In the northern Brazilian state of Pará, a couple of dozen men stand in a circle around local businessman Maurício Lopes Fernandes Júnior, who wears jean shorts and a blue shirt. He’s under a brick archway which circles a one-story yellow home. Sun beats down through a cloudy sky. It’s hot out. Some of the men are bare-chested, their shirts slung over their shoulders.
“Look,” says the businessman, holding their attention. “If Lula wins, you can be sure that more than half of São Miguel is going to close up. I have three ceramics factories here and I’m going to close all three, because if he wins no one’s going to be able to handle the mess that’s coming.”
“So I have a proposal for you,” he continues. “I’m going to get all of your names. And if president Bolsonaro wins, each of you is going to have 200 bills in the pocket. All you have to do is come by here the next morning.”
He claps his hands for emphasis. The men in the crowd murmur in apparent agreement.
A cellphone video of this scene went viral on Brazilian social media earlier this month. It was not an isolated case. Videos and audio recordings have been shared from across Brazil showing bosses or businessmen trying to coerce employees into voting almost exclusively for current far right president Jair Bolsonaro, who is facing off against former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Many are calling Brazil’s elections this Sunday the most important since the end of the dictatorship in the 1980s, and there is fierce battle underway. Some employers and politicians, including Bolsonaro himself, are resorting to vote buying and coercion to try to secure the president’s victory.
Bolsonaro — a far right politician who began his career as a military captain under the Brazilian dictatorship — rose to power in late 2018 after frontrunner Lula was jailed by a biased judge for trumped up corruption charges that have since been tossed out. Bolsonaro has been highly criticized for his failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed almost 700,000 in Brazil. But the president has been backed by agribusiness and other powerful business interests, who have praised his moves to open up the Brazilian economy by gutting state agencies, privatizing public businesses, and rolling back pensions and labor rights.
Lula — an icon of the labor movement in Brazil — is a former union leader who governed the country in the mid-2000s and lifted millions out of poverty by implementing a widespread package of more than 30 poverty alleviation social programs, known as “fome zero” or Zero Hunger. He created discounted restaurants, provided microcredits for small family farmers and a monthly stipend for low-income families sending their kids to school. He built affordable housing and increased university access to poor families like never before.
Lula now leads Bolsonaro in most polls by roughly six points. But Bolsonaro has defied polling numbers and expectations before, including in the first round of elections on October 2, when he lost to Lula by only five points.
The presidential campaign has been plagued by disinformation, systematic vote buying and a massive and opaque system for misusing public funds that some are calling the largest corruption scandal in the world.
Money for Health Services Funneled Into “Secret Budget” to Buy Votes
“There’s only one way to turn the stakes on this election,” said a resident of Luis Eduardo Magalhães, in the state of Bahia, in an audio file leaked and shared by the alternative media outlet Midia Ninja. “If all of the businessmen unite and buy the vote from supporters of the Workers’ Party.”
In states up and down Brazil, employers have pressured their workers to vote for Bolsonaro. In one case in Belo Horizonte, bosses promised a cash lottery and a basic food basket of rice, beans, and other products if the current president wins. The employees of a meat-packing company in Mines Gerais were forced to wear yellow and green shirts and listen to a speech by a conservative congressman.
Local politicians in the municipality of Caçador, in the countryside of the state of Santa Catarina, met with business leaders from the local chamber of commerce, where they discussed measures to pressure local employees to vote for Bolsonaro.
“We have to act on the last day [before the elections], so the Workers Party doesn’t come later and try to undo our work,” said one of those present, in a leaked audio published by the Brazilian outlet Revista Forum.
In an interview earlier this month, Sérgio Nobre, the president of the CUT, Brazil’s largest labor federation, said the union had never seen anything like this in the history of electoral campaigns in Brazil.
“Bosses are coercing and pressuring workers because Bolsonaro gave them the green light to do so,” he said.
As of October 24, the Brazilian government had received 1,027 complaints of more than 750 businesses trying to influence their employees’ votes ahead of this weekend’s election. That number is five times the number of complaints registered in the last presidential elections in 2018.
“Cases are increasing a lot. We need legislation that prohibits these acts more firmly and clearly. There may be the false idea that this has no consequences, and this is not the reality,” said Judge Patrícia Sant’Anna, the director of the National Association of Labor Court Justices.
There has also been pushback. The Lula campaign has produced videos reminding workers that their vote is secret. Brazil’s Labor Court has begun fining companies for their actions. In just one case, Schadek Automotive — a company in São Paulo, with 800 employees — was fined $10,000 dollars in collective damages, plus $2,000 for each worker, if they don’t rescind previous statements and abide by more than a dozen requirements, including publicly stating that their employees have the right to vote for whomever they please.
