Left and Right in Brazilian Presidential Elections

The next Brazilian presidential election, in October, 2022, will probably be polarized between Jair Bolsonaro on the “right” and Lula da Silva on the “left”. A contest clearly defined between right and left is typical for many countries, but not for Brazil. The Brazilian right has been surprisingly weak politically since the restoration of democracy in 1985. Although Brazil is often thought of as a conservative country, right-wing political parties have been dependent on alliances with centrist or left-of-center parties for patronage. This weakness in the political spectrum created space for Jair Bolsonaro to capture right-wing sentiment in 2018.

Since the end of the military government, Brazilian presidents have mostly leaned towards the center-left or have been ideologically ill-defined. Tancredo Neves won election in 1985 from the center-left. After his untimely death he was replaced by his vice president, José Sarney, who was conservative but largely deferred to the Constituent Assembly in the writing of a new constitution.  Fernando Collor de Melo was elected in 1989 with a right-populist campaign, without much support from established parties. But Collor’s signature policy, his anti-inflation plan, wasn’t conservative, it invoked strong state controls of prices. It quickly flopped and he was impeached for corruption. His Vice President, Itamar Franco, had no clear ideological position.

Then for almost a quarter century from 1994 to 2018 Brazilian presidential politics was largely polarized between the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB), led by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The two leaders were more popular than their parties, and they shared many political ideals. Fernando Henrique considers himself to be on the center-left, although some call him center-right. Lula ran from the left in his first three failed presidential campaigns, but he then shifted to a much more moderate center-left position to win the presidency. In his first presidential term, Lula continued Fernando Henrique’s economic model, much to the frustration of his leftist critics.

  Lula moved more to the left in his second term, as did his anointed successor Dilma Rousseff. This worked as long as Brazil was riding high on a commodities boom, but failed when the economy crashed. Dilma took the blame and ended up impeached, leaving the office to the centrist and very unpopular Michael Temer.

Why didn’t conservative forces assert themselves more effectively during the years since the return to democracy? One hypothesis might be that Brazilian public opinion leans to the left so they didn’t have enough popular support. Another might be that Brazilians don’t think in terms of “right” and “left” or don’t believe the terms apply to Brazil. Neither of these hypotheses is correct according to a recent paper by political scientist André Singer analyzing survey data from Datafolha. He found that  the Brazilian ideological spectrum was largely consistent for the entire period from 1990 to 2019.


    Self-classification on the Ideological Spectrum in Brazil from 1990-2019 (in %)

1990 2000 2003 2006 2010 2016 2017 2019
Left 14 18 16 15 12 15 13 17
Center-Left 10 10 11 7 8 11 9 9
Center 18 16 16 17 17 24 29 24
Center-right 15 11 13 10 13 11 10 12
Right 28 26 28 25 24 20 26 28
Don’t Know 15 19 16 25 25 19 14 9
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
N of Cases 2340 11298 5701 6884 2623 2828 2771 2948

Source: André Singer, A reativação da direita no Brasil, data from Datafolha; SciELO Preprints -11-2021, https://preprints.scielo.org/index.php/scielo/preprint/view/1664/version/1767 


Several very interesting things are shown in this table. First, most Brazilians think they understand the terms “left” and “right” well enough to classify themselves on a scale from right to left. Second, more Brazilians classify themselves as “right” than “left” and this has been true for all of the years since 1990. Third, the percent choosing “don’t know” was higher during the Lula and Dilma presidencies. Finally, the percentage classifying themselves as “center” has increased in recent years at the expense of the “don’t know” category.

In his analysis, Singer argues that Lula “deactivated” ideological thinking to win the presidency. He didn’t get people to become leftists, he got them to stop thinking ideologically, at least when he was running. This was clearly his intention as expressed in his “Letter to the Brazilian People” promising to honor Brazil’s debts and maintain economic stability, the major conservative priorities at the time. Similarly, although Fernando Henrique was known as a scholar interested in Marxist theories, he won the presidency by stabilizing the currency, a hoary conservative goal. Fernando Henrique had strong support from conservatives and business leaders for opposing the leftist platform Lula and the PT advocated at the time.

National politics during the Fernando Henrique, Lula and Dilma presidencies was largely a struggle between two parties that actually overlap quite a bit ideologically. Lula and Fernando Henrique had been allies in fighting the military regime and they contested much of the same ideological terrain after that. What happened to the more conservative politicians? The PSDB and the PT successfully bought them off by making electoral coalitions and giving them payoffs. A great many Brazilian politicians identified with the “center” such as the small parties known as the centrão and those in the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB). But they didn’t have a defined centrist ideology, many just wanted to hedge their bets, keeping the flexibility to win payoffs from whichever party controlled the presidency. The MDB, although a very powerful party in many states and in the legislature, was often content to not run a presidential candidate at all, preferring to wait to cut the best deal with whomever won.

