Elections and Political Violence in Brazil

Earlier this week, an AP report on the 22 murders in Brazil as the local elections scheduled for October approachmade the rounds on major newswires. In addition to the murders, threats of violence were not-insignificant; 5 percent of candidates throughout the country’s 5565 municipalities reported threats or violence of some type. As a result, over 400 towns, have sought additional security from the federal police. While perhaps alarming to people elsewhere, such violence in Brazil is not unheard of:

The numbers leading up to the October elections are worrisome but not unusual, said Gilson Conzatti, the president of a national group representing city council members. Conzatti says local elections can threaten entrenched power structures that respond violently.

[…]

“Local elections mess with local power structures, and soon you have neighbor fighting with neighbor, shootings, aggression of all sorts,” he said.

Often, the politicians themselves are unprepared to resolve differences at the ballot box, Conzatti said.

“If they really prized democracy and the respect for rights, they’d fight in the way they should fight — with ideas, projects, attitudes,” he said. “But unfortunately elections in Brazil are not always like this.”

Political science researcher Ricardo Ismael of Rio de Janeiro’s Catholic University agrees local elections in Brazil tend to be more violent than those for state or federal level office.

“Municipal elections introduce that local element, small towns with few police officers, where there are old political bosses who won’t admit losing, and that go about defending their turf in an old-fashioned way,” Ismael said.

I think those quotations do get to at least part of the matter – that the violence is due in no small part to bitter fights over control and access to local power and resources; to know (or be) political leaders is in no small part to have a broader system of resources, patrons, and power in a municipality. Given those rewards, those seeking such positions for themselves and/or their supporters have plenty to gain or lose with a local political victory. And I do think the lack of strong democratic institutions at the local level is perhaps a hindrance on peaceful elections.

At the same time, however, such violence, while tragic, is nothing new, as the last quotation suggests. Indeed, local politics have been predicated on patronage networks and violence since the nineteenth century. While the actors and the weapons may have changed, the fact that people fight one another in favor of or against competing candidates, or that candidates themselves resort to violence, in order to acquire local office and the fruits that come with it, is a centuries-old process in Brazil. Indeed, the fact that most of the requests for federal police have come from the North and Northeast, where landed elites and their allies still exercise a type of remarkable influence in politics not-dissimilar to that of their counterpart coronels, or political bosses (also traditionally from the landed elites) in the nineteenth century in the agricultural Northeast. Although it has undergone various changes and guises as politics and the role of the federal state have transformed in the 20th century, one can still trace remnants of that coronelismo in politics today, particularly in those areas where it was so influential, like the Northeast. While Brazil has undergone considerable democratization in recent decades, that democratization has not been equal across the board.

To be clear, this is not to say, “well, these things happen”  – it is a tragedy and a point of frustration for what has unquestionably been a thriving democracy in Brazil in the last 3o years (dating back to the military regime allowing direct elections for governors in 1982; ironically, local elections remained legal and regular throughout the military regime, even while elections for senators and governors were indirect). Yet the fact that allocation of resources (including jobs and contracts) at the local level has led to local violence in Brazil is not a new story, in spite of the sudden interest in English newswires regarding the 22 murders this year; rather, it is the modern version of local politics that has its roots in politics in the Brazilian empire in the nineteenth century.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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