Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate can’t win over the establishment

. Jul 19, 2018
Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro
Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro

Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro

From July 20 to August 5, Brazil’s political parties are allowed to hold their national conventions. These events are used to launch candidacies for the upcoming general elections and to make coalitions official. In the latter case, it is common for allies to step up onto the podium during each other’s party conventions. But on July 22, when the Social Liberal Party launches far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro as its presidential candidate, chances are that the party will be there all alone.

Mr. Bolsonaro has struggled to find a running mate from outside of his comfort zone. He had courted the Party of the Republic, a right-wing group led by a former convicted felon. If the alliance had prospered, the vice-presidential nominee of his dreams would have been Magno Malta, a senator-cum-evangelical crooner. But Mr. Malta didn’t want to give up on a slam-dunk reelection campaign. Then, Mr. Bolsonaro chose a retired Army General who had last year lauded the 1964 military coup in Brazil. The general said yes, but his party said ‘no’ to Mr. Bolsonaro.

It is known that most Brazilian political parties don’t act on ideology. Instead, they sniff out where the opportunities for power are, and choose their candidate based on that. Coalitions are often celebrated thanks to promises of executive positions within the government. If that’s the case, then why have parties turned away from Mr. Bolsonaro, who leads in all scenarios without former President Lula on the ballot?

</span></p> <h2>What the parties are thinking</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Most parties believe that Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s high rejection rates &#8211; at 32 percent, according to Datafolha, Brazil&#8217;s most prestigious polling institute &#8211; will eventually sink his candidacy. The perception is that, in a possible second-round runoff, his adversary would be the favorite, regardless of who it is. Betting on the wrong horse now could mean fewer executive positions and less money over the next term.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">For most parties not bound by ideology, betting against Mr. Bolsonaro is a low-risk strategy. If he loses, they will be on the winning side. If he wins, he&#8217;ll need to form a coalition to govern &#8211; which gives traditional political forces leverage in a negotiation.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Bolsonaro campaign is trying to spin these latest setbacks, saying that they prove the candidate will not continue the same quid pro quo that has been the rule in Brazilian politics.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Going into the campaign without allies will give Mr. Bolsonaro a clear handicap compared with his adversaries: not a lot of airtime on television and radio. In Brazil, political ads are highly regulated. The electoral justice buys 70 minutes of TV and radio ad time each day (with taxpayer money) and distributes it to parties according to the number of seats they have in the House. As parties form coalitions, they pool together their minutes of free broadcasting. Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s party, however, is only worth 8 seconds. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In normal elections, ad time has been pivotal to any candidate&#8217;s chances. But this doesn&#8217;t seem to be a normal election in any way, shape or form. Besides the intense polarization and the ghost of Operation Car Wash lurking behind most parties, social media is set to have, for the first time, a decisive role in the campaign.</span></p> <h2>Campaigning on social media</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Bolsonaro rose to the top position in all polls thanks to a long, well-crafted, and radical <a href="">social media</a> campaign. By tapping into Brazilians&#8217; frustrations with the economy and widespread corruption, Mr. Bolsonaro presented himself as a conservative anti-establishment candidate (despite being in Congress for the best part of the last 30 years).</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The far-right candidate in Brazil&#8217;s upcoming election uses <a href="">social media</a> to establish a direct dialogue with voters, without the mediation of party bureaucracies. Besides his official Facebook page, Mr. Bolsonaro has hundreds of other fan pages &#8211; with some reaching as much as 1 million followers.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">He is the presidential hopeful with most followers on Facebook (5.4 million) and Instagram (1.2 million). On Twitter, his 1.2 million followers put him in second place among presidential candidates. According to a survey made by CrowdTangle, Mr. Bolsonaro’s official Facebook page got 2.78 million interactions with netizens – only trailing behind Lula.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But so far, campaigning exclusively on social media has imposed some barriers for Mr. Bolsonaro. He is known to most voters, but <a href="">people willing to elect him president</a> are more concentrated in specific demographics: young, educated males. The far-right congressman has struggled to win over poorer voters &#8211; maybe because those are the ones with less access to social media.

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