On October 7, Brazilians will vote in the country’s first round of presidential elections to choose a replacement for President Michel Temer, who came into office following the impeachment of then-President Dilma Rouseff in 2016. Temer, faced with collapsing public approval ratings, announced earlier this year that he would not run for re-election, throwing the race for Brazil’s highest office wide open. Polling shows the first-round race a two-way contest between far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) and the center-left former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, of the Workers’ Party (PT). Harvard Kennedy School’s Scott Mainwaring, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor for Brazil Studies and an affiliate of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, sat down for a discussion on the coming vote and what it means for the future of Brazil’s democracy. 


Q: What are some of the trends that you have noticed in Scott Mainwaring headshot.these last few weeks of campaigning before the first round of presidential voting occurs? 

First of all, the extremist right wing candidate, Bolsonaro, really took off and solidified his place as the first round front runner. Second, the center-left candidate, Haddad, also took off, and third, everyone else fizzled, except Ciro Gomes of the center-left Democratic Labor Party. A month ago, it was amazingly unclear who would end up in the second round, and now it's not completely settled, but it will likely be Bolsonaro and Haddad.


Q: Tell us a bit more about Bolsonaro, who in the media is often compared to Donald Trump for his incendiary rhetoric on the campaign trail. 

Bolsonaro is far to the right of Donald Trump, and he is more willing to say things that are outrageous by conventional standards. He's said there would be no human rights for criminal suspects. He's an extremely homophobic, extremely misogynistic person. He calls International Human Rights Day the “day of losers.” He’s remarked that “a policeman who doesn't kill isn't a policeman.” He’s threatened to leave the UN, saying, “it's of no use—it's an organization of communists.” You might think that he would choose a vice presidential candidate who's more moderate to balance out this rhetoric. No. Politically, the vice-presidential candidate is possibly to Bolsonaro's right. It is just shocking that someone could become a viable presidential candidate in a major world democracy with this discourse.  

Bolsonaro was stabbed at a campaign event in early September, and polling shows that after the incident, negative perceptions of him, which were very high and rising, declined slightly, and support for him grew. It seems that this stabbing solidified his position as the front runner. It's pretty clear that if Bolsonaro wins, the protection of human rights in Brazil will decline, which inevitably means a decline in the level of democracy.


Q: What are Bolsonaro's chances, especially against Haddad, in the runoff election?

This could break either way. Bolsonaro has more hardcore support, but he also has higher rejection ratings--more people who say that under no circumstance would they vote for him. At this point, I think Haddad would be the slight favorite in the second round against Bolsonaro.


Q: What are the challenges to democracy and human rights in Brazil regardless of who wins?

For democrats around the world it will be a very dark day if someone of the profile of Bolsonaro wins; but even if Haddad wins, the litany of challenges that he and Brazilian democracy face are daunting. This is not a comment on Haddad's tendencies, but rather, on where the country is today. Haddad represents, I would say, the most moderate and clearly democratic wing of the PT.

These challenges are very severe. Brazil is recovering, very slowly, from the worst recession in the last century. Polarization in the country is very profound. That was not the case for a long time in Brazilian democracy. Hostility toward the PT is very deep and broad, though that was not nearly so true 10 years ago. Parts of the Brazilian right have embraced authoritarianism, which gives Haddad, if the PT wins, less space to maneuver. Part of Haddad’s party does not easily accept compromise, and some of it has fostered unrealistic hopes for an easy economic turnaround. 

I have no doubt that for the future of human rights and democracy in Brazil, a Haddad victory is a much better outcome than a Bolsonaro victory, but one should not underestimate the difficult challenges for recovering a positive democratic trajectory, and a positive economic and social trajectory.


Q: If Bolsonaro wins the runoff, does that signal that there will be a decline or perhaps a total breakdown in democracy in Brazil?

A full democratic breakdown is not a likely outcome. The Brazilian system has a lot of checks and balances. There's a very robust federal system, which will lead certainly to the ongoing protection of rights in many states.  One has to add a worrisome footnote, however, that the current U.S. administration's support for some right-wing authoritarians may make it easier for Bolsonaro to undermine democracy in ways subtle or deep. 

Portrait by Martha Stewart

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