Image: Lula and Bolsonaro campaign posters in Brazil. Source: AS/COA.
In a little over three weeks, Brazilians will go to the polls to vote for their country’s next president, vice president, and national congress, as well as for governors and state legislative assemblies. At stake is who will sit at the helm of Latin America’s most populous nation and largest economy, one of the world’s most significant commodity producers and home to the Amazon Rainforest (a critical component to a carbon neutral future). It is still a competitive election. The big question is whether the incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro, will recognize the election results. Bolsonaro, currently behind former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in polls, has alternated between promising a peaceful transfer of power and stating that he will not turn over his office if there is electoral fraud. If he refuses to acknowledge the outcome, where does Brazil go from there?
The biggest worry for most Brazilians is the economy, which cooled this year after a strong rebound in 2021. The country has been hit by successive blows, including COVID-19 (and its lingering impact), the slowdown in Chinese demand for commodities (the Asian country is a major trade partner), and, most recently, the Russo-Ukrainian War (which injected greater volatility into global commodity markets). Real GDP growth in 2022 will likely struggle to reach 2.0 percent, unemployment stands around 9.1 percent, and inflation in August was 8.7 percent year-on-year. For most Brazilian households, this has made the economy the number one issue, followed by concerns over hunger and poverty, health and the pandemic, and corruption. Yet the political arena in this election has also been shaped by political personalities.
Brazil’s 2022 presidential contest is a highly polarized affair between President Bolsonaro and Lula, the candidate for the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT). Bolsonaro is often described as a far-right populist with autocratic tendencies, and he is a strong admirer of Donald Trump and Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime. A controversial figure in Brazil, he has also received international condemnation for his vulgar rhetoric and hostility toward his country’s LGBTQ and Indigenous communities. At the same time, Bolsonaro is a master of social media, portraying himself as an outsider to Brazil’s cozy political elites and dismissing criticism as “fake news.”
In 2018, Bolsonaro took on a PT that was hobbled by a struggling economy, public frustration with corruption exposed in the Lava Jato investigations, and deep concerns over rising violent crime. Lula was convicted of money laundering and corruption in 2017, while his successor Dilma Rousseff, also from the PT, was impeached in 2016. Significantly, Bolsonaro was able to tap a deeply conservative part of Brazilian society, which is largely rural or concentrated in small towns, and gain the support of conservative evangelicals.
Although Bolsonaro’s administration has been marked by considerable upheaval, including COVID-19 (which he downplayed), strong international condemnation for the destruction of parts of the Amazon rainforest, stalled economic reforms, and a number of corruption scandals (including allegations involving his sons and wife), he has maintained the support of a hard core of 30-35 percent of voters, which is enough to make him competitive in the current election.
Bolsonaro has relentlessly questioned the integrity of Brazil’s electronic voting system, which is highly regarded internationally. Indeed, Bolsonaro sought to replace the electronic voting system (in place since 1996) with a paper receipt system. The effort was defeated, but he continues to claim that the 2022 elections could be affected by fraud due to electronic voting.
Most polls indicate that the president will lose. According to an Isepe/Abrapel poll released on September 17, Lula has 45 percent of voting intentions in the first round, and Bolsonaro has 35 percent, while the other two major candidates, Ciro Gomes and Simone Tebet, hold seven and five percent respectively. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes, the top two vote-winners will advance to a runoff; assuming Lula and Bolsonaro do so, the same poll forecasts that Lula would win with 53 percent of the vote.
Lula is hardly a perfect candidate, having been marred by corruption and jail time. (Lula’s convictions were later thrown out, and he denies any wrongdoing.) However, his two terms in office coincided with a major commodity boom and economic expansion, which through targeted social programs, helped pull many Brazilians up from extreme poverty and into an expanding middle class. Moreover, the business community, which expected ideological intransigence when Lula entered office in 2003, came to respect him as a pragmatic leftist whom they could work with. Lula’s second term proved more divisive, and the problems escalated under Rousseff, who was hit by the end of the commodity boom and a series of corruption scandals resulting in mass anti-government demonstrations.
Today the polarization in Brazilian politics is evident in opinion polls. When potential voters were asked, “Which option gives you the most fear?,” 46 percent of respondents stated, “The continuing of Bolsonaro,” while another 40 percent feared the return of the Workers Party.
The poll mirrors a sharp difference between the two candidates, with Bolsonaro appearing more of a one-man phenomenon who has been backed by a handful of credible ministers (some of whom have since parted company with their boss). In 2018, he ran as presidential candidate for the tiny Social Liberal Party (Partido Social Liberal). By 2019, however, Bolsonaro had abandoned the party. Bolsonaro is now running under the banner of the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal), which is populist-conservative, nationalist, pro-Christian, and economically liberal, but which has been influenced by the president more than it has influenced him.
In contrast, Lula has the support of the PT organization, which has its own strong national brand and is generally considered to be a social democratic party with socialist roots. The PT is among the largest parties in the country, with strong support among the working class, in the North and Northwest regions of the country, and in a number of major urban centers, including Rio de Janeiro. For Lula to win convincingly in the first round, he needs to win middle class voters, which is proving to be a challenge.
While Lula leads in the polls, it is possible for the gap between the two candidates to shrink. Whether Bolsonaro loses in the first round or in the second, it is difficult to imagine Bolsonaro acknowledging his defeat. If he alleges fraud, Bolsonaro could prompt a constitutional crisis, raising questions over the role of the military, which has remained influential but not active in the country’s politics.
If Bolsonaro wins, Brazil could face an equally daunting challenge: four more years of a leader who, like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has little appreciation for the finer points of democratic government. Considering the level of passion from Bolsonaro supporters and the large number of Brazilians who dislike the president, Brazil could remain a highly polarized country and runs the risk of slipping into a political landscape where groups from the left and right express themselves more forcibly through non-constitutional means.
Looking ahead, October is a pivotal month for Brazil. Opinion polls point to a runoff and eventually a Lula victory, but elections are not over until the votes are counted. That is what makes Bolsonaro’s persistent claims of a rigged election so potentially damaging. He has set the stage for his voters to question any Lula victory, no matter how wide. If Bolsonaro wins the election, his victory will quickly raise concerns over the fate of democratic and constitutional norms. When Brazilian voters cast their ballots on October 2, 2022, the political roulette table will start to spin.
Scott B. MacDonald is Chief Economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and founding Director of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His latest book, The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.