Brazil heads to the polls on Oct. 2 for important general elections in Latin America’s largest economy and most populous country that will determine the next President, Vice President, and National Congress. The main question on everyone’s mind is whether right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro will get another term, or whether left-wing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will return to office as part of a resurgent pink tide in a region that has recently seen leftists take power in Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, and elsewhere.
The choice between the two men could not be clearer.
For the past four years, incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro has questioned the role of the Supreme Court and has repeatedly suggested without evidence that the electoral system is rigged. He compared COVID-19 to “a little flu,” and endorsed destructive environmental policies that destroyed the Amazon rainforest.
Lula ruled from 2003 to 2010 after winning two four-year terms in office and helping lift millions out of poverty, making him one of the country’s most popular leaders. “Lula is running on nostalgia to get his old job back,” said Gustavo Ribeiro, journalist and founder of the English-language political site The Brazilian Report.
However, Lula was also controversial but in different ways. In September 2016, he was indicted on corruption charges stemming from a money laundering investigation known as Operation Car Wash, which set out to root out corruption among Latin America’s top political and business leaders. In July 2017, he was found guilty and a court ruled that he was not allowed to run for re-election in 2018. But in March of last year, Brazil’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction, citing several technicalities and saying that Lula’s right a fair trial was compromised by a biased judge—allowing him to run for President this time.
Brazilian presidential candidate and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, speaks during an election rally on sustainable development in Manaus, Brazil, on August 31, 2022.
Michael Dantas/AFP—Getty Images
Lula upheld the Supreme Court verdict as proof of his innocence: he argued that the corruption charges were cooked up by right-wing forces to avoid him. But recent surveys have found that public opinion is divided.
Read more: Brazil’s Most Popular President Returns From Political Exile With Promise to Save the Nation
Either way, polls suggest Lula will comfortably beat Bolsonaro, though it’s unclear whether he will have enough votes to avoid a run-off vote on Oct. 30. In Brazil, if no presidential candidate gets of more than 50% of the total vote, it triggers a head-to-head competition between the two frontrunners, almost certainly this year Bolsonaro and Lula.
Brazil’s democratic backslide
“Bolsonaro has collapsed the institutions of accountability, he is rotting the state from within,” said Ribeiro. However, Bolsonaro made a rare admission on Monday in a podcast that he would step down if defeated. “If it is God’s will I will continue, but if not, I will pass the presidential sash and retire.”
That rhetoric has not allayed concerns that the transition of power if Bolsonaro loses may not go smoothly, although experts say he is unlikely to have the power to overturn the election. “I don’t think he has the institutional support to do that,” Ribeiro said. But even an attempt to suggest he is wrong could help him retain considerable influence in Brazil. “Everyone thinks Bolsonaro might try a January 6 in Brazil if he loses. We’re not sure… if it’s a coup d’etat. I don’t think so, but it might just be a way of – out of power but still keeping his people with him,” said Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian journalist and political analyst.
Some of these fears include Bolsonaro’s call in September for tens of thousands of his supporters to protest against the court after his judicial dispute over changes to the voting system involving the President’s attempts to push paper voting receipts. Brazilian and international media compared the incident to the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill. While some may point to Bolsonaro as taking a page from US President Donald Trump’s playbook, it may be the opposite, according to Ribeiro. “Bolsonaro attacked the system before Trump became President… He repeatedly threatened not to recognize the results if he didn’t believe they were fair and square.”
Civil rights advocates fear that Bolsonaro’s second term could lead to a democratic apostasy, or worse.
Bolsonaro’s record in office
There are concerns that the pace of deforestation of the Amazon could reach a tipping point where it becomes a dry savanna under Bolsonaro’s second term. That in turn will accelerate global climate change; the Amazon has long functioned as a sink for draining carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorbs about 2 billion tons of CO2 per year (or 5% of emissions). Data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research showed that more than 3,980 square kilometers were deforested in the first six months of this year, the highest amount since 2016.
Under Bolsonaro, laws around deforestation have been loosened and environmental agencies have seen staff and budget cuts. “There has been very little monitoring or fining or attempts to regulate deforestation,” said Amy Erica Smith, an associate professor of political science and expert on Brazilian politics at Iowa State University. Furthermore, Ribeiro said: “Bolsonaro is incentivizing the use of indigenous lands, areas to protect the environment for mining, for raising cattle.”
Bolsonaro has also been criticized for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and spreading misinformation about the virus and vaccines. Brazil has more than 685,000 recorded COVID deaths, one of the highest death tolls in the world.
What do voters really care about?
While Bolsonaro has triggered concerns about Brazil’s democracy, this is unlikely to be what the average Brazilian voter has in mind, experts say. More than one-third of Brazilian families deal with food insecurity, according to a study published in May by the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), a Brazilian academic institution.
A customer counts money at a fruit and vegetable stall at a market in Salvador, Bahia State, Brazil, on August 26, 2022
Rafael Martins/AFP —Getty Images
“People are really struggling,” Ribeiro said. “That’s why Bolsonaro broke the bank to increase social spending.”
Bolsonaro cut petroleum taxes to reduce prices after they rose in part because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. He increased aid payments to the poorest countries through a program called Auxilio Brasil, or Brazil Aid; in August, he began giving $120 monthly cash payments to 20 million families. Inflation has not been as big a problem in Brazil as in the US and Europe, due to lower energy prices. But wages are still shrinking and unemployment is still high, though falling.
Bolsonaro is also particularly popular among evangelical Christians, who make up about a third of the country’s population, according to the Datafolha polling firm. (In 2018, about 70% of these voters supported Bolsonaro.) “There are enough evangelicals that they really matter,” Smith said.
“Bolsonaro is the first candidate to really embrace them,” Traumann said. He gave them key ministerial positions and appointed an evangelical Supreme Court judge. Lula, on the other hand, has faced pushback from many evangelicals following statements he made earlier this year that abortion should be viewed as a public health issue, rather than a religious one. Bolsonaro has repeatedly stressed his commitment to ensure that most abortions remain illegal in Brazil.
That is not to say that all evangelicals vote in one block. Some female voters in particular may be put off by what experts say is Bolsonaro’s misogyny. Smith doubts that evangelicals will turn out as strongly as they did for Bolsonaro in 2018 because “they will test him not only on culture war issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights but also his economic performance and the pandemic,” he said.
But if the polls are right, and Lula prevails on Oct. 2 or Oct. 30, Brazilians—and much of the world—will tune in to see what’s next.
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