Earlier this month, the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro secured 46 percent of the vote in Brazil’s first round of presidential elections, putting him just five points short of an outright victory. The thorn in his side was Brazil’s northeast: the only region to reject the fascistic former army captain in favor of the moderate leftist Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party (PT). After hearing the news, some Brazilians turned to Twitter, evoking the famous Princess Leia line from Star Wars: “Northeast, you are our only hope.”
In the three weeks between the first round and the runoff on October 28, the two candidates were supposed to meet for a televised debate, but Bolsonaro did not show, presumably because of his health (he was recently stabbed during a rally). This election will be the first time that two presidential contenders have not faced each other since democratization in 1989. Instead, Haddad has been holding rallies around the country, while Bolsonaro has addressed supporters via live broadcasts on his mobile phone.
Nordestinos, as northeasterners are known, have been nicknamed the “Irish of Brazil” because of their status in society (Irish immigrants in the United States and United Kingdom were once considered “low-class”). The region is predominantly nonwhite, poor, and far less developed than parts of the south and southeast, with which it has a history of contention: In 1817 the state of Pernambuco declared independence, which lasted only two months.
The term bairrista, or localist, is sometimes ascribed to northeast natives who wax lyrical about Forró music and their rolled guava cake bolo de rolo. But as well as regional pride, there is a strong history of leftism here: The northeast was the birthplace of Hélder Câmara, the so-called “bishop of the slums” who was born in Fortaleza, Ceará. A pioneer of Liberation Theology, a Catholic-leftist movement, he is famous for proclaiming: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Frederico, a retired economics professor and self-avowed Marxist from the northeastern city of Recife, explains that local Communists were “persecuted throughout the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, in episodes of immense cruelty.” One such incident took place in January 1973 on the outskirts of the city, when an agent of the secret service tricked exiled Communists living in Chile to return; according to Frederico, “They were surrounded and slaughtered” in what became known as the São Bento Farm Massacre.
The northeast has been a stronghold of the Brazilian Worker’s Party since the successful election of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in 2002. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, secured a majority in every northeastern state in her 2010 and 2014 presidential campaigns. Rousseff was subsequently impeached in April 2016, and two years later, Lula began a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges.
Like all major Brazilian parties, the PT has been embroiled in “Lava Jato” (Operation Carwash), which began in 2014 and has since become one of the biggest investigations of political corruption in the world. The party nevertheless enjoys widespread popularity in the northeast as a result of its concrete achievements in social policy.
Amanda, a university student from Maceio, Alagoas, says that “the PT government made many improvements here, like food, water, and basic support for children to be in school.” Four in 10 northeastern families received the Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance) cash-transfer scheme, gaining significant improvements in living standards. The leftist government also built seven new federal universities in the countryside. Infrastructural programs such as Luz Para Todos (Light for All) provided rural homes with electricity, benefiting more than 7 million nordestinos.
Professor Jorge Antonio Alves from City University New York believes that it is not just the success of social programs that has secured support for PT in the Northeast; rather, he thinks the Worker’s Party “has been effective in using federal government resources to feed alliances with local elites.” Cynical politicking, along with the party’s corruption, has frustrated progressives, some of whom used the first round to express their disappointment by voting for alternative candidates Ciro Gomes, the center-left veteran of the Democratic Labour Party (PDT), and Guilherme Boulos, the far-left leader of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL).
On the right, distrust of the Worker’s Party has skyrocketed, in part thanks to a decade-long antipetismo (anti-PT) campaign from parts of the media and establishment. In the past few months, a Steve Bannon–inspired fake-news strategy on social media has further destroyed PT’s credibility. Bolsonaro—who is very much part of Brazil’s political class—has successfully cultivated an anti-establishment image that has led even more-moderate voters to believe he is the lesser of two evils.
Violent, sensationalist anti-left rhetoric has no doubt fed into a spike in political violence against left-wing supporters and the LGBT+ community since the first round of the election. In Salvador, Bahia (the home of Afro-Brazilian culture), a black capoeira master was stabbed to death in a bar after a Bolsonaro devotee overheard the 63-year-old declare his support for PT. In the Arruda neighbourhood of Recife, a young woman was badly beaten by a group of men and women for sporting anti-Bolsonaro “Ele Nao” (“Not Him”) badges.
Many nordestinos are now fearful about a potential violent future should Bolsonaro seize power this Sunday, October 28. Bolsonaro recently declared that he would “cleanse” the country of leftists and put an end to what he views as “coitadismo” (self-victimisation) from northeasterners; the ex-army captain’s homophobic, violent, racist, and misogynistic views will no doubt further embolden extreme factions in Brazilian society. Some fearful nordestinos say they are already setting plans in motion for self-exile to Europe, or neighboring countries.
Maria, a part-time teacher from the northeast’s capital of Carnival, Olinda, said: “I’m gay, I’m a woman, I’m a Nordestina, I don’t see a future in Brazil. I’m saving up to leave for Portugal.” Guto, a young father from Recife who works in a bank by day and studies literature at night, is fearful too. He is planning to move to Uruguay: “I don’t want to raise my daughter amongst all this hate and bigotry,” he explained.
In Pernambuco, on the last Sunday before the second-round vote, conflicting demonstrations were taking place less than 10 miles from one another. By the beach in the wealthy district of Boa Viagem, people marched in the “Nas Ruas com Bolsonaro” (in the streets with Bolsonaro) demonstration. In front of the sterile, vast beachside apartment blocks supporters championed the only certinho (honest) guy in politics.
North of the city, in the historical centerof Olinda, the Amor em Bloco (Love Parade) continued late into the evening. Thousands danced through the narrow-cobbled streets, past the colorful colonial-era houses in support of the Workers Party, and more importantly, democracy. As Cassio, a 26-year-old history teacher from Paulista, noted: “At school, kids don’t learn about the dictatorship years in a critical way, people don’t understand the threat of Bolsonaro. I don’t like PT much, but I will vote for them. It’s a question of democracy versus fascism.”