Presidential in Brazil: the evangelical vote, so ardently coveted

Four years ago, 70% of Brazilians who declared themselves to be evangelical Protestants supported Jair Bolsonaro. Today, according to several polls, their preferences have changed. In the middle of an electoral campaign to reconquer Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva covets their votes. The evangelical vote is one of the major issues in the campaign for the presidential election to be held on October 2.

On the very lively “praça Floriano” in the heart of downtown Rio de Janeiro, the Cariocas hurry to the sound of street vendors and tram cars. In this din, the universal Church of the kingdom of God would pass almost unnoticed. Yet dozens of faithful push the door at lunchtime. About fifty people came to attend the service inside. Among them, a majority of women, for some still in work uniform and who almost seem to go into a trance. “Get rid of these vices, invoke god”, shouts the pastor, microphone in hand, in a resounding speech, without limit of decibels.

Three months before the elections, most of the faithful turn their backs when the question of the interference of politics in the Church, and vice versa, is raised. “There is no place for politics inside the Church. Here, only Jesus counts,” retorts a woman, in her forties, who came to attend the service. However, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, born in 1977, is closely linked to the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB). In 2020, two of Jair Bolsonaro’s sons, Flavio (senator) and Carlos (municipal councilor of Rio de Janeiro), and his former wife, Rogéria Braga, had joined this party.

“Talking politics during worship doesn’t bother me. If the pastor brings up campaign topics, I find that pretty good,” says Thiago, a 36-year-old mechanic, as he leaves the church. Like 70% of evangelicals at the time, Thiago voted for the current president in 2018. He intends to renew this vote next October. “Here, I find a discourse on the family which I also like in Bolsonaro”, he adds.

The very conservative evangelical electorate played a decisive role in hoisting Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of the Republic. Some star pastors had even transformed him into a “messiah”, while the current president is rather affiliated with the Catholic faith. According to Magali Cunha, researcher at the Institute for the Study of Religion (ISER) in Sao Paolo, “Jair Bolsonaro carried a very strong religious discourse, built around an evangelical imagination. He created an image for himself: he was baptized by an evangelical pastor in Israel and his wife is an evangelical herself. He has also forged ties with the leaders of the major churches in the country.”

“The evangelical vote does not exist”

Three months before the election, evangelicals are courted by all political parties because the stakes are high. On the one hand, Jair Bolsonaro is trying to recover their support at all costs. On the other, the Workers’ Party (PT) is trying to repeat the good scores it obtained in this community during the four presidential elections it won.

This community represents 30% of the Brazilian electorate and is established throughout the country. According to Magali Cunha, “when Lula and Bolsonaro talk to evangelicals, they know they are talking to all of Brazil.”

Since the election of Jair Bolsonaro, public opinion has associated evangelicals with the far right and conservative values. For Magali Cunha, it is important to remember that this community does not form a single uniform bloc but espouses multiple and contradictory realities: “The evangelical vote does not exist, it is a myth. Evangelicals voted for Lula and for Dilma Rousseff for years because they recognized themselves in their proposals. Now some of them continue to be loyal to Bolsonaro but it has considerably decreased.”

Only ten minutes on foot from the “praça Floriano”, in the “rua Carioca”, between the music shops, the black railings completely conceal the entrance to the Brazilian Baptist Church. Inside, the decoration is more than basic. The few dozen plastic chairs are empty on this Carioca winter Friday morning. Marco Davi de Oliveira, imposing size and wide smile on his lips, is the pastor. His church claims to be progressive. It welcomes devotees of all social backgrounds and sexual orientations every Sunday, and about 80% of the members are black people. According to him, “we must redefine the word ‘evangelical’, which has become pejorative in Brazil. Here, we are evangelical but we also fight for justice, for equality and inclusion. That is also what being evangelical is”.

An erosion of support for Jair Bolsonaro

Four years after his election, the massive support of evangelicals for the far-right president is to be qualified. According to a Datafolha poll made public last June, only 36% of evangelicals this year intend to vote for him again. For Magali Cunha, the framework of this campaign is different: “In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was an unknown. Now Brazilians know who he is. The religious leaders who are loyal to him will not be able to convince voters with the same ease. .” The results of his mandate also provoke anger and disappointment for part of the evangelical community. According to the researcher, “Evangelicals in Brazil are mostly women, black, poor, who live on the outskirts of big cities. They are the people who have suffered the most from this government. People who suffer from inflation, hunger , unemployment. Most have lost loved ones during the pandemic.” Covid-19 has killed 675,000 people in Brazil, making it the second most bereaved country in the world.

An opinion shared by the left-wing pastor Marco Davi de Oliveira, for whom this evolution of voting intentions is not “the consequence of a marvelous work by the left, but a consequence of the people who are hungry”. Galloping inflation and the economic crisis are the black spots of the government of Jair Bolsonaro. They affect tens of millions of Brazilians, while 33 million of them face hunger and more than half of the population, or 125 million people, are food insecure. Since 2020, Brazil has again been part of the UN’s “hunger map”, having managed to get out of it under the government of Dilma Rousseff (PT) in 2014.

The left covets the evangelical vote

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, currently leading in the polls, seeks to recover this electorate by all means. As part of his seduction operation, the leader of the PT notably organized several meetings with influential pastors, such as Paulo Marcelo Schallenberger, of the Assembly of God. By choosing Geraldo Alckmin, a moderate right-wing Catholic who has good relations with conservatives and evangelicals, as his candidate for the vice-presidency, Lula is taking a step closer to this community.

Everything is done to avoid offending this electorate. The former president avoids controversial topics such as abortion and instead seems to focus on economic issues such as inflation and unemployment. The Workers’ Party even had a podcast project aimed at appealing to evangelical voters (suspended due to disagreements within the party).

During his two victorious campaigns, in 2002 and 2006, Lula had already courted the evangelical electorate; just like Dilma Rousseff in 2010 and 2014. However, according to Marco Davi de Oliveira, seducing evangelicals is not a foregone conclusion: “The error of the left was to think for a long time that evangelicals represented nothing.”

Pastor Marco Davi de Oliveira is convinced: “Whoever succeeds in seducing evangelicals will win this election.”

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