Brazil’s new “Center”: a viable alternative to the extremes?

. Dec 17, 2019
political center brazil polarization Photo: Planalto/Facebook

To borrow a phrase from historian Eric Hobsbawm, Brazil lives in an era of extremes. On one side, we have far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has launched a new political party with  “Judeo-Christian” values and staunch opposition to gun control at its core. On the other side, we have the Workers’ Party. While remaining a center-left force, the party led by former President Lula has opted for more radical rhetoric—galvanizing anti-Bolsonaro voters but alienating those in the center.

Spearheaded by House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, a group of political parties is trying to pander precisely to this “neither, nor” group—the section of the electorate that is neither a fan of Jair Bolsonaro, nor a Lula believer. Simply called “Center,” Mr. Maia and his allies are trying to emerge as a viable force between the Workers’ Party and Bolsonarism.

</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>Without much fanfare, the &#8220;Center&#8221; launched its own <a href="">digital platform</a> and has shared three videos on social media, trying to sell voters on the idea that a moderate voice is crucial to advance important agendas in Brazil.&nbsp;</p> <p>One of them (below, in Portuguese) claims that the group does not &#8220;see the world as [one] thinks it should be, but as it really is,&#8221; and that being a centrist &#8220;is not the same as not having an opinion, but rather not having preconceived ideas.&#8221; As a matter of fact, the group credits—perhaps correctly—moderates for some of the biggest advances in Brazilian history, such as the 1988 Constitution.</p> <p>&#8220;At the end of the day, it is the center who gets things done,&#8221; one source involved in making the films told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. However, this source didn&#8217;t reveal how much money was paid for the production.</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-youtube wp-block-embed is-type-video is-provider-youtube wp-embed-aspect-16-9 wp-has-aspect-ratio"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <span class="embed-youtube" style="text-align:center; display: block;"><iframe class='youtube-player' width='1200' height='675' src=';rel=1&#038;fs=1&#038;autohide=2&#038;showsearch=0&#038;showinfo=1&#038;iv_load_policy=1&#038;wmode=transparent' allowfullscreen='true' style='border:0;'></iframe></span> </div></figure> <h2>New Center: sly rebranding?</h2> <p>By choosing the name &#8220;Center,&#8221; Mr. Maia&#8217;s group tries to dissociate its image from a cadre traditionally known as the <em>Centrão</em>, or &#8220;Big Center&#8221;—a group that has never truly been centrist.&nbsp;</p> <p>As political scientist Mauricio Santoro wrote on <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, &#8220;the Centrão is by no means made up of moderate, middle-of-the-road parties. Basically, the front is a <a href="">loose coalition of conservative forces</a>, dating back to the Constitutional Assembly of 1986–1988.&#8221;</p> <p>As is often the case in Brazil’s political system, ideological labels are misleading. We have a Labor Party that is right-wing, and a Brazilian Women&#8217;s Party that was led by men with domestic violence accusations against them.</p> <p>Brazilian &#8220;centrists&#8221; are usually not hardcore ideologues, but pragmatists who are willing to horse-trade with any president for electoral gains or pork-barreling goals. Take Rodrigo Maia, for example: just last year, he lashed out at the Bolsa Família cash transfer program, saying it “<a href="">turns people into slaves</a>.” But last month, <a href="">he launched his own anti-poverty agenda</a>, with raises to the program&#8217;s payments.</p> <p>Political scientist Carlos Melo says the &#8220;Center&#8221; still doesn&#8217;t have a face, and is &#8220;a blurred line between Bolsonarism and Lula—defined only by what it is not.&#8221;</p> <h2>Is there room to grow?</h2> <p>Opinion polls show Brazil split into three almost equal groups: one-third despises President Bolsonaro, another third loves him, and the rest are still on the fence about the administration—neither liking it, not pulling their hair out. This final segment is the one the &#8220;Center&#8221; is targeting.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1056850"></div><script src=""></script> <p>Mr. Melo, however, believes the new movement&#8217;s &#8220;makeover&#8221; might not be enough to win hearts and minds. &#8220;They talk almost exclusively about austerity but there are more pressing subjects in people&#8217;s minds—such as the [undermining of labor rights] and the emergence of new identity profiles. It&#8217;s like they&#8217;re stuck in 2016, in the Michel Temer administration,&#8221; he says.</p> <p>A moderate approach proved less than engaging in 2018. No candidate labeled as a centrist <a href="">fared particularly well</a>. Social democratic candidate Geraldo Alckmin had only 4.7 percent of votes, despite coming from a well-evaluated governorship in São Paulo, a state that concentrates almost a quarter of the electorate. Meanwhile, environmental activist Marina Silva—who got over 20 million votes in 2014—received only 1 percent of votes. A similar fate was reserved for former Central Bank chairman and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles.</p> <p>&#8220;[The Center] is testing the waters, that&#8217;s fine, but they won&#8217;t have any success unless they have a truly national figure at the helm, which they don&#8217;t,&#8221; says political scientist Alberto Carlos Almeida. &#8220;Lula and Mr. Bolsonaro are electoral juggernauts, and they will win over some centrist voters. This new group might finish with 1 percent of votes unless they have someone as appealing as those two,&#8221; he adds.</p> <p>Early polls for the 2022 election give an idea of the scale of the Center&#8217;s challenge. So far, Justice Minister Sergio Moro, President Bolsonaro, and Lula are the top three names in spontaneous surveys. And it is hard to call either of them a true &#8220;moderate.&#8221;

Brenno Grillo

The Brazilian Report's correspondent in Brasília, Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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