In 1918, Bolsonaro filled the gap left by the weakness of the conservative leaders in large part by giving voice to generalized disgust with the corruption and greed of the Brazilian political class. This is a Brazilian tradition, past presidents who appealed to this sentiment were Jânio Quadros, whose symbol was the broom he would use to sweep the country clean, and Fernando Collor de Melo, who promised to free the country of government officials he said lived like Indian maharajahs. Neither was successful. 

After the economic collapse of 2013, the mensalão and lava jato scandals, and the arrest of Lula, many voters thought it was time to shake the system up. That worked for Bolsonaro in 2018, but it won’t work so well in 2022, because he has been the system. To win in 2022, Bolsonaro has to appeal to conservative sentiments. If Brazilians are asked to choose between “right” and “left,” André Singer’s analysis shows that the right will have an advantage.

A lot will depend on the increasing percentage of voters who categorize themselves as “center” and who may go for whichever candidate seems less extreme. A more competent leader with centrist inclinations might do well, such as João Doria who has done a much better job of running the state of São Paulo than Bolsonaro has of running the country. But any such leader will have a hard time beating Lula or Bolsonaro in the first electoral round. Unless the courts or health problems intervene, the second round seems likely to be between Lula and Bolsonaro.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso has said that, while he will support the PSDB candidate in the first round of the election, he will vote for Lula should he be Bolsonaro’s opponent in the runoff. Lula, for his part, understands he has to appeal to centrist and moderate voters to win, and has welcomed Fernando Henrique’s support. Lula and Fernando Henrique were allies against the military regime in the 1960s, perhaps they and their parties can form a de facto alliance against the neo-militarist Bolsonaro regime.

To win, the moderate left will have to appeal to centrist voters by emphasizing personality and administrative competence. Today, the ideological divide is largely focused on social issues – gay rights, abortion, crime, gun control and so on. Brazilian public opinion leans conservative on these issues. Economic issues are less salient today because the alternatives are poorly defined, except for the very poor who want to protect bolsa família. The Venezuelan example is a burden for the left, and it isn’t clear what better economic alternative the Brazilian left offers. Bolsonaro’s greatest vulnerabilities are his mishandling of the Covid pandemic and his ineffectiveness in rooting out corruption and running the country. 

It seems to me that Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula da Silva working together would probably mean more to Brazilian public opinion than any alliance between parties.

Ted Goertzel is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden NJ



  • Show Comments (0)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


You May Also Like

Grading Cardoso

Although José Serra is acknowledged to have done a good job as health minister ...

Presidential debate on Brazilian TV

Brazil: Any New President Will Inevitably Disappoint a Polarized Population

This year’s Brazilian election is entering a decisive phase. With official television advertising beginning ...

Brazil President Gets First Win in Congress in Fight to Contain Public Spending

A congressional committee in Brazil approved on Thursday a constitutional amendment that would limit ...

Ball, Sex and Cachaça in the Tragic Life of Brazilian Hero Garrincha

Reading Garrincha, Ruy Castro’s splendid study of the forgotten Brazilian right-winger and twice World ...

Now What, Rio?

In less than one week, the final curtain will be drawn on the 2016 ...

Rio's National Museum after the fire that burned it all - Tânia Rêgo/ABr

Brazil Teaches that Museums Can Be Quite Ephemeral

On September 2, the National Museum of Brazil lit up Rio de Janeiro’s night ...

Protesters in front of the Petrobras building - Tânia Rêgo

In Three Years, Car Wash Recovered US$ 3 Billion and Changed Brazil’s Impunity Image

This past Friday (March 17) marked the third anniversary of Brazil’s biggest-ever corruption and ...

