Global Development Institute Blog

Dr Chris Lyon, Research Associate, Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre

It is the Brazilian general election on Sunday October 7th 2018. It has been a highly volatile, polarised, and unpredictable affair, and on the face of it the choice, at least for President, looks stark. Here’s a quick guide for anyone wanting to follow the results:

  • Brazil’s system is presidential; the President is both head of state and of government, and wields considerable power.
  • However, the election is also for the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) within Brazil’s bicameral legislature and for some of the upper house, the Federal Senate. Elections for the former follow a ‘party-list proportional representation’ method. Overall majorities are highly unlikely, and thus coalition politics are a permanent feature of government. So the implications of the presidential result are also shaped by the kind of coalition the President elect’s party can cobble together.
  • The presidential race is probably now a two-horse race between Fernando Haddad and Jair Bolsonaro. These are both pretty odd candidates.


  • Haddad is a last-minute Workers’ Party (PT) replacement for legendary ex-president Lula (2003-2011), who is inconveniently in prison on a dubious conviction that he denounces as unjust and politically-motivated. Lula fought a long legal battle, only recently accepting defeat, leaving Haddad very little time to establish himself as a candidate.
  • However, while some assume this was a tactical blunder, I think it is more likely a plan from the PT. Lula remains vastly popular, particularly among the working class. Haddad is a former mayor of São Paulo, with a PhD in philosophy, but cannot match Lula’s once-in-a-generation levels of charisma, working class authenticity, and political savvy. If voters form their intentions based on the idea that Lula would be an option, and he then at the last minute accepts that he can’t escape the conviction, and instead anoints Haddad as his eleventh hour replacement, then – the calculation will have been – all those Lula votes can transfer to Haddad.
  • So, in a sense, even though he is in a prison cell in Curitiba, the election is still basically about Lula. The Workers’ Party is clearly happy for this to be the case, cultivating a slightly weird sense of Lula as some kind of ancestor-deity hovering in the sky behind Haddad, with PT figures wearing Lula masks, making L-signs, and giving speeches in front of his image. The idea is basically to portray Haddad as a surrogate for Lula, and he has encouraged this by suggesting that if elected he will regularly take Lula’s counsel from his cell.


  • Bolsonaro has been called the ‘Trump of the Tropics’. In reality, he is much worse than that. The similarities are that he is riding a wave of right-wing anger and populist appeal, and controversy and ‘political incorrectness’ only seem to strengthen his campaign. But he is far more openly misogynist and homophobic than even Trump would dare to be. Moreover, Bolsonaro, an ex-military man, is explicitly an admirer of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). When voting to impeach Dilma Rousseff in 2016, he dedicated his vote to the General in charge of the unit that tortured Rousseff when she was an anti-dictatorship guerrilla in the 1970s. Charming guy. There are genuine fears about what the role of the military would be under his leadership.
  • In the past, Bolsonaro, from the small Social Liberal Party (party names in Brazil can be highly misleading), would have been considered a rank outsider in any presidential race; basically just a far-right crank. But his popularity with the increasingly influential (and wealthy) evangelical Christian movement has propelled him to prominence. More generally, his rise has involved a story familiar from other recent resurgences of right-wing populism: widespread dissatisfaction with the entire political class, a strategy of controversial public pronouncements, and a right-wing media amplifying and legitimising his statements.
  • In general, Bolsonaro is in favour of fairly standard right-wing economic policies and privatization, a hard-line law and order stance that would see the military heavily deployed to try to curb massive crime rates, and extremely socially conservative stances on abortion, sexuality, and equality measures.

To give an idea of how volatile his candidacy has been, he was recently stabbed – near fatally – at a campaign event. Millions of Brazilian women have protested under the slogan Ele Não! (Not Him!).

Polling and other candidates

  • Brazil uses a two-round system to elect the President, similar to that used in France. If no candidate meets a threshold for victory from the initial votes, the two highest placed candidates go into a second round ‘runoff’. Until recently it looked as if the likely outcome was an undecided first round, with a narrow Bolsonaro lead, but then a Haddad victory in the second-round runoff, with supporters of other candidates deciding to keep Bolsonaro out. However, a very recent poll suggests that Bolsonaro could now win in the second round.
  • Other candidates, such as centre-left and -right representatives Ciro Gomes and Geraldo Alckmin, appear to have little chance. Environmentalist candidate Marina Silva seems, rather surprisingly, to have dropped off from a position of considerable popularity as little as two years ago.
  • A rough average of recent polls is something like: Bolsonaro 30%, Haddad 23%, Gomes 11%, Alckmin 8%, Silva 5%.



  • Haddad is from the Workers’ Party (PT), the left-leaning party that (led the coalition that) ruled Brazil from 2003-2016, first under Lula, and then Dilma Rousseff (who recently visited Manchester). The PT oversaw an economic boom, and significant reductions in poverty and inequality. It also became mired in corruption scandals. This, combined with economic downturn as the China-led commodities boom subsided, culminated in the impeachment of Dilma in 2016 in dubious circumstances. She and her administration were replaced by the conservative Michel Temer and a group of ministers who quickly brought in austerity policies and moved to scale back PT-era social policy. (Temer is so wildly unpopular (approval ratings around typically under 5% and pretty clearly corrupt) that he is not standing for election.) In Brazil, more or less the entire political scene is deeply implicated in corruption, but… this is a debate we can’t get into here… the PT seems to have been particularly targeted by the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anti-corruption probe, and Lula has ended up in prison, also in dubious circumstances. There is widespread disgust at the entire political establishment; the situation is definitely comparable to pre-Trump US and pre-Brexit UK, although considerably more extreme. Whoever takes over is going to have to address corruption and a struggling economy.


Bottom Line

  • It’s currently too close to call.
  • The presidential vote is, of course, very significant, but so is the question of how the President-elect will be able to build a coalition with other parties. Both Bolsonaro and Haddad would face a tricky task there. The centrist (or, in fact, almost ideology-less) ‘big tent’ parties MDB and PSDB have often played the role of kingmaker in the past, and enjoy a lot of power in this way. It is possible that they may actually be slightly more inclined to deal with Bolsonaro than with Haddad, a surprising state of affairs given that Haddad’s PT have been in government for most of the 21st century so far, whereas Bolsonaro has come out of the fringes – but it is a mark of how strange Brazilian politics currently is. Bolsonaro also enjoys the support of congressional caucuses of agricultural landowners and evangelical Christians.
  • Given the nature of coalition politics in Brazil, and the economic challenges that will face the new President, it is likely that either Haddad or Bolsonaro – or any of the others, in an unlikely turn of events – would find themselves considerably constrained in how much of their preferred agenda they can enact.


Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.