How non-voting affects democracy

Image: João Nitsche


The non-voting: sum of abstentions, white and null, won in a large part of the country

The photomontage with two electoral maps that show the distribution of the second round vote in the city of São Paulo for president in 2018 and for mayor in 2020 circulates on the internet and causes a certain frenzy.

Maps of voting results in the city of São Paulo in 2018 and 2020

The map of the 2018 electoral zones – in which Bolsonaro defeated Haddad, is very similar to the distribution drawing in which Bruno Covas defeats Boulos in 2020. The superimposed images led many people to the interpretation that a supposedly Bolsonarist electorate maintained its tendency to the right and it was with the PSDB in São Paulo in the current election. But it is not possible to reach this conclusion and most likely this type of interpretation does not match the electoral reality, nor with the profile of São Paulo or Brazilian voters.

Obviously, between Bruno Covas and Guilherme Boulos, the voter most identified with the conservative and neoliberal agendas will seek his approximation with the PSDB supporter, however, what the maps show cannot be understood in this way without a very great exaggeration and even to a certain extent bias against the average voter.

Simply looking at the map without a more attentive interpretation of the facts and figures can lead to misunderstandings. Note, for example, that between Bolsonaro's vote in 2018 and Bruno Covas's in 2020 there is a drop of approximately 633 thousand voting voters. Bolsonaro was voted in the capital of São Paulo by more than 3,6 million voters, while Bruno Covas had about 3,060 million votes. Boulos' voting for Haddad also dropped. The PT had around 2,424 million votes in the capital of SP. Boulos, just over 2,093 million votes. And the most important point is that in two years the vote in the second round in São Paulo fell by around 964 thousand votes.

Practically one million people from São Paulo stopped voting in 2 years. This is considering only the largest electoral college in the country.

The non-voting: sum of abstentions, blanks and nulls, won in a large part of the country. Obviously, it is necessary to discount the outdated registrations of voters who have died or passed the mandatory voting age and stopped voting, but it is important to note that abstention has been growing enormously in the country for at least four elections.

In 2020 abstention exceeded 30% which, added to the traditional 10% of whites and nulls, we have more than 40% of the population currently failing to vote. In countries where voting is not compulsory, turnout is close to 50%, 55% of the population. In these countries, the dispute is limited to right-wing and center-right proposals, it is important to remember.

A parenthesis must be made in relation to this debate. In 2020, an exception must be taken into account: in the United States, the turnout level was the highest in 120 years, since 1900. About 67% of voters went to the polls to elect John Biden.

Biden was the most voted president in the history of the United States. His competitor, the indigestible Donald Trump, was the second most voted politician in the history of the country. That is, it is possible to assume that in these elections where there was record attendance, the campaigns were able to mobilize their electoral base and take them to the polls, the election became an important element of the social life of that country and it was possible to win the elections. Fake News with public debate.

Very different from what we saw south of the equator. From 2018 to 2020, abstentions jumped from 2,767 million voters to 3,519 million voters giving up the electoral choice in the city of São Paulo alone. The sum of whites and nulls even dropped, from 1,011 million voters to around 849 thousand votes. But the overall result was that non-voting jumped from 3,778 million voters to 4,368 million.

In the city of Rio de Janeiro, the depoliticization measured by non-voting is clearer and more alarming. Just two years ago, Eduardo Paes had received 1,627 million votes in the Rio de Janeiro capital as a candidate for governor. Paes increases by just 2 votes his vote from 2 years ago. For mayor in 2020 he received 1,629 million votes. Witzel elected governor, lost to Paes in the capital, but had an expressive vote of more than 1,5 million votes. And the lost votes for Witzel or even part of the 2,1 million votes for Bolsonaro did not convert into votes for Crivela, who had less than 1 million votes in 2020. The same Crivela in 2016 had 1,7 million votes. In short, part of the Bolsonarist right-wing or conservative right-wing votes did not convert into a change of candidate, but into abstention.

sign of the times

Around 47,6% of the population of the city of Rio de Janeiro chose to abstain, vote blank or null. There were 35% of abstentions, around 5% more than in São Paulo. In addition to a higher relative proportion of whites and nulls. 2.308 million cariocas chose not to vote in the capital. More than the elected candidate, Eduardo Paes, who received 1.6 million votes. There were around 24,3% abstentions in 2018. An increase of 10% in 2 years.

