The threats and promises game

Leonardo Sakamoto on Brazil’s vote-buying scandals.

Flickr: Jeso Carneiro

Brazil’s close-run general elections, which concluded at the end of October 2022, showed an explosive rise in cases of voter harassment and attempts to buy workers’ votes. The Public Labour Prosecution Office (MPT), which is responsible for receiving this type of complaint, received 2,549 allegations this time around – up from 212 during the 2018 elections. Virtually all were about employers – from multinational companies to small entrepreneurs – harassing or bribing their employees to vote for the incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro, who ended up losing by less than two percentage points to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT).

In the state of Pará, the owner of a brick and tile company promised $40 per worker’s vote if Bolsonaro were re-elected. He was forced by the MPT to pay a fine and recant his offer in public. In Bahia, an entrepreneur from the agricultural sector who had asked, on video, for other rural producers to fire ‘without mercy’ any employees who voted for Lula had to pay compensation and apologize. The shipyard of a luxury boat manufacturer in Santa Catarina state reached an agreement with the MPT to pay nearly $60,000 in compensation for harassing its employees to vote for Bolsonaro.

Voter manipulation has a long history in Brazil. During the late 19th and early 20th century, local bigwigs known as ‘colonels’ – even though they were not members of the military – guaranteed votes for their preferred candidates by the carrot-and-stick tactics of favours, threats and violence.

Today, messaging apps and social media are often deployed by ‘digital colonels’ for this purpose, with the same toxic mix of promised favours and threats that can spill into actual violence.

Many hypothesize that attempts at vote buying escalated during the election due to the actions of the sitting president. Since the start of the electoral campaign, Jair Bolsonaro’s government suddenly became more generous towards poor beneficiaries of social programmes – to the tune of $4 billion. This use of the government machine to influence poor voters gave the green light to employers to follow suit.

The political free-for-all environment of the 2022 election was conducive to employers acting like the old colonels. Tactics went way beyond just offering inducements to workers, extending to seizing their voter documents, forcing them to carry hidden cameras to record which button they pressed on electronic voting machines, attempting to prevent them from going to ballot stations on election day, among others.

It’s an abject form of political manipulation and it matters little whether a huge corporation does it or the corner baker, because the power imbalance is the same: one side depends on the job to survive and the other knows it and plays with that fear.

As the complaints of election harassment poured in – to say nothing of cases that went unrecorded – the president of the Superior Electoral Court, Chief Justice Alexandre de Moraes, was moved to remind the nation that such activity is a crime and that ‘in the 21st century, people can’t try to coerce employees on how to vote’.

They can’t, but they did.