Polarizing presidential race divides Brazil families

Sarah Dilorenzo
Associated Press

Sao Paulo – When the political ads come on TV in the Higa household these days, everyone wishes to be somewhere else.

Eike Higa is gay and plans to vote for the left-wing candidate, Fernando Haddad, in Brazil’s upcoming presidential runoff. But his parents might vote for Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right congressman who has made comments offensive to gay people.

Higa tries not to take it personally. He said he has a good relationship with his parents, with whom he lives in Sao Paulo. But “in a political climate like this one, the old insecurities always surface again.”

Across Brazil, a particularly polarizing election has divided families and friends and left some wondering if the rift will permanently change the political and cultural landscape of Latin America’s largest country.

The tension “has manifested itself with vibrant colors in this moment,” said Ana Claudia Duarte Rocha Marques, an anthropology professor at the University of Sao Paulo. “It was a defuse thing that became acute.” And it might not fade for years.

Brazil’s media behemoth Globo took on the subject of families and friends who fight over politics in chat groups on the ubiquitous messaging service WhatsApp. The report noted that tweets using the phrases “I left the family group” or “fight in the family group” started to surge in August, as the campaign officially got underway.

In some cases, the election has merely made raw the political divisions that relatives always knew existed.

Tamara Miranda, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives in Rio Claro in Sao Paulo state, said she and her stepfather always disagreed on politics. She is on the left, and he is on the right. It just somehow never mattered as much as now.

For others, the particularities of this election – the complete disappearance of the Brazilian center, leading to a runoff between two candidates with high rejection rates – have led people to stick up for politicians they might not otherwise defend.

For decades, Brazilian presidential elections were largely a contest between the center-right and center-left parties. The emphasis on achieving consensus was high since Congress was typically fractured by more than a dozen parties.

But that old peace has frayed. The discontent, according to Marques and others, began in 2014, when then-President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party was re-elected after a bitter campaign and the economy began to tank. Rousseff was impeached and removed from office two years later.

When her vice president, Michel Temer, took over and implemented market-friendly economic reforms, the idea that right-leaning forces in Congress had staged a palace coup took hold.

In parallel, a sprawling corruption investigation was unfolding, leading to the jailing of scores of politicians involved in schemes to dole out public contracts and other favors for billions in bribes and kickbacks.

There, too, many on the left cried foul, arguing that the judicial system seemed much more eager to pursue charges against Workers’ Party politicians than others. Those on the right, meanwhile, interpreted the imbalance differently, believing that the Workers’ Party had simply brought a new dimension to such graft.

Thus, the rift began to open, stoked by massive street protests and social media, including the rise of fake news.

The result has been an exceptionally polarized presidential campaign. Bolsonaro was stabbed last month at a rally and suffered serious abdominal wounds. There have been numerous reports of politically motivated violence. The words “Nazi” and “fascist” are lobbed frequently.

Bolsonaro has a substantial lead in the polls but has disgusted many with derogatory comments about minorities and his praise for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

Many people, including some in the Higa household, feel trapped by the choices. Eike’s mother, Simone, said she voted for a conservative candidate who got few votes in the first round, and she’s determined to keep the Workers’ Party from power. But she is still struggling with the choice she will have to make on Sunday.

She is reluctant to vote for Bolsonaro, but she also doesn’t want “to elect Lula again,” she said, referring to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been convicted of corruption and jailed but who many allege will be pulling the strings if Haddad is elected.

Voting in Brazil is mandatory, but voters can choose “blank” in the booth or enter a non-existent candidate code. When asked if she was considering going that route, the 50-year-old small business owner said: “If I throw away my vote, I could be electing Lula again, and the work of the federal police would be all in vain.”

She said she knows how her son feels and that her concerns about Bolsonaro are exactly because Eike is gay. But Eike himself said he has been loath to confront his parents about their vote.

“I feel let down,” the 27-year-old said. “I feel really sad to know that even if they were voting strategically to block the Workers’ Party, they are indirectly supporting a person who is against me, against what I am.”