BRAZIL, US GO TO THE POLLS: Twin elections threaten to push Western hemisphere into a period of far-right populism

Two elections, one in Brazil and one in the US, are on the immediate horizon. We look at them both.

It is easy to forget that there are two elections – not just one – that have the possibilities of making a major impact on the political dynamics of the Western hemisphere for the coming years. There is the one many have been thinking, reading, and writing about for months now, and that, of course, is the midterm election in the United States on 6 November. But there is also the second round of the Brazilian presidential election at the end of October, on the 28th. Between the two elections, they have the possibility of installing – or confirming – an angry, right-wing populism in the two biggest, most powerful, and most important nations in the hemisphere for the foreseeable future. Gulp. In Brazil, the odds are now heavily in favour of Jair Bolsonaro, the confusingingly named Social Liberal Party candidate for the presidency, given that he nearly won the whole ball game outright in the first round in a vote, what with something like two dozen listed candidates in the mix. His opponent is Fernando Haddad from the Workers Party and he is already being counted out by most observers in that country. Haddad is from the same party that had given Brazil the still-popular, reform-minded president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, with his economic boom and social welfare reforms. Haddad has tried to drop some of his party’s trademark leftisms, replacing red on campaign materials with the country’s national green and yellow colours, along with softening some policies, but it may already be too late. Sadly for his many fans, Lula is now in jail for corruption, his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached, and the resulting furore has led to vast – and still-growing – investigations into the country’s endemic political corruption. The result is that a candidate like Bolsonaro has made deep inroads with a population upset about nearly everything – crime, corruption, economic malaise, national drift – that has gone wrong with their nation over the past several years. Viewed from the outside, Bolsonaro seems like a winning combination of everything appealling, appalling, and more than a little bit frightening in people like Presidents Rodrigo Duterte, Jerzy Orban, and, of course, Donald Trump – and this potent mix will most likely prove to be his winning ticket. And perhaps, too, this will be democracy’s undoing for the larger democratic project in Latin America, as the political choice boils down to the Charybdis of Ernesto Maduro’s Venezuela or the Schylla of Bolsonaro’s Brazil in the global age of Trumpism. Ugh. Meanwhile, in the US, the midterm election is just two weeks away. In this choice, people will select the entire 435-member House of Representatives, a third-plus of the hundred senators, several dozen state governors, and hundreds of state legisators, mayors, and other local officials – including two very interesting, possibly game changer gubenatorial races in Florida and Georgia where appealling African-American candidates seek to overturn the two states’ political orthodoxy. Historically, midterm elections two years into a presidential term are seen as a kind of informal, popular referendum on a president’s record, and both parties have been counting on this. On the face of it, for a president whose popularity has been “under water?” – it is now around 44% to 47% with much lower numbers among women and where many of his hallmark policies score strong disapproval ratings as well – this impending midterm should be reflecting some serious stormclouds for the GOP. In fact, Democratic strategists have been busy speaking about the soon-to-break "blue wave" that will engulf Republicans. National polls have shown a consistent pro-democratic bulge – but congressional races are not won or lost nationally, but rather, won district by district instead. Campaign funding groups among Republicans have in fact been shifting their ample funding support away from congressional candidates believed to be flailing and failing, to still-competitive candidates. As a result, most potential voters are going to be exposed to a torrent of last-minute electronic political messages on the tube, on radio, via robo-calls, and certainly via electronic media as well. There will be no escape from the onslaught, unless someone elects to unplug every communication device in their life. At this point, most analysts are still projecting a shift of up to two dozen or so seats in the House of Representatives to the Democrats, thereby giving them control of that house. Barely. Typical of this is the highly regarded University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s latest comment in which he wrote:

A race-by-race analysis of Democratic House targets shows the party is close to winning the majority, but they do not have it put away, in our judgement, with Election Day less than three weeks away. Barring a big, positive late change in the political environment in favour of Republicans, the bare minimum for Democratic House gains is in the mid-to-high teens. The needed 23-seat net gain is not that far beyond that and there are many different paths Democrats can take to achieve it. So the GOP is still at a disadvantage overall.”

But it will be a close thing and, depending on local conditions in several races, the GOP may just manage to hold on by a seat or two. The repercussions if the Democrats do win control could be dire for the GOP generally – and for Donald Trump’s administration more specifically. The basic reason is that control of the House would give them the ability to begin investigations of officials and their actions, to schedule hearings and summon officials to testify, and to demand relevant documents. They could similarly hold hearings on planned or current policies and, by virtue of constitutional provisions, have a real say in the budgetary implications of any policy (as all bills for the appropriation of federal funds must begin in the House). At this point, although the Democrats would only need a net win of two additional Senate seats to gain control of that house as well, many of the incumbent Democrats vying for re-election for their six-year terms are in states that went significantly for Donald Trump in 2016. Thus the smart money is now saying the GOP may actually achieve a net gain of a seat – or even two – by the time all the votes are counted. In issue terms, broadly speaking, Democratic strategists had been counting on a growing revulsion over Trumpian antics and policies both, especially those that are anathema to college-educated, suburban, white, middle-class women who may well hold the balance of power in a significant number of largely suburban congressional districts now held by Republican congressmen and women – in districts where Democrats more usually hold sway. Pre-eminent among such issues had been held to be the way the GOP had (mis)handled Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings a few weeks back, generating a wave of revulsion among desirable voter groups. But the Trump playbook has been to punch up a deep-seated fear and loathing over a wave of illegal immigrants heading north from Mexico and Central America, a parallel fear of mobs of American protesters against the old patriotic verities (a.k.a. the culture war 2.0), and that continuing fear of Islamic terrorism. Marry those issues with an economic boom claimed by Trump as a vindication of his tax and deregulatory policies, as well as a new GOP formulation over healthcare that obscures the very real popular support for key provisions of the Affordable Care Act such as coverage of pre-existing conditions, and the shape of a combination of carrots and fears that may goad many of Trump’s base to show up on Election Day swings into view. And turnout is – always – the key to winning elections, not anguished whingeing on social media or joining the feel-good solidarity of giant marches. One further point is important. This election is being seen by many as an out-of-town try-out period for would-be contenders for the Democrats’ presidential nomination in 2020. As a result, senators like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Cory Booker have all been active in rallies for other candidates – as has been former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden hardly qualifies as a new face, nor does Sanders of course, but in this early day, Biden is far ahead of other would-be candidates, perhaps because of name recognition and perhaps because of his ability to project a persona as being a “real guy”, the kind of man a voter would enjoy sharing a beer with. This is going to be a fascinating election in the US, and we will provide as much analysis as we can prepare as soon as the results are known for Daily Maverick readers, just as we always do. DM