stunning gains, going from just eight seats to becoming the second largest party in the 513-member lower house, with 52 seats. The left lost some seats. But the center collapsed. 

“Bolsonaro is accelerating the rupture of Brazilians into two antagonistic camps,” said Robert Muggah, director of the Igarapé Institute, a Rio de Janeiro-based think tank that specializes in security issues.

Before the vote, polls had given Bolsonaro a roof of about 40 percent; many analysts expected him to score no higher than 35 percent. But he shot through those numbers, besting his closest opponent — Fernando Haddad, from the leftist Workers’ Party — by nearly 17 percentage points. Analysts say that many Brazilians appeared to change their votes just days before the election.

Some changed their minds in the polling both.

Ligia Torggler, a 58-year-old Sao Paulo retiree, said she entered the polling station thinking she would vote for Geraldo Alckmin, a traditional center-right politician. But she decided otherwise because, she said, she knew Bolsonaro would win anyway — and she thought he was the only candidate strong enough to prevent a return of the left. 

“I got chills having to do this,” she said.

Bolsonaro’s math to win the runoff is decidedly easier than Haddad’s. 

Of the 11 other candidates who ran, only the top five posted relatively large numbers. Bolsonaro has been endorsed by the fifth-place finisher, potentially handing him almost half the votes he needs for a win. Many voters who supported the fourth-place finisher — conservative Alckmin — may break for Bolsonaro, putting him over the top. 

Haddad will hope to bag the support of the third-place finisher, center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, who captured 12.5 percent of the vote. If everything else is unchanged, Haddad would also need to carry virtually 100 percent of the votes cast for the candidates in the back of the pack, if he hopes to win. 

“When you go to the second round with a huge spread between you and the runner-up, and you are already very close to that 50-percent-plus-one, you're at peace,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political strategist in Brasilia.

Yet one-third of Brazilian voters — more than voted for Haddad — either stayed home, or cast blank or null ballots. Haddad’s best chance of staging an upset, observers say, is to motivate those voters to cast ballots for him. His camp on Monday was seeking to rally Brazilians around the idea that Bolsonaro is a threat to democracy. 

But Haddad is facing a tough challenge, not least because he is running as a stand-in Lula. A once wildly popular figure who led millions of Brazilians out of poverty, Lula is now in jail on corruption charges and was barred from running.

Analysts say Haddad — whose first move on Monday was to meet with Lula — may be swimming against a conservative tide.

“Brazil is now surfing the wave of global conservatism, an anti-globalist movement all across the world,” said Guilherme Casarões, a comparative politics professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university in Sao Paulo.

The hidden suffering behind the Brazilian coffee that jump-starts American mornings

Millions of Venezuelans are fleeing to Latin American cities.

Stop and search? This poor community in Rio says yes please.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news