Race and Elections in Brazil

Many Brazilian voters are so disillusioned with politics that in this traditionally left-leaning, post-right military dictatorship society, the right has made surprising gains in this election.

Dilma Roussef campaigning in 2011 (Mayara Ferreira, via Flickr CC).

There’s a lot going on in the world these days, so you may not have been paying attention to Brazil. But the country has an extremely important election coming up this weekend – one that will decide amongst other things, who their president will be for the next four years.

The reason this election is so important is because it is more or less a referendum on the incumbent party, the Partido dos Trablhadores (PT) — the “Worker’s Party,” who has ushered in an unprecedented era of prosperity in Brazil for people across almost all backgrounds. This is also the first election after massive, nationwide protests (led largely by young upper and lower middle class urban residents), against government spending on mega events like the FIFA World Cup, and the Olympics. Brazil is also still one the world’s most unequal countries. Fed up in general with “the establishment,” many Brazilian voters are so disillusioned with politics that in this traditionally left-leaning, post-right military dictatorship society, the right has made surprising gains in this election. So, what’s going on in Brazil, and what’s at stake in this referendum on the PT?

Well to the first point, in the wake of the protest, young Brazilians haven’t suddenly switched political allegiances to support the right. Protesters aren’t turning to Neves and his party of the upper classes. In fact, more people voted null than voted for Neves in the first round of elections. In terms of what’s at stake, as The Guardian points out, this vote will send a signal to the world weather or not Brazil will take a more global capitalist, U.S. friendly stance, or continue on the trend of an independent, continental, pro-South American stance that has grown in Brazil and neighboring countries in the past years. However with Brazil’s economic miracle showing signs of waning, perhaps more importantly, this is a referendum on the state-led social programs that the PT has attempted to implement over the last years.

General wisdom is that the lower classes who benefit from such social programs as Bolsa Familia, programs that have helped reduced poverty during the Lula/Rousseff presidencies, are fully (and naively) in support of the PT. Besides class, there is a definite racial dynamic to this course of thought as well. Emblematic of this is the comment that a university-educated, engineer-turned-taxista made to me recently — that black people in Brazil don’t know how to vote in their own favor, and that they only vote for the PT because of the Bolsa Familia, a program that is really holding them back. These are attitudes that I’m not unfamiliar with, similar to opinions that led to the stripping of welfare programs in the United States a generation previous (a debate that also had racial undertones.)

However, as Rio Gringa and the Rio Real Blog point out, that the common views about favela residents, black, and lower class Brazilians as a monolith:

One of the frequent complaints of some right-leaning voters is that the poor consistently vote for the PT, and that the PT uses programs like the cash-transfer program Bolsa Familia to win those votes. But Neves’ close second finish in the first round and the election of the most conservative Congress in the post-1964 period indicates that there’s a diversity of support for the right. Rio blogger Julia Michaels even argues: “Paradoxically, it may be that part of Dilma’s Workers’ Party shrinking appeal is due to a growing conservatism on the part of those who have left poverty during their watch.

However, my favorite quote from Rio Gringa’s article really explains the social and political dynamic of contemporary Brazil, and really most middle-income nations of the global South. Juliana Cunha writes “It’s important the PT realizes that even if it wins, [it is a] lost, and will continue to lose as long as it doesn’t advance inclusion of consumers to extend to inclusion of citizens.” In order to understand this quote it would be useful to turn to popular culture.

In Brazil, like Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, and similar “big” growing economies, the popular culture often illustrates the dreams and desires of young people to participate in the global information age and consumerist economy. Funk Ostentaçao, a music genre and youth sub-culture that depicts the extreme materialism common to mainstream U.S. rap, popular during the last few years in Brazil, is emblematic of this phenomenon. So are Rolezinhos. But where there is a disconnect in this participation, is that many times the young populations that represent, and are represented by these cultures, are left out of participation in the political life of a country. A prime example of this in Brazil is the violence carried out by Military Police on favela residents in Rio, and particularly young men of color whom are usually just seen in the public sphere as “thugs” and drug dealers. This is also not unique to developing nations (#MikeBrown #Ferguson.)

In Brazil, a place where in the last few years, the lower classes have fully entered in to the consumerist economy (whether by state engineering or not) — and are existing in an economy that is fully dependent on materialist consumerism — the perceived gains achieved by economic inclusion plans such as Bolsa Familia, are thinner than they perhaps seem. From what I’ve witnessed over the past months, this is the real concern of the protesters, young people, and the Brazilian Left.

Further Reading