Thank God for the North East!
Updated: Feb 11
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
When Brazil’s new president was sworn in on January 1st, the world heaved a sigh of relief. This was not because they particularly loved the country’s new leader, a moderate leftist called Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva. But because the man he defeated, Jair Bolsonaro, was an incompetent hatemonger who let men with chainsaws run riot in the Amazon Rainforest.
Bolsonaro is known as the “Trump of the Tropics”. He sat idle while Covid-19 killed at least 692,000 Brazilians. He stoked police brutality against both criminal suspects and his political opponents. He routinely denigrated gay people, ethnic minorities and women, telling one congresswoman (twice) that he wouldn’t rape her because she was too ugly.
Despite Bolsonaro’s atrocious record and questionable manners, he lost narrowly by just 1.8% of the vote. So close was the margin that, if it had not been for Lula’s stronghold in the north-east of the country, Bolsonaro might still be in charge.
The irony is that the Nordeste [North East] is often painted in other parts of Brazil as backward or a ‘brake’ on Brazil’s progress. This region is home to 28% of Brazil’s total population, but 48% of Brazilians that live in poverty. Yet, it was the Nordeste that stood up to Bolsonaro.
It is interesting to consider why the vote is divided along geographical lines (see Map A).
Like most countries, Brazil has a North-South divide. In the words of a Northern-Brazilian friend of mine, people from the South “think that they’re Europeans… but they aren’t”. Meanwhile, she said, the Nordeste is a “forgotten region”; a people left behind.
Temperate to tropical, the Brazilian South and Sudeste [South East] is home to Brazil’s most famous cities – São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Historically, a gold rush and then a coffee boom caused wealth and political power to concentrate there. In the late 19th century, São Paulo became the focus of Brazilian industrialisation. Now, one of five regions, it contributes 54% of Brazil’s total GDP.
Map A - 30th October 2022 Brazilian Presidential Election results In contrast, the Nordeste’s arid and vast interior (in Portuguese, the ‘sertão’ [meaning ‘backlands’]), has long been menaced by droughts. The Nordeste’s rich culture of music, dance, colorful festivals and good food give it the reputation of a land of ‘alegria’ [joy]. But this vision clashes with the reality of life in the most impoverished part of Brazil. In Salvador, the largest city in the Northeast, I met a housekeeper called Wanda. She lit up as she showed me how she made her Northeastern breakfast couscous or her caipirinhas [a Brazilian lime drink]. From her smile you wouldn’t guess that, while she worked tirelessly in the hostel, her husband and children were living a 6 hour journey into the interior. She could only afford to visit them twice a year. In Salvador itself, the murder rate is 47.5 (per 100,000) – double the Brazilian average and about 40 times the rate in England and Wales.
The North-South divide also has a racial element. The Nordeste has a much larger proportion of Afro-Brazilians than the South and Southeast. This is because the Nordeste was, for centuries, the centre of slavery in Brazil, the horrific legacy of which its society is still grappling with. This is the subtext to the earlier comment that Southerners think ‘they’re European’. If they consider ‘European’ to be aspirational, that is an implicit rejection of the other parts of Brazil’s historical composition i.e. its African and indigenous heritage. In Brazil, sometimes a preference for European culture veils a preference for people with white skin.
How does all this affect voting patterns? It helps to look at recent political history.
In his first period in office, Lula was credited with lifting 20mn Brazilians out of poverty. Lula is a working-class former miner and was himself born in the North-Eastern state of Pernambuco. In Brazilian history, no other president prioritised the poor and the Northeast to the extent that Lula did in 2003-2010. Through a scheme called Bolsa Família [‘family purse’], he pioneered the use of “conditional cash transfers” to reduce poverty. If mothers kept their kids in school and had them vaccinated, they received money. This was highly effective in both reducing poverty and raising life expectancy. As the poorest region, the Nordeste benefitted the most. After coming to expect little from the state, Nordestinos often feel intensely grateful to Lula whose policies had a profound impact on their lives.
In the 12 years since Lula left office, corruption scandals have discredited both him and his Workers’ party, o Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in the eyes of many Brazilians. However, in the Nordeste, the memory of what Lula did is still powerful enough to win lots of votes.
Such enduring regional loyalty to Lula and his party might be compared to the long-lasting revulsion against the Conservative Party in former mining communities in the UK, after Margaret Thatcher broke the miners’ strike in the 1980s.
How loyal is Brazil’s Northeast to Lula? Well, in the 2014, 2018 and 2022 presidential elections, the PT candidate won 71.7%, 69.7% and 73.6% respectively of the North-eastern vote. This compares with a national average of 51.6%, 44.8% and 50.9%. (See Map B.) In the 2022 election, the 9 states that voted most lopsidedly for Lula were, neatly, the 9 states that make up the Nordeste region.
Map B – 2018 and First Round 2022 Presidential Elections. Contrasting regional support for PT candidate (red) and Bolsonaro (blue).
Of course, distinctions between regions are never as clear cut as borders on a map. And they evolve over time. But regarding the 2022 election result, Brazil and the world have a lot to thank the Nordeste for.
As some Brazilians put it: ‘Graça a Deus pro Nordeste [thank God for the Northeast]!’.