Brazil is rapidly approaching a tumultuous climax to a presidential election that has garnered international attention and is widely viewed as highly consequential both domestically and globally. On October 30, Brazilians will cast their votes in a runoff between controversial far-right populist incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro and former president and formerly imprisoned Lula da Silva of the social democratic Workers Party (PT).
With a population of more than 200 million and the 9th highest total GDP in the world, the direction of Brazil is highly influential on both Latin American and broader geopolitics.
A Brutal Campaign
The campaign has been extremely ugly, marked by murder, voter intimidation and talk of a coup d’etat amongst relentless abuse being hurled between candidates, something that has continued to escalate since the first-round results were announced on October 3rd. Lula took 48.43% of the vote in the first round, falling just short of an outright win, while Bolsonaro took 43.2%.
The result was somewhat of a surprise – Bolsonaro outperformed the final polls by a considerable 5-10 point margin. However, Lula is still in the driver’s seat to take the presidency. Most post-first round polling gives Lula a modest but decisive lead, something that won’t be giving his supporters much comfort given Bolsonaro’s first round overperformance.
President Bolsonaro has been compared (by both himself and observers) to former United States President Donald Trump. He is from the school of right wing authoritarian-curious strongmen that have popped up in the last decade (see Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungary’s Victor Orban).
He has been propagating false rumors about the electronic voting systems and their susceptibility to voter fraud and makes repeated false claims about attempts to steal the 2018 and upcoming elections. Election experts have proved repeatedly that his claims are false and Brazil’s voting system is secure.
Bolsonaro runs on the principles of “God, family, country”. He is heavily pro-gun, loosening regulations considerably in his first term, and is also strongly pro-life. He has received significant opposition abroad for the continued destruction of the Amazon basin, something that is also highly divisive in Brazil.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a debilitating factor for the Bolsonaro government. Nearly 700,000 people have died to date while Bolsonaro repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the situation. His polling numbers crashed during 2020 and never really recovered. More recently he has been attempting to rebuild his coalition with sweeping relief payments to the poorest in Brazil (Lula’s base), which he says will continue until the end of 2023.
Lula, similarly charismatic and controversial, has been all guns blazing against his opponent. The former president was unable to run in 2018 as he was in jail for corruption. However, his conviction was annulled in 2021, clearing the way for a return to the office he held between 2003 and 2010.
Lula is promising a return to the economically booming years of his presidency (seen at the time as model for center-left governments around the world) and, attempting to recall his traditional working-class base, has also agreed to extend relief payments into 2023. A Lula presidency would certainly see more state intervention in the economy. However, he has previously been careful not to go after private business, instead trying to converge the interests of the private industry with workforce organization. He has also vowed to protect the Amazon basin from illegal logging.
As previously mentioned, the campaign has been marred with violence and controversy. There have been several murders and attempted murders of Lula supporters throughout the country. There have also been numerous reports of voter intimidation in the workplace, including threats of termination as well as cases of bribery. Again, the common theme amongst these reports is that it is Bolsonaro supporters who are repeatedly the aggressors. In the last debate between the candidates, both men repeatedly attacked each other, trading insults and calling each other “liar” dozens of times.
Some pro-Bolsonaro officials have expressed their support for a coup d’état in the event that Lula returned to power. The US House of Representatives passed an amendment in June that would suspend aid to the Brazilian Army in the event that it intervened in the election due to growing concerns that Bolsonaro may attempt to use the military to hang on to power.
Most recently, politician and ally of President Bolsonaro Roberto Jefferson opened fire and threw grenades at policemen who were attempting to arrest him due to recent threats he made against a member of the court which convicted him of attacking democracy in 2021. There is significant anxiety amongst Bolsonaro supporters that this could cause enough damage to their campaign to sink it, given the fine margins involved.
There is an uneasy tension hanging over this election, and no matter the outcome, we are still likely to see significant political turmoil. Bolsonaro seems poised to characterize the vote as rigged if he loses, and if he wins Lula supporters will be highly charged given the controversy surrounding the president.