Weekly Report - 07 April 2022 (WR-22-14)

BRAZIL: The ‘third way’ collapses

With six months to go until Brazil’s presidential elections in October, the race is set to become more polarised between incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and his left-wing rival, former president Lula da Silva (2003-2011). This is because the so-called ‘third way’ has imploded after two high-profile candidates signalled that they were backing out of the race, only to instantly backtrack – a sign of the centre’s lack of cohesion.

On 31 March, reports circulated that João Doria was considering giving up his presidential bid as the candidate for the centre-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB), and thus would not step down as state governor of São Paulo that day. This would have opened space for Eduardo Leite, who recently stepped down as governor of Rio Grande do Sul, to take on the PSDB presidential ticket. It would also have broken Doria’s agreement with his deputy governor, Rodrigo Garcia, who was due to take over São Paulo state’s top job before running for governor in October. In the end, however, Doria stuck to the plan and reaffirmed his presidential bid.

Meanwhile Sergio Moro, a former anti-corruption judge and former justice minister (2019-2020), left the Podemos (PODE) party that he had joined just four months ago to affiliate himself with União Brasil (UB), a new party born last year of the fusion between the Democratas (DEM) and the Partido Social Liberal (PSL). In switching parties, Moro announced that he was giving up the presidential candidacy “at this moment”.

That moment was short-lived as just a day later, on 1 April, Moro said that he had “not given up on anything. And certainly not on my dream of changing Brazil.” This U-turn displeased parts of the UB, which reportedly called for him to be expelled. Party leaders reaffirmed Moro’s affiliation with the UB on 2 April, although no mention was made of his possible presidential candidacy – the party as a whole does not want to field Moro as a presidential candidate.

“It’s no use wanting to exit [the race] and not exiting, wanting to stay and not being wanted,” Ciro Gomes, the presidential candidate for the leftist Partido Democrático Trabalhista (PDT), tweeted on 2 April in a clear swipe at Doria and Moro. Gomes, who was fourth behind Moro in opinion polls on 6%, is fiercely campaigning against both Lula and Bolsonaro, although he rejects being labelled as a candidate of the ‘third way’.   

Doria and Moro’s problem is that although they are the most high-profile figures on the centre-right, name recognition has not translated into popular support. Since confirming their intention to run for the presidency late last year, both have stagnated in the polls, with Moro on 8% in the latest Datafolha survey, while Doria has been unable to muster more than a paltry 2%. They also lack the backing of their own parties, which suffer from internal divisions and are concentrated on the concurrent legislative elections, with the objective of securing an important bench – and thus political influence – in the next legislature.

The ‘third way’ never really got off the ground, and last week’s confusion over Doria and Moro’s candidacies confirms its weakness. The deadline for registering presidential candidates is in August and the parties backing a ‘third way’ – the PSDB, the UB, the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB), and Cidadania – have said they will announce a consensus candidate in May. It does, however, look increasingly unlikely that such a candidate would be able to mount a credible challenge to the Lula-Bolsonaro polarisation.

Bolsonaro emerges stronger

The consensus right now is that the weakening of the centre-right will benefit Bolsonaro. The incumbent continues to trail Lula in the polls, but the gap is closing [WR-22-13]. If Moro does indeed not run, his voters are more likely to migrate to Bolsonaro than to Lula. The first poll since Moro’s apparent exit from the race, released by XP/Ipespe on 6 April, shows support increasing for Bolsonaro (30%, +4 points on the previous XP/Ipespe poll in late March), Gomes (9%, +2), Doria (3%, +1), and the MDB’s Simone Tebet (2%, +1). Lula’s support remains unchanged on 44%.

Other factors are helping Bolsonaro. The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic is beginning to fade, and with it the negative memory of Bolsonaro’s poor pandemic management, which drove down his approval levels last year. Public concern with the economy, notably surging inflation, is real and potentially damaging for Bolsonaro, but the president is doubling down on measures to address economic hardship, such as tax breaks and the distribution of benefits – low-income Brazilians are for example allowed to cumulate the Auxílio Brasil benefit, a discount on the electricity tariff, and a voucher for the purchase of cooking gas.  

  • Pandemic

As in other parts of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic is fading from the public view in Brazil. Mask mandates have been lifted, including indoors, in a number of states. Last week, the government removed testing restrictions on entry by air to the country. Over 75% of the population is fully vaccinated and more than a third have received a booster jab. New recorded cases still stand in the tens of thousands, but daily deaths have fallen to around 200. There has been talk in the federal government of downgrading the Covid-19 pandemic to an epidemic, which would affect a number of rules which are currently in place due to the health emergency, such as the use of vaccines which only have emergency authorisation.   

Bolsonaro’s re-election bid will also benefit from the backing of a strong political machine. The party that he joined, the Partido Liberal (PL), has emerged stronger from political realignments during the so-called ‘partisan window’, the pre-electoral period during which lawmakers can switch parties and which ended last week. The PL has gained 30 new deputies to become the largest party by far in the lower house, with 73 members. More generally, the ‘centrão’ bloc of which the PL is a member has done well: the Progressistas (PP), Republicanos, and Partido Social Democrata (PSD) gained the highest number of new deputies after the PL.

Although their name designates them as the ‘big centre’, centrão parties have few ideological convictions. Their important presence in congress has made them a necessary partner for successive governments, whether on the right or the left – and their support comes with a price. Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 excoriating the pork-barrel politics which characterise the centrão’s modus operandi, but discarded his scruples when he struck a deal with the bloc for his own political survival in 2020. Many federal deputies will have embraced a similar logic when deciding to switch parties, migrating to political outfits which have a strong congressional presence, more access to public electoral funds and advertising airtime, and thus a better capacity to support election campaigns.

Ministers exit

On the day that Moro and Doria caused some turmoil in the presidential line-up, Bolsonaro replaced 10 of his cabinet ministers, who stepped down to run in the October election. These were the ministers for agriculture; defence; women, family, & human rights; infrastructure; science & technology; labour; regional development; tourism; citizenship; and the government secretariat, which manages relations with congress. Little change is expected as second-tier officials took over, except in the defence portfolio, where army commander General Paulo Sérgio Nogueira was appointed minister. General Marco Antônio Freire Gomes has replaced Nogueira as army commander.

Indigenous begin occupation in Brasília

The annual Acampamento Terra Livre (ATL) indigenous mobilisation began in Brasília on 4 April. In its 18th year, the event has returned after taking place online for two years running due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. The Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Apib) indigenous grouping expects 8,000 indigenous from 176 different tribes to gather in the capital over the course of the mobilisation, which is due to last until 14 April.

The event is an annual opportunity for Brazil’s indigenous populations to bring their traditions and the fight for their rights to Brasília. This year, their struggle focuses on the setbacks to indigenous policy enacted under President Jair Bolsonaro’s government and on the rejection of a number of bills currently being considered in congress [WR-22-10]. One of these is PL 191/20, pertaining to the commercial exploitation of indigenous lands for activities such as mining and agriculture, which Apib rejected in an open letter published on 5 April.

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