Delays, hackers, and surprises in Brazil’s municipal elections

. Nov 16, 2020
Delays, rumors, and surprises in Brazil's municipal election Voters walk into polling station filled with campaign flyers. Photo: Fernando Frazão/ABr

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Today, we explain the attacks on Brazil’s electoral system — and the main takeaways from the election, looking forward to the presidential vote in 2022.

Hackers try to tamper with Brazilian municipal election

Every election is unique in its own way, but Brazil’s 2020 municipal vote was as peculiar as they come.

Brazilians went to the polls amid a deadly pandemic, its <a href="">worst economic downfall</a> on record — without having fully grappled with the shattering of its political system, via the anti-corruption probe Operation Car Wash and the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency in 2018. As expected, the election was anything but uneventful.</p> <p><strong>Coordinated hacking attacks. </strong>The Superior Electoral Court, which runs the country&#8217;s voting system, suffered two separate (and coordinated) <a href="">hacking attacks</a>. According to SaferNet, a non-profit organization which investigated the case, government systems suffered a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack and there was a leak of public servants&#8217; private data.</p> <ul><li><strong>DDoS.</strong> A DDos attack is the orchestrated flooding of target websites by large numbers of computers at once. That happened early on Election Day, with multiple IP addresses from Portugal, Brazil, and New Zealand flooding the Superior Electoral Court&#8217;s network and destabilizing some online services. According to investigators, the attacks were led by a Portuguese citizen.</li><li><strong>Data leak.</strong> Just after 9 am on Sunday, hackers leaked outdated information of civil servants stolen from a human resources database. The data was reportedly stolen prior to October 23, and did not occur on Election Day.</li><li><strong>Discredit the system.</strong> Authorities and investigators agree that the attacks had one goal: to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Brazil&#8217;s electronic voting system. Across the country, losing candidates used the attacks as a way to justify their poor performance, suggesting fraud had occurred. The Bolsonaro family has some of the most outspoken critics of the system, and Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro used his Twitter account to <a href="">argue for the return of paper ballots</a>.&nbsp;</li><li><strong>Reliable system. </strong>In 20 years, fraud has never been proven in Brazil&#8217;s electronic system&nbsp;—&nbsp;but the same can&#8217;t be said for paper ballots. In 1994, Rio de Janeiro had to do its congressional election over after it was <a href="">proven that polls had been tampered with</a>.</li></ul> <p><strong>Georgia on Brazil&#8217;s mind.</strong> During the long and anti-climactic U.S. presidential election vote count earlier this month, Brazilians gloated about the country&#8217;s 100-percent electronic system, which allows for massive counts in a matter of hours. This time around, things took much longer than expected. Supreme Court Justice Luís Roberto Barroso, who presided over the Superior Electoral Court, said the delay was unrelated to the hacker attacks.</p> <ul><li>The problem was allegedly a change in how the court tallies the votes. Until 2018, states counted the votes themselves and reported the results to the federal authority. Now, everything has been centralized, which overburdened servers. Regardless, most — if not all — races were called by midnight on Election Day.</li></ul> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Main takeaways from the 2020 election</h2> <p>Problems and hacking attacks aside, the 2020 election offered us some interesting insights, with unexpected winners and losers.</p> <h3>Winners</h3> <ul><li><strong>Democratas party.</strong> What a difference a decade makes in politics. Once a moribund party filled with former dictatorship supporters, Democratas has now become a leading force in the center-right. Until the 2000s, it was made up of regional strongmen who dominated their constituencies, but over the past decade, a new guard has taken control of the party and gave it a more moderate look. Controlling both congressional houses, Democratas now won in three state capitals (with Rio likely to become a fourth). According to political scientist Carlos Melo, a professor at the São Paulo-based Insper Business School, &#8220;Democratas is now in pole position for a conservative candidacy to oppose Jair Bolsonaro in 2022.&#8221; </li><li><strong>New left.</strong> On the other side of the spectrum, the Socialism and Freedom Party (Psol) has a Cinderella story of its own. After being born as an offshoot of the Workers&#8217; Party in the early 2000s — and always living under its shadow — the party managed a great win on Sunday, with São Paulo mayoral candidate Guilherme Boulos qualifying for the runoff stage against incumbent Bruno Covas (who is heavily favored to win). However, it will take a few more days to know if we can call 2020 a bonafide win for Psol — depending on how many city council seats the party will snatch. </li><li><strong>Traditional parties.</strong> The interior of the country remained under the thumb of traditional, rent-seeking parties — confirming expectations that the 2020 election would not be one for &#8220;new&#8221; candidates. After the 2018 shock, we see that the political establishment is more resistant than it seems.</li></ul> <h3>Losers</h3> <ul><li><strong>Jair Bolsonaro.</strong> The president&#8217;s approval ratings are as high as they have ever been. Still, he wasn&#8217;t able to push his allies over the hump. Only two-thirds of the mayoral candidates he supported won or qualified for runoff elections — despite multiple endorsements by Mr. Bolsonaro. In São Paulo, the campaign team of Congressman Celso Russomanno even claimed the president&#8217;s backing is what sank his mayoral bid — while that is not entirely true, it gives an idea of how limited Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s kingmaking powers are. &#8220;There is no such thing as Bolsonarism as a political movement — there is only Jair Bolsonaro. He is less a phenomenon than a guy who positioned himself well to surf a conservative wave that precedes him,&#8221; says Carlos Melo.</li><li><strong>Lula.