WITH its carnival reputation, Brazil may look like a liberal bastion. But unease over a worsening economy and deteriorating public safety, plus a backlash against recent gay-rights gains, are propelling a conservative rise that will shape the next administration regardless of who wins the presidency.
The general election earlier this month saw a greater share of Brazil’s National Congress seats go to conservative caucuses, which now control nearly 60 per cent of the 513 seats in the lower house.
They include evangelical members of congress who oppose gay marriage or access to abortion, the “ruralistas” whose pro-agriculture positions counter environmentalists and indigenous groups, and a law-and-order faction that demands a crackdown on crime.
Ahead of the presidential run-off on 26 October, such conservatives are giving greater support to centre-right challenger Aecio Neves over left-leaning incumbent Dilma Rousseff. But it’s also clear neither candidate is as socially conservative as the increasingly powerful elements of congress.
“Brazil is one of the very few Latin American countries where the parliament is more important than the president in terms of overall power in the decision-making process,” said Thiago de Aragao, a political analyst at the Brasilia-based Arko Advice consulting firm.
“The parliament in an arm-wrestling contest against the presidency would win, because the parliament’s main weapon is just crossing their arms and not voting on matters that are of strong interest to the government.”
Brazil is, like many predominantly Roman Catholic nations in Latin America, socially conservative. In recent opinion polls, more than 80 per cent of Brazilians said they oppose loosening their restrictive abortion laws or legalising marijuana, and just over half oppose gay marriage.
However, since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, the nation’s presidents and its judiciary have pushed through progressive projects – such as protecting huge swathes of jungle as indigenous reserves, a high-court ruling permitting same-sex civil unions, and the creation of a programme that gives monthly cash payments to Brazil’s poorest families.
Some predict such changes could be rolled back by the growing conservative forces.
The evangelical caucus votes together on hot-button social issues and is willing to block projects put forth by the presidency because its members know they represent a growing segment of the electorate. While Catholics remain the majority in Brazil, since 1970 their portion of the population has fallen from more than 90 to 65 per cent, while those identifying as Protestants have grown from 5 per cent to 22 per cent, according to the Pew Research Centre in the US.
In Rousseff’s first term, the evangelical caucus blocked her effort to promote gay-tolerance teaching in schools and managed to have their most outspoken anti-gay legislator, Deputy Marco Feliciano, named head of congress’s human rights commission – a move that provoked condemnation from Amnesty International and other activist groups. In the 5 October election, Feliciano was re-elected with nearly double the votes he won four years ago.
The “ruralista” caucus also grew and now has about 200 members. They showed their strength in 2012, forcing the weakening of environmental protection laws.
And while the law-and-order block has only about 20 members, it wields influence on security issues. The caucus’s members defend tougher penal codes for young offenders and want to block drug liberalisation seen in neighbouring countries, even as Brazil copes with overcrowded prisons and years of failed efforts to suppress powerful drug gangs.
Toni Reis, who heads the gay rights advocacy group Dignidade, noted it took a landmark Supreme Court decision to legalise same-sex civil unions in 2011 after years of congressional stalling. Now, he said, gay rights groups are focused not on gay marriage but on advancing legislation to criminalise discrimination.
Given the new legislative reality, Reis acknowledged it will be an uphill battle.
“We’re going to have to work twice as hard,” he said.