Jair Bolsonaro

Voting Patterns in the 2022 Election in Brazil’s Cerrado Region

As noted in a previous post, the deforested areas of Brazil’s Amazon Basin supported the extreme rightwing candidate Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 election, whereas the non-deforested areas supported the leftwing candidate Lula da Silva. Somewhat similar patterns are found in the vast Cerrado zone to the south of the Amazonian region.

The seasonally wet and dry Cerrado was mostly covered by savannah vegetation in its original state. It was long considered almost worthless for agriculture, due to its acidic soils and low levels of plant nutrients. Brazilian agricultural scientists at Embrapa, however, learned how to make the Cerrado productive, mostly by adding large quantities of lime and phosphorus to the soil. They also bred new strains of originally temperate crops that would grow well in this tropical environment. Subsequently, clearance of the highly diverse Cerrado vegetation intensified, with much of the region converted to mechanized farmland. As this occurred, Brazil surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest soybean producer. This process has resulted in major economic gains but also in social tensions, heightened economic inequality, and extensive environmental degradation. As little land in the Cerrado has been preserved for nature, it has been called Brazil’s “ugly duckling of conservation.”

As can be seen on one of the maps posted below, much more of the southern and western Cerrado has been transformed into modernized farmland than the northern and eastern part of the region. As might be expected, the main agricultural centers in the western Cerrado voted heavily for Bolsonaro in the 2022 election. The less transformed northeastern Cerrado, contrastingly, voted heavily for Lula in the same election. This environmental/economic/electoral pattern is similar to the one seen in the Amazon.

Economic class is a major factor here. The northeastern part of the Cerrado extends into the poorest part of Brazil (the eastern part of the greater northeast). As Lula was very effective in alleviating poverty and enhancing social development in his earlier terms as president, he retains great popularity in the more impoverished parts of the country. Although some areas in the northeastern Cerrado have become major centers of soybean farming, relatively few people are employed on the mechanized farms and low levels of income remain widespread, as can be seen on the first set of maps posted below. As a result, there is relatively little correlation between voting patterns and agricultural production zones in this part of Brazil, as can be seen on the second set of maps below (the areas outlined in white on the electoral map have Brazil’s highest soybean yields).

The patterns that I am describing here are quite simple and are meant to be taken only in a suggestive sense. Much more detailed work would have to be conducted to make any conclusive statements. I do find it interesting however, that a major area of mechanized soybean agriculture in far western Bahia state in northwestern Brazil voted heavily for Lula de Silva, quite in contrast to the soybean centers in Mato Grosso and other western states. States matter a great deal in Brazil, and Bahia is highly distinctive, noted for having the largest African cultural and demographic imprint in the country. I will explore correlations between racial patterns and voting patterns in the next GeoCurrents post.

(Many thanks to André Goldman for sharing his knowledge of Brazilian political geography and thus helping me write these posts. I will add André’s insightful comments to my earlier Brazilian election posts later this week.)

Brazil’s Lack of a Metropolitan/Hinterland Political Divide

The 2018 and 2022 Brazilian general elections shared some important features with the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. In all cases, a rightwing, populist nationalist won the first contest (Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump respectively) but lost the second, in both instances to an older, politically well established, center-left opponent (Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] and Joseph Biden respectively). But the electoral geographies of the two countries are highly divergent. In the United States, and in much of Europe, parties on the political left now find most of their support in areas of high population density, whereas those of the right find most of their support in areas of low population density. Michael Lind, a hard-to-classify political centrist, has analyzed this new electoral pattern in some detail. As he writes:

On a map of the United States color-coded by party, big cities and university towns and a few regions with large immigrant and racial minority populations are a chain of Democratic islands in a Republican ocean. Similar patterns appear on maps of voting for Brexit in the UK and elections in continental Europe.

Looking at these maps, it is easy to see why scholars and journalists refer to the “urban-rural divide.” But this is misleading. Farm owners and farmworkers make up only a tiny sliver of the population in the typical Western democracy. Most voters in Europe and North America today live in broadly defined metro areas or small communities on their periphery. In the case of partisanship, the most important border is not between city and countryside, but between expensive, high-density urban business districts and inner suburbs on the one hand and, on the other, low-density suburbs and exurbs.

Rather than use the terms “city” and “countryside,” we can describe the high-density areas as “hubs” and the low-density areas around and between the hubs as “heartlands.”

In Brazil, a highly urbanized country, such a density divide is barely visible. As noted in The Guardian:

Lula’s victory had a peculiarity: he won many votes in some of Brazil’s most populated municipalities but also in most of the sparsely populated areas. In the latter, he reached more than 80% of the vote. It was at these two ends that he made the difference. Bolsonaro, instead, did very well in medium-size cities, as shown by the concentration of blue bubbles in the graph below in districts with between 100,000 and 1 million inhabitants.

But as The Guardian’s chart shows, Bolsonaro triumphed in more than half of Brazilian cities with populations of more than one million. As a map from the same article shows, Brazil’s “hubs” do not stand out from their “heartlands” in regard to electoral geography. A Portuguese-language graphic from Nexo shows that Bolsonaro won more than half of the capital cities of Brazil’s states. In the northeastern state of Alagoas, where Lula took 58.7 percent of the vote, Maceió, the capital city and largest urban center, went for Bolsanaro. (Note that in Brazil, as in most of the world, red is used for the political left and blue for the right.)


An important exception to this generalization is the city of São Paulo located in the state of the same name. São Paulo is Brazil’s largest city by a wide margin, and São Paulo is Brazil’s most populous state by a wide margin. The state voted solidly for Bolsanaro (55.2 percent), but the city went for Lula by a similar margin. Given the large size of São Paulo city, its votes were critical for carrying Lula to victory.

The same pattern is evident in São Paulo’s 2022 gubernatorial election, which was won by a close ally of Bolsanaro, Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas. As can be seen on the Nexo map posted below, Tarcísio (as he is mononymously called) lost São Paulo city and most of its inner suburbs while winning in most of the rest of the state. But Tarcísio did triumph in several large cities, taking both Campinas (population 1.2 million) and São José dos Campos (population 729,000; metropolitan area, 2.5 million). No U.S. cities of such a size vote for rightwing candidates. The largest to support Donald Trump in 2020 was Oklahoma City, with a population of 681,000 and a metropolitan area of 1.4 million.

We will examine other aspects of Brazil’s electoral geography in later posts