It seems the future never arrives in Brazil What Lies Ahead in Brazil? Brazil Has No Exemplary Past or Present. But What Lies Ahead for the Country? Europeans, US, developed country, developing country. Bolsonaro, future B. Michael Rubin For years, experts have debated what separates a developing country from a developed one. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of a country is one simple way to measure its economic development. Another way to measure a country's progress is the extent of public education, e.g. how many citizens complete high school. A country's health may be measured by the effectiveness of its healthcare system, for example, life expectancy and infant mortality. With these measurement tools, it's easier to gauge the difference between a country like Brazil and one like the U.S. What's not easy to gauge is how these two countries developed so differently when they were both "discovered" at the same time. In 1492 and 1500 respectively, the U.S. and Brazil fell under the spell of white Europeans for the first time. While the British and Portuguese had the same modus operandi, namely, to exploit their discoveries for whatever they had to offer, not to mention extinguishing the native Americans already living there if they got in the way, the end result turned out significantly different in the U.S. than in Brazil. There are several theories on how/why the U.S. developed at a faster pace than Brazil. The theories originate via contrasting perspectives – from psychology to economics to geography. One of the most popular theories suggests the divergence between the two countries is linked to politics, i.e. the U.S. established a democratic government in 1776, while Brazil's democracy it could be said began only in earnest in the 1980s. This theory states that the Portuguese monarchy, as well as the 19th and 20th century oligarchies that followed it, had no motivation to invest in industrial development or education of the masses. Rather, Brazil was prized for its cheap and plentiful labor to mine the rich soil of its vast land. There is another theory based on collective psychology that says the first U.S. colonizers from England were workaholic Puritans, who avoided dancing and music in place of work and religious devotion. They labored six days a week then spent all of Sunday in church. Meanwhile, the white settlers in Brazil were unambitious criminals who had been freed from prison in Portugal in exchange for settling in Brazil. The Marxist interpretation of why Brazil lags behind the U.S. was best summarized by Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, in 1970. Galeano said five hundred years ago the U.S. had the good fortune of bad fortune. What he meant was the natural riches of Brazil – gold, silver, and diamonds – made it ripe for exploitation by western Europe. Whereas in the U.S., lacking such riches, the thirteen colonies were economically insignificant to the British. Instead, U.S. industrialization had official encouragement from England, resulting in early diversification of its exports and rapid development of manufacturing. II Leaving this debate to the historians, let us turn our focus to the future. According to global projections by several economic strategists, what lies ahead for Brazil, the U.S., and the rest of the world is startling. Projections forecast that based on GDP growth, in 2050 the world's largest economy will be China, not the U.S. In third place will be India, and in fourth – Brazil. With the ascendency of three-fourths of the BRIC countries over the next decades, it will be important to reevaluate the terms developed and developing. In thirty years, it may no longer be necessary to accept the label characterized by Nelson Rodrigues's famous phrase "complexo de vira-lata," for Brazil's national inferiority complex. For Brazilians, this future scenario presents glistening hope. A country with stronger economic power would mean the government has greater wealth to expend on infrastructure, crime control, education, healthcare, etc. What many Brazilians are not cognizant of are the pitfalls of economic prosperity. While Brazilians today may be envious of their wealthier northern neighbors, there are some aspects of a developed country's profile that are not worth envying. For example, the U.S. today far exceeds Brazil in the number of suicides, prescription drug overdoses, and mass shootings. GDP growth and economic projections depend on multiple variables, chief among them the global economic situation and worldwide political stability. A war in the Middle East, for example, can affect oil production and have global ramifications. Political stability within a country is also essential to its economic health. Elected presidents play a crucial role in a country's progress, especially as presidents may differ radically in their worldview. The political paths of the U.S. and Brazil are parallel today. In both countries, we've seen a left-wing regime (Obama/PT) followed by a far-right populist one (Trump/Bolsonaro), surprising many outside observers, and in the U.S. contradicting every political pollster, all of whom predicted a Trump loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Brazil, although Bolsonaro was elected by a clear majority, his triumph has created a powerful emotional polarization in the country similar to what is happening in the U.S. Families, friends, and colleagues have split in a love/hate relationship toward the current presidents in the U.S. and Brazil, leaving broken friendships and family ties. Both presidents face enormous challenges to keep their campaign promises. In Brazil, a sluggish economy just recovering from a recession shows no signs of robust GDP growth for at least the next two years. High unemployment continues to devastate the consumer confidence index in Brazil, and Bolsonaro is suffering under his campaign boasts that his Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, has all the answers to fix Brazil's slump. Additionally, there is no end to the destruction caused by corruption in Brazil. Some experts believe corruption to be the main reason why Brazil has one of the world's largest wealth inequality gaps. Political corruption robs government coffers of desperately needed funds for education and