Sao Paulo, Brazil – Election season has officially started in Brazil and a record 13 candidates are due to register for October’s presidential poll. They will face a tough task: trying to win over a polarised electorate, rocked in recent years by mammoth corruption scandals, a deep recession and rising violence.
This year’s election is widely expected to be the most closely contested and unpredictable since 1989 when Brazil first held presidential elections after a two-decade military dictatorship.
Opinion polls suggest more than 30 percent of voters are undecided or may abstain, reflecting an overall dissatisfaction with politics as usual.
The electorate is also bitterly polarised, following years of political crisis, including the controversial impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the jailing of ex-president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva.
The national mood is a far cry from the build-up to 2014’s election, when Brazil had just hosted a successful World Cup, was removed from the UN’s World Hunger Map and unemployment was at an all-time low.
Today, unemployment is at a record high and extreme poverty, including infant mortality, is on the rise again after years of successive fall.
Voters go to the polls on October 7 to pick local and national representatives and state governors and cast their first vote for president. A second-round runoff between the top two candidates is scheduled October 28.
Former President Lula leads the polls by a wide margin, but will likely be barred from running because he is serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption – charges he and his supporters say are politically motivated.
“We will fight for Lula’s candidacy until the end,” Worker’s Party leader Gleisi Hoffman told journalists earlier this week.
Lula presided over a period of growth and high employment with social policies that lifted tens of millions out of poverty and his government is fondly remembered by many in Brazil.
Thousands of his supporters marched to the capital Brasilia this week, demanding he be released from prison and allowed to run. His party is expected to officially register him as a candidate later on Wednesday.
Erich Decat, a political analyst at XP Investments, told Al Jazeera that the electoral court will probably bar Lula’s candidacy by the first week of September. It is expected that former Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, who is currently running as Lula’s vice president, will take over.
Even though Haddad is still relatively unknown outside of Sao Paulo, Decat said: “We expect Lula’s power will be enough to take Haddad to the second round.”
The far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, of the Social Liberty Party, is second in the polls and has positioned himself as the outsider candidate.
Once regarded as a fringe politician, known for homophobic rants and verbal attacks on minorities, Bolsonaro’s popularity has grown as traditional parties have been racked by scandal and Brazil became more polarised.
“Some people may vote for Bolsonaro, not necessarily for the enthusiasm that they have for him, but because they are so disillusioned with politics,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro State University.
Bolsonaro wants to increase gun ownership and advocates an extremely tough on crime stance, including chemical castration for rapists and giving Brazil’s police greater rights to kill suspects.
The Rio de Janeiro congressman and former army captain is an outspoken supporter of Brazil’s military dictatorship that killed and tortured hundreds of political opponents.
Often referred to as “Brazil’s Trump,” Bolsonaro has a solid and vocal fan base, mainly made up of middle-class voters and young people born after the dictatorship, that applauds his often wild outbursts. He has held second position in the polls all year.
“In a very fragmented election as this will be, his loyal base of voters could be enough to take him to the second round,” said Santoro.
However, according to opinion polls, Bolsonaro has the highest rejection rate among the candidates, a barrier to winning the second round.
He has also only managed to form a small coalition with a small hard-right party. If previous elections are anything to go by, the bigger the coalition, the more likely of a candidate making it through to the second round and winning.
One reason for this is because, in Brazil, the free and wide-reaching TV and radio campaign ad allocation time is dependent on the number of lower house congressmen in the candidate’s coalition.
With barely any TV time, Bolsonaro is betting on social media. He has over five million followers on Facebook, more than all of the other candidates. Some analysts, however, are not convinced.
“Strong social media presence by itself is not enough to win new voters, you are just preaching to the already converted,” said Marcos Faco, director of communication and Marketing at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a business school.
“TV and radio remain the most effective methods of communication in an election,” he told Al Jazeera.
Geraldo Alckmin, the market-friendly, centre-right former governor of Sao Paulo of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, has the strongest coalition and the most TV and radio time but lags in opinion polls, though his support base is expected to grow.
He is seen as a continuation of the current government of the Democratic Movement Party’s Michel Temer, Brazil’s most unpopular president with a three percent approval rating, after corruption scandals and austerity measures, something rival candidates are expected to exploit.
“The main problem that Alckmin faces is that he is the candidate of the establishment,” said Santoro.
Other candidates include the centrist former environment minister Marina Silva and the centre-left former governor of Ceara state, Ciro Gomes.
Regardless of who wins, Brazil’s next president will have to govern with a fragmented congress, 40 percent of whom face investigations for corruption or other crimes, made of more than 30 mainly non-ideological parties, who provide support for projects and reforms in exchange for patronage.
Despite voter’s dissatisfaction and distrust of Brazil’s traditional parties, analysts expect politicians from big parties to use the big party system to their advantage to get re-elected, as a new public campaign finance system with limited funds will block new politicians from getting in.
Personal campaign funding is allowed, however, favouring candidates from business or agricultural backgrounds.
Brazil’s deficit continues to balloon and economists have noted that next year a series of economic measures, including pension reform and an attempt to address Brazil’s regressive tax system, should be made within six months in order to fulfil a federal spending cap rule. If the rule is broken, it could be grounds for the next president’s impeachment, unless deals are made with Congress to revoke the law, opening the door for more horse trading politics.
“The next president will face a difficult congress,” said Decat from XP Investments. “Factional interests could stop any necessary reforms being made.”