From frustration to frustration voters flee the polls. According to TSE data, from 2016 to 2020 (comparing municipal elections) abstentions rose from 25 million to 34 million and turnout fell from 118 to 113 million voters. What is not explained from the cadastral point of view, because even taking into account the cadastral outdatedness, as we are in demographic growth, at least the number of voters would have to grow to validate the argument that abstention grows to a large extent by absolving errors cadastral. By reducing the number of voters by around 5 million and increasing abstentions by 9 million, we can assume that there was a 7% increase in the number of voters who failed to go to the polls in a few years, and this is a trend.

We are understanding elections with the key to democracy. Maybe it's time to turn on the state of exception sensor and treat democracy as a figurative element of today's politics. Bolsonaro won the 2018 elections for his ability to depoliticize politics. If Lula won in 2002 with a catchphrase: “hope conquered fear”, we can attribute a victory to Bolsonaro with a message: “frustration conquered hope”.

It's not the left, stupid

Looking at the dynamics and not at the results, it seems to me that we had, in general, an election as bad from the point of view of the discussion of Rumos das public policies as the 2016 elections, in which the impeachment process made the public debate even more nebulous in the left field. If you watched the movie “Brexit”, about the plebiscite that led England to withdraw from the European Union, you will remember that the magic of the victory attributed to consultancy Cambridge Analytic on that occasion was the fact that it convinced voters who had low turnout. policy to vote to leave.

Therefore, our logic of adding votes and changing candidates is becoming outdated. The dispute for votes today is around the participation of voters and what kind of voters will participate in the voting. If the main beneficiaries of public policies are absent from politics, those who are in favor of the absence of the State will have their proposals contemplated. Added to this is the fact that social networking strategies widely used by nefarious sectors of politics inhibit and discourage participation.

Causes of the phenomenon

It is a phenomenon that goes beyond political choices, I understand that the role of anti-politics in this process is very strong, analyze politics as it happened in Brazil in the last six or seven years, we have as a result a drop in Civic engagement with catastrophic consequences to electoral participation. The voter simply loses his connection with public choices and reduced participation ends up distorting the ability of representative voting to express the wishes of the population. It is still necessary to study the phenomenon better, because preliminary data show that this drop in participation is even more pronounced among the popular classes. In other words: for some time now, the most needy population has moved away from politics and lost the connection they had in the sense of waiting for better public policies to be formulated and applied.

This is particularly catastrophic for progressive and leftist forces, or for any other force that seeks to counter the neoliberal vice that the invisible hand is better at solving problems, including social ones. If politics leaves the scene, what enters the market is the coverage of basic everyday needs of life. The crisis that political parties are going through in Brazil is partly due to the role played by other institutions that have assumed welfare as a strategy. In the outskirts churches and organized crime occupy the condition of benevolence replacing the State in function of citizenship guaranteed by the constitution.

All of this becomes a vicious cycle: with less political participation, elections distance themselves from the real problems of everyday life, this destroys the ability of governments to generate good public policies, incapable governments discourage the participation of the population and to participate in politics. are meager, with lower electoral participation, the electoral results are distorted and disconnected from the desires of the citizens. Without public policies that reach universally, less interest is formed and disinterest generates more distance. Detachment is the father of abstention. And this cycle tends to prevail and grow.

in addition to Fake news

But it is not just the disconnection between public policies and voters that is the cause of the Citizen's distancing from his role as a voter and chooses his representatives. Also, electoral campaigns watered down by Fake News and deconstructions are elements that must be included in our analysis.

Much has already been produced about this and much will be produced, but it is important to remember that Fake News is more efficient in the sense of keeping voters away from the polls than in taking voters to the polls.

Electoral campaigns have become specialists in deconstructing opponents so that they do not have the ability to convince others. And the basic foundation of a campaign in the sense of presenting ideas, proposals and elements that dialogue with voters in search of better public policies remains in the background in the search for representatives to vote.

continuous phenomenon

But how can we explain, then, that in São Paulo, for example, in these elections, in which the deconstruction campaigns had a limited effect, or at least they were not as efficient as the 2018 elections, the abstention trend is still growing?