infrastructure, in addition to creating an atmosphere that encourages everyday citizens to underreport income and engage in the shadow economy, thereby sidestepping tax collectors and regulators. "Why should I be honest about reporting my income when nobody else is? The politicians are only going to steal the tax money anyway," one Brazilian doctor told me. While Bolsonaro has promised a housecleaning of corrupt officials, this is a cry Brazilians have heard from every previous administration. In only the first half-year of his presidency, he has made several missteps, such as nominating one of his sons to be the new ambassador to the U.S., despite the congressman's lack of diplomatic credentials. A June poll found that 51 percent of Brazilians now lack confidence in Bolsonaro's leadership. Just this week, Brazil issued regulations that open a fast-track to deport foreigners who are dangerous or have violated the constitution. The rules published on July 26 by Justice Minister Sérgio Moro define a dangerous person as anyone associated with terrorism or organized crime, in addition to football fans with a violent history. Journalists noted that this new regulation had coincidental timing for an American journalist who has come under fire from Moro for publishing private communications of Moro's. Nevertheless, despite overselling his leadership skills, Bolsonaro has made some economic progress. With the help of congressional leader Rodrigo Maia, a bill is moving forward in congress for the restructuring of Brazil's generous pension system. Most Brazilians recognize the long-term value of such a change, which can save the government billions of dollars over the next decade. At merely the possibility of pension reform, outside investors have responded positively, and the São Paulo stock exchange has performed brilliantly, reaching an all-time high earlier this month. In efforts to boost the economy, Bolsonaro and Paulo Guedes have taken the short-term approach advocated by the Chicago school of economics championed by Milton Friedman, who claimed the key to boosting a slugging economy was to cut government spending. Unfortunately many economists, such as Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, disagree with this approach. They believe the most effective way to revive a slow economy is exactly the opposite, to spend more money not less. They say the government should be investing money in education and infrastructure projects, which can help put people back to work. Bolsonaro/Guedes have also talked about reducing business bureaucracy and revising the absurdly complex Brazilian tax system, which inhibits foreign and domestic business investment. It remains to be seen whether Bolsonaro has the political acumen to tackle this Godzilla-sized issue. Should Bolsonaro find a way to reform the tax system, the pension system, and curb the most egregious villains of political bribery and kickbacks – a tall order – his efforts could indeed show strong economic results in time for the next election in 2022. Meanwhile, some prominent leaders have already lost faith in Bolsonaro's efforts. The veteran of political/economic affairs, Joaquim Levy, has parted company with the president after being appointed head of the government's powerful development bank, BNDES. Levy and Bolsonaro butted heads over an appointment Levy made of a former employee of Lula's. When neither man refused to back down, Levy resigned his position at BNDES. Many observers believe Bolsonaro's biggest misstep has been his short-term approach to fixing the economy by loosening the laws protecting the Amazon rainforest. He and Guedes believe that by opening up more of the Amazon to logging, mining, and farming, we will see immediate economic stimulation. On July 28, the lead article of The New York Times detailed the vastly increased deforestation in the Amazon taking place under Bolsonaro's leadership. Environmental experts argue that the economic benefits of increased logging and mining in the Amazon are microscopic compared to the long-term damage to the environment. After pressure from European leaders at the recent G-20 meeting to do more to protect the world's largest rainforest, Bolsonaro echoed a patriotic response demanding that no one has the right to an opinion about the Amazon except Brazilians. In retaliation to worldwide criticism, Bolsonaro threatened to follow Trump's example and pull out of the Paris climate accord; however, Bolsonaro was persuaded by cooler heads to retract his threat. To prove who was in control of Brazil's Amazon region, he appointed a federal police officer with strong ties to agribusiness as head of FUNAI, the country's indigenous agency. In a further insult to the world's environmental leaders, not to mention common sense, Paulo Guedes held a news conference on July 25 in Manaus, the largest city in the rainforest, where he declared that since the Amazon forest is known for being the "lungs" of the world, Brazil should charge other countries for all the oxygen the forest produces. Bolsonaro/Guedes also have promised to finish paving BR-319, a controversial highway that cuts through the Amazon forest, linking Manaus to the state of Rondônia and the rest of the country. Inaugurated in 1976, BR-319 was abandoned by federal governments in the 1980s and again in the 1990s as far too costly and risky. Environmentalists believe the highway's completion will seal a death knoll on many indigenous populations by vastly facilitating the growth of the logging and mining industries. Several dozen heavily armed miners dressed in military fatigues invaded a Wajãpi village recently in the state of Amapá near the border of French Guiana and fatally stabbed one of the community's leaders. While Brazil's environmental protection policies are desperately lacking these days, not all the news here was bad. On the opening day of the 2019 Pan America Games in Lima, Peru, Brazilian Luisa Baptista, swam, biked, and ran her way to the gold medal in the women's triathlon. The silver medal went to Vittoria Lopes, another Brazilian. B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil.

Brazil Has No Exemplary Past or Present. But What Lies Ahead for the Country?

For years, experts have debated what separates a developing country from a developed one. ...