If there's one thing that this year's election will be remembered for, it's for the bitter divisions it has caused among Brazilian voters, in a way unseen since the beginning of redemocratization.
It hasn't just been the angry rhetoric between the candidates, including mud-slinging, insults, and casting the opposite candidate and party as the enemy. This certainly has helped drive what's happening, but there are other reasons voters' behavior has changed this time around.
During the election season, political arguments have become commonplace, with reports in the media about friendships ending and family spats over who to support for president. I've seen these arguments happening first hand on social media, too. There was even a physical scuffle between PT and PSDB supporters this week in São Paulo. Época profiled a number of people who'd had this experience, including one of the country's top comedians, Gregório Duvivier. After he wrote a column saying he would vote for President Dilma Rousseff, a man came up to him at a Rio restaurant and physically threatened him. “In Brazil, there's a lack of a habit in dealing with democracy, and we're not used to hearing others' opinions," he said. During the last debate, some Brazilians on Twitter reported hearing people cheering for their chosen candidate, like during a soccer game.
As I wrote earlier this week: "Political chatter has reached a fever pitch...It's been so bad that the Justice Ministry launched a social media campaign with the slogan: 'Don't confuse hate speech with freedom of speech.' One observer is even concerned that this polarization could persist after the election. 'Brazil is torn. Half on one side, half on the other. Someone will will by a slim margin. If the tone on the internet continues as it is, the path of the country is blocked,' wrote Globo columnist Pedro Doria. 'There will be hate among Brazilians. Searching for a civilized conversation is our first mission next Monday.'"
So why is this election so divisive? Here are a few theories.
PT fatigue: Many are tired of the Workers' Party after its 12 years in power, even some who previously voted for Lula and Rousseff. This is due in part to people getting tired of how the party operates, particularly when it comes to corruption, but is also partly due to the length of time the party has controlled the presidency. If Rousseff wins reelection, it could mean a better chance for the opposition to win in 2018. And if the president keeps her seat, she's going to have to address the fact that a significant portion of the country wants change in some capacity. There's a feeling among some that even though Aécio Neves is not a perfect choice--and may even end up with his own corruption scandals--anyone but the PT should be in the Planalto. This element of the race has exacerbated party tensions.
Class tensions: On the flipside, one of the PT's greatest achievements is reducing poverty and hunger. However, this is also what's driving politicial animosity. As the new middle class has grown, so has irritation and even bitterness among the traditional middle class and upper class that the former poor are now "invading" spaces that used to be exclusive to those with money, from airports to university classrooms. There's sentiment among some right-leaning voters that social programs like Bolsa Familia should be ended, but in a larger sense I think there are some who feel that the PT has exploited poverty-reduction efforts as a way to win votes. And because there has been such great success in reducing extreme poverty, some in the upper classes feel it's time to focus on a new agenda. That's what's helping drive more visible political participation among the wealthy during this election, such as the so-called "cashmere revolution."
At the same time, the PT has worked very hard during this election to maintain its biggest base, co-opting popular figures among low-income voters, from passinho dancers to famous singers. Some low-income voters are afraid that the PSDB would mean a return to more difficult economic times and a slide backwards in terms of social gains. The PT has played successfully on this fear through its campaign messaging.
Middle class demands: The PT's success in reducing poverty may also be a weakness in this election. Polls show that while Rousseff continues to dominate among low-income voters and those with lower levels of education, not all who have left poverty feel a sense of gratitude toward the PT. Instead, some have increasing demands of the government, such as the ones seen during last year's protests, like healthcare and transportation. Though the middle class has grown and the number of those living in poverty has declined, quality of life has stagnated for many, due to rising cost of living and crime, among other issues. As a result, new consumers are making demands as citizens, but PT party faithfuls sometimes see this desire for change as a betrayal, increasing tensions.
A shift in thinking about Brazil's direction: Recently, Brazilian historian Boris Fausto told Época: "After the country's redemocratization, there was a basic consensus in Brazil about how problems should be dealt with and alternation of power. Today that has changed. There's a head-on fight in which the adversary has become treated as an enemy or a neoliberal monster." Because Brazil has changed so much in the past three decades and as democracy has matured, there's been increasing polarization about how the country should be run and in what direction the country should go. Given how much progress has been made, there's profound disagreement about what comes next.
There's a part of the elite that sees Brazil as still being too "third world" and being hindered by outdated ideology and policies in efforts to make it a more important global player. Then there's a part of the left that sees a need to focus on domestic issues with the PT's social inclusion efforts incomplete, given problems related to public health, education, human rights, and other areas. And because of a greater conviction among voters about what direction they want the country to take, there's also greater animosity between the two sides, with anxiety about what will happen if the other candidate wins. Last night, Globo columnist Cora Ronai wrote on Facebook about why she wasn't supporting Rousseff, saying: "I have nothing against suicide. I just hate it when you drag me along with you."