Brazil First-Round Election Results: Lost Between Extremes

Photo:  Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Henrique Bezerra - Deputy Country Manager & Government Relations Director, Brazil

Brazilians, whichever way they voted, woke up from Sunday’s general election with a hangover promising to last at least four years. Even though polls widely predicted a second round, the nation and outside observers alike were shocked by just how close far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, from the Social “Liberal” Party (PSL), came to the 50% required for outright victory. With 46% of valid votes, he easily defeated runner-up Fernando Haddad from the Workers Party (PT), who trailed with 29%. On October 28, the nation will now choose between two very different platforms, in the final chapter of an ordeal that has rocked Brazil’s democracy and left the country bitterly divided.

The stark division that has emerged in Latin America’s largest democracy is generally defined by a strong anti-PT, anti-establishment sentiment carried out by a coalition of mostly conservative, evangelical, middle and upper-middle class, white constituents on one side and, on the other, by social and ethnic minorities, women, poorer and less educated constituents. While Brazil’s geo-economics traditionally see the more developed Center-South of the country leaning towards the right of the political spectrum and the North leaning towards the left, Sunday’s results were not as clear-cut as in the past. Regional politics were still apparent, but Bolsonaro made substantial in-roads into traditionally left-leaning demographics. Indeed, it was primarily Brazil’s North-East and their overwhelming loyalty to PT’s candidates at the local and national level that prevented Bolsonaro from walking away with a total victory in the first-round.

All in all, the results were a major blow to all mainstream parties, including PT, with Bolsonaro a mere four points away from victory and now almost certain to triumph in the second round. Despite the political reforms approved in 2017, which favoured well-established parties over newcomers and smaller parties, major political bigwigs lost their congressional seats and a conservative wave from a myriad of smaller parties has taken control of both chambers and important states of the federation. Haddad must now work to convince third party and undecided voters that staying the course is a safer bet than entering unchartered territory. The first-round results, however, indicate that voters distrust PT more than they dislike Bolsonaro, and this is now his game to lose.

A New Look in Congress

In Congress, a pack of new entrants riding on the coattails of Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric, saw the PSL go from only 8 representatives in the lower house to 52, second only to PT.  The so-called “Bible, Bullet and Beef” representatives now make up one of the largest blocs in the legislature.

Among the reasons for this upheaval is the changing composition of the electorate: for every 100 voters with high school or higher degrees, there are less than 50 with lower schooling. This translates to 50 million more voters with higher levels of education than the less-educated population. While sociopolitical tradition suggests that those with higher levels of education favor progressive agendas and so would reject Bolsonaro’s nationalistic rhetoric, the past few years have shown us not to count on ‘politics as usual’ in predicting how general demographics will vote. In Brazil, those with higher levels of education have increasingly placed more weight on the country’s corruption crisis, especially after “Lava Jato”, which engulfed mainstream politics and was ultimately responsible for the conviction of former president Lula. Candidates of the most established political parties, around whom the power game has revolved for the past 30 years, were eschewed in favor of eccentric candiates. The State of São Paulo, for example, elected Bolsonaro’s son with more than 1.8 million votes. Anxious for a representative to eschew the status quo, this significant section of Brazilian society rallied to propel Bolsonaro so far in the first round.

Source: Tribunal Superior Eleitoral and Folha de São Paulo

Meanwhile, the firmest opposition to Bolsonaro, formed by PT, PCdoB, PDT, PSB, Psol and Rede, together elected 136 deputies - one-fifth of the House. While this is a gain in numbers compared to the 124 deputies currently in office, it allows for significant leeway for Bolsonaro to build alliances, and would not be enough to stop him from pursuing structural reforms if elected.

The Presidential Finalists and their Economic Proposals

Despite falling on opposite ends of the political spectrum, both Haddad and Bolsonaro acknowledge Brazil’s most needed reform is that of its pension system. For all their rhetoric on radicalization, their primary economic proposals are actually quite similar. Both have proposed unification of the public and private pension schemes, with only minor differences in their formula sum of age + contribution time. Both candidates have also proposed the imposition of VAT and defended the independence of the Central Bank. While Bolsonaro has advocated for the privatization of state-owned companies, he recently stated that strategic companies such as Petrobras, Banco do Brasil and Caixa Econômica, should remain under state control.

As PT and its allies lost ground to the far-right, Haddad will likely negotiate to form a minimal support base in Congress, appealing to third-parties that he represents the more mainstream, safer bet compared to Bolsonaro’s radical unknown. Conversely, while Bolsonaro’s parliamentary history paints a nationalist vision of the State, his partnership with the economist Paulo Guedes has seen him move towards a defense of economic liberalism. Indeed, while some analysts have criticized Bolsonaro’s lack of clarity regarding his economic agenda, the financial markets seem to regard his coalition as a market-friendly one, with the Ibovespa jumping more than 6% in the first hours following the election results.

Furthermore, as the coalitions for the second round, and eventually government, are still being formed, Bolsonaro and his PSL will surely look to move more center forces into his camp. Meanwhile, Haddad has given signs that, at least in the economic field, he will adopt less interventionist measures than those PT proposed during the campaign. That said, his party and part of its support base will continue to advocate for abandoning a policy of fiscal balance and the reversal of several policies adopted by the Temer government (eg flexibilization of labor laws).

