The Battle Between Brazil’s Familiar Faces

Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro gesture during a presidential debate. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

Brazilians will have a stark choice Sunday when they vote for president: a progressive, once-imprisoned former president who represents the political establishment or the incumbent Donald Trump-like populist already sowing seeds of election denialism.

This will be the second and final round of voting in the election. Ahead of the first round on October 2, polls showed former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—known simply as Lula—with a commanding lead. But like Trump in 2020, the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and his down-ballot allies outperformed the polls’ expectations: He received 43 percent of the vote while Lula got 48 percent. Sunday’s runoff was triggered because neither candidate received 50 percent of the vote.

The race has some considerable policy stakes—Bolsonaro is somewhat more isolationist in foreign policy, for instance, and Lula wants to do more to protect Brazil’s natural environment—but it has greater implications for the future of Brazil’s democracy. 

“The two candidates represent powerful movements, but they’re not really reconcilable.” said Norman Gall, a longtime journalist in Latin America and the executive director of the Fernand Braudel Institute for World Economics in São Paulo.

Since Brazil re-democratized in 1989, Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT) he helped found have been “almost hegemonic on the left,” said Lucio R. Rennó, a political science professor at the University of Brasília. “They are the best-structured party in Brazil.” That structure is almost inextricably connected to Lula himself, who has now run for president six times. He lost on three occasions before winning in 2002 and again in 2006. His tenure in office was marked by rising incomes and employment, an anti-poverty cash-transfer program called Bolsa Familia, and a multilateral approach to foreign affairs, including the formation of the BRICS group of economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

In 2009, near the end of Lula’s second term, China surpassed the United States as Brazil’s top trade partner. Today, though, Bolsonaro’s more isolated, anti-Western foreign policy may make him Beijing’s preferred candidate, according to international relations professor Oliver Steunkel.

Since Lula left office, things haven’t gone quite as well for the PT. His former chief of staff and successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, presided over crisis and corruption, ultimately leading to her impeachment and removal from office in 2016. Those problems—compounded by Lula’s own 2018 imprisonment on corruption and money-laundering charges—paved the way for Bolsonaro to run and win as an outsider in 2018. (Lula was released from prison in 2019, and his criminal convictions were annulled last year, making him eligible to run for president.)

Bolsonaro, who had served in the lower chamber of the country’s legislature since 1991, ran for president in 2018 as a conservative populist: anti-abortion, in favor of “law and order,” and opposed to racial quotas. He “was able to mobilize the population around these issues and a strong resentment against the Workers’ Party and the system as a whole,” Rennó said.

Bolsonaro first tried to govern with few true allies in the legislature, which is characterized by a “hyper-fragmented multiparty system” prone to gridlock, Rennó said. But he has since aligned himself with more pragmatic center-right parties.

But as Bolsonaro’s presidency continued his disapproval ratings trended up, and polls suggested he might even lose in the first round of voting. They were wrong. (Bolsonaro has criticized pollsters and proposed making it a crime to publish polls with results outside the margin of error.) Rennó hypothesized that Bolsonaro’s strength may have been fueled by residual resentment of the PT and the lack of a viable center-right alternative.

“This is a conservative polity,” Gall observed.

Still, Bolsonaro isn’t necessarily on a glide path to victory—after all, he received fewer votes than Lula in the first round. Despite the PT’s unpopularity and legacy of corruption, many voters still have positive associations with Lula and the tangible economic benefits his administration delivered.

Inspired by Trump, Bolsonaro has capitalized on low levels of trust in Brazilian society as he has sowed seeds of doubt about Brazil’s democratic process despite the high marks it gets from analysts. 

Since 1996, Brazil has used simple electronic voting machines, making it possible for results to be tallied within hours of the polls closing. They’re not connected to the internet, making them difficult to hack.

“The Brazilian electronic ballot is probably the best vote counting system in the world,” Rennó said. “It is safe, it has elected politicians from all walks of life, all ideological orientations, all parties, at all levels of the Brazilian Federation.”

But for almost eight years—starting when he was a deputy in Brazil’s Congress—Bolsonaro has repeatedly cast doubt on the system, claiming without evidence that the machines and the vote-counting system might be rigged. In recent months, he has suggested that if he failed to receive at least 60 percent of the vote, “something abnormal happened”—and that he might try to stay in office if he loses the election.

“I have three alternatives for my future: being arrested, killed, or victory,” he told his supporters in August.

In comparing Brazil to the United States—particularly Trump’s failed attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election—Rennó sees reason for both concern and cautious optimism. Although “this is an election marked by risks and threats of rejecting the outcome if it’s not favorable to Bolsonaro,” that risk “has been attenuated by the outcomes of the U.S., which were clearly unfavorable to any anti-democratic solution, at least in my reading.”

But he’s still uneasy—and the closer the results are, the greater the likelihood that things could go sideways. “The smaller the margin, the greater the turbulence,” he said.

Even if the post-election period goes smoothly, serious political challenges will remain. Chayenne Polimédio, a senior research manager at the Partnership for Public Service who is from Brazil and has written extensively on the country’s politics, expressed concern about “this feeling of, ‘we’re gonna get rid of the bad guy and everything is going to go back to what it was.’”

If Lula wins, the movement behind Bolsonaro—and division in the country—won’t magically evaporate. “This movement is not going away, and we’re seeing a country that is incredibly divided,” Polimédio said. “We’re seeing a politics that is very hyperpartisan, that’s very toxic.”

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