This hangover phenomenon still has to be explained by the political deconstruction that Brazil has gone through since 2013. And the criminalization of politics is very shaky ground to feed on. Because just like Italy in “Operação Mãos Limpas”, “Operação Lava Jato” in Brazil led to the deconstruction of politics as a phenomenon of social connection between the population and government decisions. Bolsonaro and his election watered down by Fake News, deconstruction of opponents and victimization by stabbing is the biggest beneficiary of the Lava Jato phenomenon. It would be unthinkable that a deputy without expression, without a party and without structure would be able to be elected president in other times. The role that the media plays in this case is fundamental, although the results are still frightening, the Brazilian press maintains its habit of manipulating the news, and does not convert itself into a movement to rebuild the social connection with politics.

Obviously, neoliberalism benefits greatly from the historical moment we are living. It was up to neoliberalism to deconstruct democracy as a way of building the relationship between politics and society, to impose its absolutely unpopular and brutally antisocial agenda. For agenda decisions favorable to neoliberalism to be taken, democracy necessarily needs to be distorted. The uncalculated deviation in this process is that the deconstruction of politics did not result in easy manipulation of electoral results.

Populism and neoliberalism

The recent crisis of democracy provoked to impose an agenda linked to the interests of large corporations led to the deformation of the electoral relationship between popular aspirations and public policies. What the polls ended up revealing: the wave of the new right, strongly expresses this deconstruction of politics provoked by neoliberalism. However, the capacity for manipulation that the association between the liberal right and the mainstream media sought did not happen. The unplanned and unexpected result of the crisis of democracy was a right-wing wave that brings problems even to neoliberalism. Perhaps not as big as social democracy, but it is probably not the desire of big capital to live with the populist outbursts of Trumps and Bolsonaros.

In Brazil, it is easy to see that, in the inability to control politics with their own representatives, the representatives of capital prefer the new denialist right to social democratic policies. Therefore, we will not have any short-term setback from what is happening. Because there is no interest in reversing the distortions built into democracy.

We return to the electoral map of São Paulo. It is a phenomenon of encouraging non-participation in elections. With a president who accuses the electoral process of fraud without any concrete evidence. The new right quickly learned that it must work at a pace of crisis and deconstruction of democracy; in an anti-political way of campaigning.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian left seeks to dispute the votes of those who still seek connections with politics. We start from a wrong connection between what kind of approach to take or what is the best way to present yourself to voters, while the concrete fact is that a significant part of the electorate has lost connection with the elections. He doesn't want to know, he doesn't want to discuss, he doesn't want to formulate his opinion, he doesn't want dialogue. And, most importantly, it is constantly reinforced by media scandals, social media and the political system to not believe in politics. More than once, the STF in Brazil treated political parties whose objective was to gain power as a scandal. Yes, the purpose, function and role of political parties is to compete for power. This is the foundation of your existence.

retrieve the policy

Against this wave of disinformation and disenchantment with politics – which I repeat again: it is not simply caused by fake news – we are doing little. Because neoliberalism may be the least harmful side compared to fascism, but it is not the ally of any progressive front. Which leads us to conclude that the answer to anti-politics is not simply an anti-fascist front. Speaking out anti-fascist here, as has been done in the US, ignores the fact that neoliberalism expects this to be done so that the results can be pleasing to its purposes. In the US they removed Trump to hand over a representative of Wall Street interests and put a lobbyist in the White House.

What has happened in Brazil since Aécio Neves did not admit defeat in the 2014 elections was the end of the social pact for representative democracy that began with the “Diretas Já!” in 1984. In these thirty years that separate one fact from the other, the preservation of politics as a means of action for relations between governments and society has remained active. Without this recognition, and with the engagement of the neoliberal right in the fight against democracy, another type of antifascist and neoliberal front will be needed. And if democracy is left defenseless, we will lose our capacity for social unity. If we will be able to defend democracy against the will of that country's financial elites, only time will tell.

For us it is an important question; whether a left-wing and anti-neoliberal front can really stand up to depoliticization? For these elites, who keep their social conditions intact, the discomfort with Bolsonaro is bearable and perhaps preferable to the social democratic “regression”. While these fissures persist, for the vulnerable and attacked by oppressive policies, for the poor who depend on public policies and for those who want better living conditions, everything that is bad can get even worse.

*Luis Fernando Vitagliano holds a master's degree in political science from Unicamp.

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