Brazil’s upcoming presidential election has been shrouded by an unprecedented climate of tension and violence. As the Oct. 2 vote approaches, episodes of harassment and attacks have intensified, with even neutral players like poll institutes turning into targets.
Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who aims to be reelected, is currently lagging in the main polls behind leftwing former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. And the battle between these two very different household names has divided the nation – with experts saying the level of political anger is different this year.
“The polarization we’re facing this year is different from just a political polarization,” says Felipe Nunes, CEO of Quaest Research Institute, which conducts polls in Brazil.
“This year we are seeing affective polarization — where different political groups see each other as enemies, not as adversaries.”
Several of his group’s researchers have been harassed while conducting polling this year, Nunes added.
Another well-known research institute, Datafolha said that one of its researchers’ lives was threatened, after they refused to interview a self-identified Bolsonaro supporter in the city of Ariranha, outside of Sao Paulo.
The disgruntled man accused the researcher of bias, and accused him of only interviewing “Lula’s supporters” and “tramps”. He then beat and threatened him with a knife, says Datafolha, which filed a police report.
“One of the polling guidelines is to not interview someone who offers himself. It has to be random for statistical purposes,” said Jean Estevao de Souza, electoral researcher project coordinator at Datafolha, to CNN.
“The most typical cases (of attacks) are of people who offer themselves and when the researcher explains that he cannot be interviewed under that circumstance, the person starts filming, offending and cursing.”
According to Datafolha, 42 other cases of harassment and violence against its employees have been reported since September 7 this year.
While violence has been seen on both sides of the political spectrum, critics accuse Bolsonaro of deliberately fostering distrust and frustration among supporters toward the Brazilian electoral system. And increasingly, as his performance flags in the polls, Bolsonaro’s ire has turned toward research organizations like Datafolha.
Datafolha has been repeatedly named – and the accuracy of its polls questioned — by Bolsonaro. In a speech in Brasília during the celebrations of Brazil´s 200-year Independence Anniversary on September 7, Bolsonaro discredited Datafolha projections, a common theme in his speeches.
“I’ve never seen such a big sea here with these green and yellow colors. There is no lying Datafolha here,” he said. “Here is the truth, here is the will of an honest, free and hardworking people.”
During a campaign event on Sept. 23, Bolsonaro kept the tone in a speech to his supporters in Divinópolis, Minas Gerais state. “We are the majority. We will win in the first round. There is no election without people in the streets. We don’t see any of the other candidates holding a rally that comes close to 10% of the people here,” he said.
Recent polls have shown Lula leading Bolsonaro in recent weeks.
Attempts by politicians to discredit polling institutes are not new in Brazil, says Datafolha’s Estevao de Souza. “But we never faced harassment and attacks on the researchers on the streets until this year.”
“The rhetoric of attack on the institutes by the president’s campaign, which tries to discredit the polls, ends up circulating among the most radicalized supporters and it is reflected in the streets,” he said.
Verbal sparring between the two leading candidates — though not uncommon in Brazil — has also added to the poisoned atmosphere, with Bolsonaro repeatedly calling Lula a “thief,” and Lula recently describing Bolsonaro as vermin.
Given the charged national dialogue, some Brazilian voters have chosen to refrain from discussing their electoral preferences in public, according to a Quaest poll.
“We recently asked voters if they feel it’s more dangerous to say their opinions or whoever they want to vote for. And around 80% of respondents claimed it’s more dangerous to talk about politics right now than it used to be in the past,” continued Nunes.
Attacks on polling researchers are just one example of the political hostility seen in Brazil as the nation prepares for the vote.
During a speech accepting his party’s nomination for reelection on July 23, the Brazilian president called on supporters to give their lives “for freedom.”
“Repeat with me: I swear to give my life for freedom. Once again,” said Bolsonaro to the crowd who repeated his words.
There have been repeated clashes between Bolsonaro and Lula supporters – the most emblematic episode being perhaps the shooting death of Workers Party member Marcelo Arruda on July 9 by the Bolsonaro supporter José da Rocha Guaranho, who was later charged with aggravated murder.
Guaranho, who was also shot and subsequently hospitalized, has said he doesn’t not remember what happened.
Such high profile incidents have caused fear among some potential voters – and could risk deterring people from voting at all. On the streets of Sao Paulo’s iconic Paulista avenue, voters interviewed by CNN expressed frustration over the bitter atmosphere around the coming elections.
“There is too much tension, it’s almost turning into a war. It seems that Lula and Bolsonaro are like football teams. People are angry at each other,” said 33-year-old Erika de Paula, who said she was still undecided but would not vote for Bolsonaro.
Felipe Araujo, who considers himself a moderate supporter of Bolsonaro, wished the elections would end soon. “(The elections) are very polarized between the two main candidates. And there is a lot of fighting between people. I sincerely hope this ends soon. It has contaminated all of the environments, work, family, friends,” he said.
Voter turnout will be crucial at this historic juncture for the country – which could see Brazil’s leadership double down on Bolsonaro’s agenda or else take a left turn under Lula.
But four in ten Brazilians believe that there is a high chance of political violence on election day and – although voting is compulsory in Brazil – 9% said they were are considering not voting at all for fear of violence, according to a Datafolha poll earlier this month.
“These tensions and attacks are very bad for the research work, but also for the election, for the political environment in general, and for democracy itself,” said Estevao de Souza from Datafolha.