Is there room in Brazilian politics for a moderate centrist?

. Jul 28, 2019
Supporters celebrate Bolsonaro victory in São Paulo Supporters celebrate Bolsonaro victory in São Paulo. Photo: Alf Ribeiro

Barely into the second half of his first year in office, and jockeying for position to replace Jair Bolsonaro has already begun. Most of the activity is on the center-right, with São Paulo Governor João Doria already being widely discussed as a possible 2022 candidate. Other possibilities wait in the wings, with TV personality Luciano Huck top of that list. But why is this question already being asked? And more fundamentally, is there any appetite in today’s Brazil for an establishment pro-market liberal politics?

</p> <p>It is no secret that big business’ choice in 2018 was Geraldo Alckmin, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party. But no matter how much weight was thrown behind his him—due to coalition-building, he had more than double the TV time as his nearest challenger, for instance—his candidacy never took off. He registered his party&#8217;s worst-ever presidential performance, not even hitting 5 percent of first-round votes. For <em>the</em> main center-right party, this was a disaster.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the second round, many pro-market liberals begrudgingly chose Mr. Bolsonaro as the <a href="">lesser evil</a>, rather than vote for the center-left Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party. They were swayed by Mr. Bolsonaro’s pro-privatization pick as Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, as well as the presence of Sergio Moro at Justice.</p> <p>But isn’t it obtuse to ask questions about 2022 now—the electoral cycle is mercifully much shorter in Brazil than in the U.S.—especially as Mr. Bolsonaro looks like he is about to deliver the number one item on the markets’ list, pension reform? Ironically, that may exactly be the reason for looking forward.</p> <h2>A lame-duck already?</h2> <p>There have been suggestions that the president has<a href=""> spent all his chips</a> on pension reform. The government has <a href="">not been especially effective</a> in passing other bills it thought important, while other forthcoming initiatives, such as tax reform, are complex. The administration had to dig deep—to the tune of BRL 2.5 billion in amendments—to pass pension reform. This return to the “old politics” Bolsonaro had previously denounced could cost him dear, both with a section of supporters who believed his anti-politics rhetoric, as well as in Congress. The so-called &#8220;Big Center,&#8221; led by House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, will exact its price.</p> <p>More generally, the president’s approval ratings are <a href="">historically low</a> for a first-term first-year presidency. Mr. Bolsonaro may be a lame-duck sooner than we know it.&nbsp;</p> <p>But what would come next? Although Mr. Bolsonaro may not have been the first choice for either markets or many pro-business voters, what is to say someone of that profile will fare better than Mr. Alckmin did? The anti-establishment mood that severely damaged the Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s electoral performance hit the social democrats just as hard, if not harder, as its voters were radicalized rightwards.</p> <h2>The center-right’s options</h2> <p>In Congress, Speaker Rodrigo Mais is<a href=""> trying to position</a> his party, Democratas, as the center-right party for the 2020 municipal elections. With coalitions now banned, the sizeable party—whose lineage can be traced back to official dictatorship party ARENA—is well placed. But Mr. Maia is establishment through and through, so might not chime if Brazil’s anti-politics mood continues.</p> <p>Justice Minister Sergio Moro may have had some ambition to run, but <em>The Intercept</em>’s <a href="">revelations</a> have dented his image. While right-wing anti-Workers’ Party sentiment—&#8221;<a href=""><em>antipetismo</em></a><em>&#8220;—</em>could likely sustain Mr. Moro’s support to a degree, he will have difficulty in continuing to present himself as <em>post-political. </em>Which is to say, his image as merely technocratic and non-partisan may be withering.</p> <p>João Doria, meanwhile, has been<a href=""> playing both sides</a>: on one hand, he was elected Governor on Mr. Bolsonaro’s coattails, playing a hard-right law and order card. On the other, his successful campaign for Mayor of São Paulo in 2016 sold Mr. Doria as a post-political “manager”, flaunting his business credentials, not conservative culture-warrior vengeance.</p> <p>Ultimately, Mr. Doria raises two questions: could he run as an anti-Bolsonaro, presenting similar policies but with a more liberal face? This is doubtful—as will be explained below. The other question would then be: could he run <em>as</em> Mr. Bolsonaro? This would require the president vacating the scene and Mr. Doria playing his game over again: building an alliance between business interests on the one hand, and socially conservative and authoritarian sectors, on the other. This works when packaged up as <em>antipetismo</em>—as being not-the-Workers’-Party. No one to what degree that will continue to be a force in three years’ time.&nbsp;</p> <p>So that leaves more clearly liberal and centrist options. TV presenter Luciano Huck has long been<a href=""> talked-up as a possible option</a>, including by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Mr. Huck<a href=""> decided not to run in 2018</a>, despite looking like he had a decent chance.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Middle-class liberals in short supply</h2> <p>But whatever one may think of these politicians individually, there is a great, social question behind it. Is there the social base for liberalism in Brazil today? The traditional understanding is that this sort of politics rests on a sizable comfortable middle class. Beyond a few urban parts of the South and Southeast, this may not exist, as indicated by political scientist<a href=";pid=S0103-65642015000100007&amp;lng=pt&amp;tlng=pt"> Andre Singer</a>, amongst others.</p> <p>And Brazil’s middle class seems to have split in half. When we talk about polarization in Brazil today, what we mainly mean is a culture war between sections of the middle class, as University of São Paulo political scientists<a href=""> Esther Solano</a> and<a href=""> Pablo Ortellado</a> have repeatedly shown.&nbsp;</p> <p>Among the broader masses, politics has tended to take two forms: redistribution or revenge. Either material advancement for the working-class, or anger against scapegoats, be they corrupt politicians or drug traffickers. The exception to this pattern may be periods of significant growth—especially employment and wage growth. But that unfortunately does not look to be on the horizon. Instead, jobs and security remain the watchwords.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Anti-politics dominates politics</h2> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro clearly satisfies the revenge form. One way he might win again in 2022 actually bears some similarities to Trump’s prospects in 2020. Namely, that both candidatures depend on mass demoralization combined with the energization of their bases. Bolsonaro’s dropping approval ratings might not matter, when he has a solid 15 to 20 percent of the population solidly behind him.&nbsp;</p> <p>Keeping this base mobilized is the first step. The second is reducing the overall pool of voters. Though voting is mandatory in Brazil, abstention rates have been climbing. Twenty percent of voters did not go to the polls in the second round last year. If this were to grow further, Mr. Bolsonaro could see a second term.&nbsp;</p> <p>In contrast, a centrist or center-right proposal <em>could</em> succeed, but the scenario would have to resemble what France has seen over the past decades: convincing enough voters horrified at the prospect of another hard-right presidency to pile in behind any centrist challenger. The anti-establishment mood, however, makes that a difficult sell.</p> <p>While we are still a long way away from this having any immediate importance, we should perhaps bear a set of questions in mind, because they can orient how one understands Brazil’s future political course:</p> <ul><li>Will the anti-Workers&#8217; Party sentiment continue to be a force, and if so, is there any reason why Mr. Bolsonaro would not be best placed to benefit?</li><li>Will anti-politics still be the major force? Continuing economic stagnation and the sense of a political class mired in corruption may not change this scenario much.</li><li>Consequently, will Bolsonaro be seen as part of the establishment by then, and thus, can anti-politics sentiment turn anti-Bolsonaro?

Read the full story NOW!

Alex Hochuli

Alex is a writer, researcher and consultant based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is host of the global politics podcast, Aufhebunga Bunga, and is currently researching a book on anti-politics.

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at