The Final Shots

During his post-election speech, Fernando Haddad gave a press conference aimed at the politcal center, with messages of moderation and democratic values. Jair Bolsonaro, meanwhile, took to social media and raised issues regarding the validity of the electoral system, while also signaling to the center-right on issues such as market liberalization and respect for women and minorities. With ten minutes each on national television and all eyes turned to the two candidates in the next three weeks, their proposals and alliances will become clearer to the electorate and other decision-makers.

A lot is at stake at these elections, not just to Brazil but to Latin America as a whole. The hope is that Brazilian democracy and its institutions, which have allowed the peaceful transition of power from center-right to center-left governments for the last 30 years, will survive an unprecedented polarization of Brazilian society and its politics. The political divisions that have erupted in Brazil are multifaceted and complex, but they paint a clear picture: Brazilians are desperate for change, even if it is not clear what that change represents. The odds (and recent global political trends) point to a Bolsonaro victory, but three weeks is a long time in Brazilian politics, with plenty of room for changing alliances and surprises.


Bolsonaro and Haddad are not the only names to know going into the final round of the election. Below, we look at a number of people most likely to influence each candidate's coalition (and eventually government) as they finalize their mandates:

Jair Bolsonaro Coalition Leaders

Paulo Guedes is the main name put forth in an eventual Bolsonaro presidency. He would become the Finance Minister, possibly with expanded powers through the merger of ministries. Of ultra-liberal profile, he has a PhD from the University of Chicago and is one of the founders of BTG Pactual bank and the economic liberal think-tank Instituto Millenium.


Onyx Lorenzoni, the re-elected federal representative from Rio Grande do Sul (DEM), is one of the coordinators of Bolsonaro’s campaign and mainly responsible for the articulation with other political parties. He is a key figure in building a wider coalition with center-right forces in Congress and is set to have an important role in an eventual government.


Janaína Paschoal (PSL) was the most voted state representative in Brazil’s history, with over 2 million votes for the State Assembly of São Paulo.  Last August, she refused the invitation to be Bolsonaro’s Vice President candidate. Nevertheless, the record ballots – which surpassed the amount achieved by 10 of the 13 governors elected in the first round -- will undoubtedly make her a relevant and influential voice in a potential Bolsonaro administration. Janaína graduated in Law at the University of São Paulo (USP), where she currently teaches. She co-authored the process to impeach former president Dilma Rousseff.


Flávio Bolsonaro (PSL), the eldest son of Jair Bolsonaro, was elected to the Senate by the state of Rio de Janeiro with over 4.3 million votes, by far the most voted senator in Brazil. He currently concludes his fourth mandate as state representative of Rio de Janeiro.


Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL), also son of Jair Bolsonaro, was the most voted federal representative in Brazil’s history with over 1.7 million votes, re-electing the mandate assumed in 2015.


Gustavo Bebianno, national president of PSL, is considered the right hand of candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Born in Rio de Janeiro (RJ), he is a lawyer and holds a master’s in finance from the University of Illinois (USA). Previously, Bebianno was the legal director of traditional newspaper Jornal do Brasil, from Rio de Janeiro.


General Augusto Heleno is the Public Security Advisor for candidate Jair Bolsonaro. He graduated from the Military Academy of Agulhas Negras (AMAN), and was head of the Social Communication Center of the Army and of the Army’s Commander Chief of Staff. Gen. Heleno, and also headed the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).



Frederico D'Ávila served as special adviser to the former governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, for agribusiness affairs. D’Ávila heads the Brazilian Rural Society (SRB).



Fernando Haddad Coalition Leaders

Lula da Silva may be physically absent from Fernando Haddad cabinet, but will continue to have a prominent role in a future government. The ex-president, who is currently in jail serving corruption charges, will continue to dictate the strategy of Haddad’s mandate and coalition.


Marcio Pochmann holds a PhD in Economics from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). He is currently the president of the Perseu Abramo Foundation and previously served as president of the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea). He is the coordinator of PT's government plan to the Presidency and will likely lead the administration’s economic team.


Jacques Wagner was the governor of Bahia from 2007 to 2014 and Minister of the Civil House from 2015 to 2016. He held the position of Chief Minister of the Personal Cabinet for the second term of former President Dilma. He has won a seat in the Senate for Bahia in the 2018 elections.


Alexandre Padilha was the creator of the “Mais Médicos” Program (aimed at attracting qualified doctors from Cuba and elsewhere to work in remote areas of Brazil), minister of Political Coordination for Lula, Minister of Health for Dilma and secretary of management for Haddad in São Paulo City Hall. He won the 2018 elections and won a seat as Federal Deputy for São Paulo.


Sergio Gabrielli holds a PhD in Economics from Boston University. He was the president of Petrobras from 2005 to 2012. He held the position of Secretary of Planning for the State of Bahia in 2012 and is coordinator of PT's presidential campaign.


Ricardo Berzoini was a federal deputy for four terms for the state of Minas Gerais and is former president of the Workers' Party. He was also Minister of Social Security and Labor for Lula and Minister of Communications and Institutional Relations in the government of Dilma Rousseff.


Celso Amorim was the chancellor of Brazil between 1993 and 1995, under the Itamar Franco government, and between 2003 and 2011 for Lula. In the Dilma government he was the Minister for Defense between 2011 and 2015.


Gleisi Hoffmann was elected in 2010 Senator for the state of Paraná. She was the Civil House Minister in the Dilma government. She is currently president of the PT and was elected federal deputy for the state of Paraná in the 2018 elections.



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