Brazil is just days away from the first round of this year’s general election, and rising crime and security will play an important role in shaping the outcome of the contest, which in turn will help shape how the country confronts the deteriorating security situation.
Polls leading up to the election have consistently shown that violence is one of the most pressing issues for Brazilian citizens. A September survey by the research firm Datafolha found voters consider violence to be the country’s second-most important problem, after the crisis-wracked healthcare system.
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Brazilians have reason to worry. The national murder rate has been ticking upwards in recent years, reaching an all-time high of 30.8 homicides per 100,000 citizens in 2017, according to a recent report by non-profit Brazilian Public Security Forum (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública).
There are many factors behind the deepening insecurity. Economic struggles have hurt local governments’ ability to spend on public safety, turf wars between gangs have led to repeated outbreaks of bloodshed, and a lack of political will has hindered efforts to revamp flawed policies.
Much attention has been focused on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-biggest city. Earlier this year, President Michel Temer ordered the federal military forces to assume control over security operations. Critics allege the decision was taken for purposes of political posturing in an election year rather than as a genuine attempt to improve public safety.
However, Brazil’s more rural and less wealthy northern regions are even worse off. Homicide rates have been rising at a much faster pace in northern states like Pernambuco, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte than in the more urbanized south. In these areas, security may play an even bigger role in voters’ choices at the polls in October.
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It’s clear from the campaign rhetoric and media coverage that security is a big theme in this election. And experts agree that many Brazilians will base their decision at the voting booth in large part based on that issue.
“The issues of violence and crime are among the most discussed in this election, as they are one of the main concerns of voters. So, certainly many people will decide their vote based on which candidate they think is most capable of solving the question of rising violence,” said Aline Burni, a political science PhD candidate at Minas Gerais Federal University in Brazil.
Burni credits the preoccupation with violence for aiding the rise of far-right, law-and-order firebrand Jair Bolsonaro, currently the frontrunner in the presidential race.
“Bolsonaro’s approach is explicit: that crime should be combatted through force and that he is going to invest on the side of armed repression, including with measures to enhance the stature of the police,” Burni told InSight Crime. “In Brazil, there isn’t a culture of mainstreaming human rights, so the discourse of ‘a good criminal is a dead criminal’ appeals to a lot of people.”
Hard data seems to support this conclusion. According to the above-mentioned Datafolha poll, voters who support Bolsonaro consider violence the principal problem in Brazil. Those who support other candidates, like the leftist former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, rank it behind healthcare.
Burni thinks security issues will have a bigger impact on the presidential election than it will on congressional races.
“Voters see the president as the actor that has more power to make drastic changes and the question of violence requires urgent measures,” she said. “But as a function of the rules and dynamics of electoral propaganda … the vote for members of congress depends more on personal proximity — the endorsement of well-known figures or other politicians — than on the platform they promote.”
The leading presidential candidates have wildly varying ideas about how to address crime and violence, meaning this election could spur a profound shake-up in Brazil’s security strategy going forward.
“The two rivals that are leading the race, Haddad and Bolsonaro, have totally opposite views on how to resolve the question of insecurity in the country,” Burni pointed out, contrasting Haddad’s focus on human rights and crime prevention to Bolsonaro’s heavy-handed focus on repression and punishment.
“In this sense, as a function of who is elected, there could be a drastic change in the framework of security policy going forward,” Burni said.
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