</strong> The former president is seeing his Workers&#8217; Party continue to struggle mightily. After a generational defeat in 2016, Lula&#8217;s political group failed to win a single mayoral race among Brazil&#8217;s top 96 constituencies — though it will compete in a runoff in northeastern metropolis Recife — and had its lowest voting total of all time in São Paulo, a city the party won on three previous occasions. In 2020, Jilmar Tatto scored only 8 percent of the vote — half of the party&#8217;s worst result on record. Carlos Melo on Lula and his group: &#8220;The Workers&#8217; Party sees itself at a crossroads. Part of its leaders recognize that they must see other left-wing groups as equals, but Lula loyalists still treat the party as the country&#8217;s most powerful force — which it is no longer the case. Whoever wins this internal battle will determine the strength of the left in 2022.&#8221;</li><li><strong>Other major leaders. </strong>Most 2018 presidential candidates saw this year&#8217;s election as a way to boost their influence by electing hundreds of mayors and city councilors. But most flopped, besides Lula and Mr. Bolsonaro. Ciro Gomes, who wants to be the new leader of the left, saw his Democratic Labor Party (PDT) have a sluggish performance in major centers — and is likely to fail to gather enough support around him.</li></ul> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Markets</h2> <p>Brazil&#8217;s major retailers have all published their Q3 earnings reports — as expected, they registered a boom in e-commerce sales. While analysts were positively impressed by the results of sector leader Magazine Luiza, they ponder that investors should keep an eye on Via Varejo (a holding company which owns multiple retail chains), whose shares have more room for growth.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The biggest party in Brazil</h2> <p>True to form, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) kept its status as the party with the highest number of municipalities under its belt (682). Created during the dictatorship as one of the only two parties allowed to exist — as the generals wanted to give an impression of a functioning democracy — the MDB benefited in democratic times from having the broadest reach among parties. Moreover, its former status as the only opposition party made it a Noah&#8217;s Ark for all types of politicians, from conservatives to progressives, which makes it easier for the party to mold itself to the political context of each region.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-hierarchy" data-src="visualisation/4364272"><script src=""></script></div> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Looking ahead</h2> <ul><li><strong>Congress. </strong>With the election wrapped up in most of the country, Congress will try to solve the deadlock which has <a href="">prevented the lower house from voting</a> on a single bill since September. While there is no agreement between parties on who will head the coveted Congressional Budgetary Committee, some important votes could be on the way, such as one regulating cabotage and another granting the Central Bank <a href="">formal autonomy from the federal government</a>.</li><li><strong>Second wave.</strong> As we explained in Friday&#8217;s <a href="">Daily Briefing</a>, a second coronavirus wave should strike Brazil by December, and economists are trying to predict its effects on the Brazilian economy. Most experts agree that an economic shock like the one seen in H1 2020 is unlikely — but markets should become increasingly volatile from now on.</li><li><strong>Stimulus. </strong>President Jair Bolsonaro was hesitant to submit a proposal for a new cash-transfer program for 2021, when the coronavirus emergency salary expires. If he was waiting for the election to give his political camp momentum, that won&#8217;t happen. He will soon have to choose between austerity and more economic stimulus, as Congress will need to approve the <a href="">2021 budget</a> quickly.</li><li><strong>PIX.</strong> The Brazilian Central Bank&#8217;s <a href="">new instant payment system</a>, PIX, starts fully operating today, after a couple of weeks of trials. From now on, Brazilians will be able to make instant transactions 24 hours a day. That could be a game-changer for informal workers, who are expected to have more liquidity in the short term. By Friday, over 30 million Brazilians had enrolled in PIX.</li></ul> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>In case you missed it</h2> <ul><li><strong>5G. </strong>The Jair Bolsonaro administration showed last week that the possibility of banning Chinese firm Huawei from next year’s 5G network auction is very much on the table. While hosting the U.S. Under Secretary of State for economic growth, Keith Krach, Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that the country <a href="">supports the U.S. Clean Network proposal</a> to build a global digital alliance to “free the world from authoritarian malignant actors.”</li><li><strong>Biden. </strong>After publicly cheering for Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro has yet to congratulate Joe Biden for his win in the U.S. presidential race. Last week, he threw jabs at the president-elect. Mr. Bolsonaro pushed back against Mr. Biden’s vague remarks about pressuring Brazil into acting against Amazon deforestation with a clumsy threat of aggression: &#8220;When the saliva runs out, <a href="">there has to be gunpowder</a>,&#8221; he said, despite Brazil having a defense budget 27 times smaller than the U.S.</li><li><strong>Trade.</strong> Authorities in Brazil and the United Kingdom met online to discuss pathways to <a href="">enhance bilateral relations</a> between the two countries, now that the United Kingdom is no longer a part of the European Union. This rapprochement comes with the UK’s explicit support for Brazil’s entry to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, one of the <a href="">key international goals</a> for the country since 2016.</li><li><strong>Peru. </strong>The political crisis continues in Peru, after interim President Manuel Merino resigned after less than a week in office. Mr. Merino took office after Congress <a href="">ousted Martín Vizcarra</a> for &#8220;moral incapacity,&#8221; a move that was widely unpopular and which sparked violent protests. At least two people died in confrontations with law enforcement. On Sunday, Congress failed to agree on a new president.

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