All of this comes as the president is under attack for waging his own dubious campaign to influence the vote.
Since the first-round vote on October 2, Bolsonaro has implemented at least seven measures which experts say have the explicit goal of winning over voters.
He issued an early payment of a financial support of 600 reals — or roughly $120 — for low-income residents that was scheduled to be released after the election, and included half a million new families into the program. He also sped up the payment of a periodic financial support for truck and taxi drivers, rolled out a new program to help Brazilians refinance their debt, and approved a series of new government credits.
Since June, Bolsonaro has spent billions of dollars to temporarily decrease gas prices through the end of the year, by subsidizing costs without impacting the profits for investors in the country’s state oil company, Petrobras.
“People have been really concerned with these measures, because they feel that they create an uneven playing field between Bolsonaro and Lula and clearly represent an instance of power abuse on the part of Bolsonaro,” Fabio de Sa e Silva, Wick Cary Professor of Brazilian studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Truthout. “Measures, like making early payments before the runoff vote that were supposed to be sent out in December, are in my viewpoint, completely illegal.”
“We’ve always seen an increase in public spending in the last year of any politician’s term in office. This is kind of a rule in Brazilian politics,” says de Sa e Silva, “but the scale of what Bolsonaro is doing is really unprecedented.”
Many say these measures are actually just the tip of the iceberg.
According to an extensive report by journalist Breno Pires, $1.17 billion were funneled through the National Congress to help 140 centrist and right-wing congressmen win elections in the first round. Sixty of the congressmen were members of Bolsonaro’s own Liberal Party. The money was spent as part of the Congress’s “secret budget,” and it’s part of more than $3.5 billion that is expected to be allocated through Congress this year without any information about the transaction — who was involved, how much and where the money went.
Congress and Bolsonaro approved the secret budget in December 2019, and activity has ramped up over the last two years. The projects and funds are shepherded through the congressional secret budget by the head of the Lower House, Bolsonaro ally Arthur Lira. Lira has criticized the use of the term “secret budget,” calling the process a tool to ensure that resources attend to the real needs of local municipalities.
“Each congressman is the best person to indicate where money should go, because they know the needs of their people,” he told Rádio Bandeirantes.
Analysts say it was first used as a means of shoring up support for Bolsonaro in Congress amid impeachment threats, and that it has since become a widespread vote buying scheme and means of funneling money toward Bolsonaro allies and their municipalities.
“I’ve been alerting people to this since February,” journalist Leonardo Sakamoto told the Brazilian outlet UOL. “The president is buying votes. He’s buying votes by lowering gas prices. Buying votes by speeding up payments for Brazil’s poor. Buying votes with benefits through the secret budget. The president has this, plus the social media disinformation machine.”
Third-party candidate Simone Tebet — who is now backing Lula for the presidency — has called the secret budget possibly “the largest corruption scandal on planet Earth.”
“This is how you end up buying votes,” David Nemer, Brazilian professor of Latin American studies at the University of Virginia told Truthout. “You send those billions of reais to these cities and use those funds for schools or as assistance in terms of buying food, but also promoting anything that would convince people to vote not only for these congresspeople but also for Bolsonaro, because they bring with them the message that this money is coming from the government.”
“I know, it’s outrageous,” says Nemer. “It seems like it’s coming from a movie because it’s so ridiculous.”
Transparency International Brazil has called the secret budget “the greatest process of institutionalizing corruption that the country has ever seen.”
Bolsonaro, however, denies that he has received benefits from the secret budget.
“I don’t have anything to do with the secret budget,” said Bolsonaro during a debate before the first-round vote. “I have never bought votes from anyone.”
Figures show, however, that the president’s approval has increased in those municipalities that have been top recipients of funds and projects funneled through the secret budget. Meanwhile, federal police have begun investigations into clear cases of corruption through the secret budget. Two people accused of embezzling funds for health care in the state of Maranhão have already been arrested in October.
In an electoral season that has been rattled by widespread disinformation, disrupted by fake news, and involved one scandal after the next, the vote-buying schemes and the secret budget haven’t received the widespread attention among the public that many hoped. Yet both are real concerns for many of those headed to the polls on Sunday.
“Yes, I’m worried about the secret budget,” hospital worker Rossana Santos Rocha Mativi told Truthout in Porto Alegre, Brazil, this week. “it’s the worst corruption scheme in the world. If Lula wins on Sunday, I hope he ends all of this.”