Brazil: world awaits pivotal presidential runoff vote
Following a campaign plagued by violence and disinformation, Brazil’s 2 October presidential vote was closer than expected: former leftist president Lula da Silva won but fell short of a majority, while incumbent far-right president Jair Bolsonaro did better than expected. A tight Lula win is the likeliest outcome of the 30 October runoff, but fixing the damage of four years of anti-rights rule will be no easy task for a president carrying a lot of baggage and lacking an overwhelming mandate. Voting patterns beyond the presidential race suggest a longer-term realignment of Brazilian politics: a conservative bloc linking powerful business interests with fundamentalist religious groups will continue to hold considerable sway.
Things are not going quite as planned for the frontrunner in Brazil’s presidential election. Just days after the 2 October first-round vote, campaigners for the favourite, former president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, felt compelled to deny on social media that their candidate had ever made ‘a pact with the devil’. The incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro, who enjoys strong evangelical support, has repeatedly stated that Lula will close down churches if he wins. Deliberate disinformation accusing Lula of satanism spread like an Amazonian wildfire.
This is just one sign of how vicious the campaign has become going into the 30 October runoff vote, when leftist icon and former trade unionist Lula goes head to head with far-right Bolsonaro.
There had been speculation Lula might avoid a runoff, but while he came first, his lead was smaller than expected. He stopped 1.5 percentage points short of a straight win with Bolsonaro trailing him by only five points.
Every single vote could make a difference in the runoff, and with evangelicals making up roughly 30 per cent of the electorate, it’s no surprise Lula has gone much further than denying ludicrous claims of satanism – he’s actively courting religious voters. There’s been no shortage of praise for Pope Francis coming out of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) headquarters lately.
Polarisation in the presidential race
The presidential election has been the most polarised in Brazil’s recent history. While 11 candidates ran, almost all people picked one of two: 91 per cent of votes went to either Lula or Bolsonaro. Far behind, two candidates who pitched themselves in the centre ground – centre-right Simone Tebet of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) and centre-left Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party – gathered a meagre three to four per cent of the vote each.
Con el 92% escrutado, las #Eleicoes2022 son las de mayor concentración y polarización del voto presidencial desde el retorno a la democracia en Brasil. Con olor a ballotage, Lula y Bolsonaro tienen poco para ir a pescar. Y los dos van a ir por los mismos. pic.twitter.com/cAfqdr13Mw— Facu Cruz (@facucruz) October 2, 2022
The results took many by surprise. All opinion polls had forecast a bigger gap between Lula and Bolsonaro, giving PT supporters hope for a first-round win. Bolsonaro had responded by saying he ‘didn’t believe’ much in polls.
It turned out that polls predicted Lula’s share of the vote quite accurately – but they grossly underestimated Bolsonaro’s. There may be multiple reasons: a sampling problem, outdated census data, a last-minute switch of voters from smaller parties and the possibility that some people voting for Bolsonaro would deny it out of embarrassment. A further plausible explanation suggests that some Bolsonaro voters on the far right reject interaction with the mainstream and thereby go undetected by pollsters.
None of this stopped the polls themselves being caught up in the polarised political battle. After the results were announced, Bolsonaro’s minister of justice tweeted a request for the police to investigate pollsters, accusing them of intentionally erring in Lula’s favour in an attempt to influence voters.
Negative campaigning and political violence
Not surprisingly, the campaign saw a rise in political violence, including threats, intimidation and online and physical attacks. Violence was encouraged from the top, with Bolsonaro persistently smearing critical journalists and political opponents, particularly when they were women.
In the first half of 2022, the Observatory for Political and Electoral Violence of the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro recorded 214 cases of violence against prominent politicians, including 40 homicides – a more than fourfold increase since data collection started in 2019.
Most victims of political violence were affiliated with the PT. Between July and October, at least three PT supporters were killed by Bolsonaro supporters because of their political affiliation. To prevent further violence, in the days prior to the vote the Supreme Electoral Court banned people carrying weapons in public.
On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro understandably tended to downplay the suffering of Brazilians under the pandemic and the economic crisis he has presided over. As a result of his policies of denial, disinformation and mismanagement, COVID-19 claimed close to 700,000 lives in Brazil. Worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rising food and fuel costs have produced a hunger crisis affecting 33 million people.
To avoid being swept away by social anger, Bolsonaro scaled up his social support programme, Auxilio Brasil, targeted at the poorest people. This was a relaunch of the famously effective Bolsa Familia, established during Lula’s previous presidencies, under a different name to avoid the association with Bolsonaro’s rival. As the election approached, in August the monthly subsidy increased from 400 to 600 reais (approx. US$77 to US$115).
But with little success to show from his tenure, Bolsonaro was most comfortable when discrediting his opponent, whom he labelled as having led the ‘most corrupt government in Brazilian history’, and denouncing all the bad things he stood against: communism, abortion, so-called ‘gender ideology’, atheists and, of course, devil worshippers.
The campaign was also plagued with election-related disinformation. Almost up until election day, Bolsonaro made baseless allegations against the integrity of Brazil’s electronic voting system. Bolsonaro has long expressed distrust for the very same electoral system that got him elected, claiming he was forced to compete in the 2018 runoff vote because the first-round election was ‘stolen’ from him.
Over and over, Bolsonaro has hinted that he wouldn’t necessarily concede if he loses. In response to this danger, the political parties backing Lula’s candidacy have requested the international community recognise the results as soon as they are announced. But while Bolsonaro is likely to keep echoing the Trump playbook, he doesn’t seem to have the required military support to attempt a coup.
The Amazon at stake
The election results are key for the future of the Amazon – and of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples, who have been under intensified attack since Bolsonaro was elected.
In his four years in office, Bolsonaro has dismantled environmental protections, paralysed environmental agencies and slashed their budgets. He has denied climate change and publicly vilified civil society, criminalised activists and discredited the media. His government has allowed deforestation to proceed at an astonishing pace and emboldened businesses, often linked to organised crime, to step up land grabbing and illegal logging and mining.
Already embattled Indigenous communities and activists have become increasingly vulnerable to attacks. Out of 200 murders of land and environmental activists documented by Global Witness worldwide in 2021, 26 were in Brazil, placing the country behind only Mexico and Colombia.
Shortly before the electoral campaign began, Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were killed in the Javari Valley, Amazonas state, as they returned from a reporting trip on the Itaquaí River. They were ambushed and brutally murdered by members of an illegal fishing operation in protected areas that Phillips had photographed the day before.
Congress tilts to the right
The 2 October vote was much more than a presidential election. Some 156 million voters were called upon to elect a third of the members of the 81-seat Federal Senate and all 513 members of the Federal Chamber of Deputies. These are elected in 27 multi-member constituencies – one for each of Brazil’s 26 states plus the Federal District of the capital, Brasília – ranging from eight to 70 seats, with seats allocated among parties using a proportional representation formula.
Beyond the national level, in each state voters elected governors and vice governors, with a runoff vote if needed, and members of the 27 state legislative assemblies.
These elections saw results quite different from the presidential race. While Lula took over 48 per cent of the presidential vote, the parties supporting his candidacy won under 30 per cent of congressional representation. Right-wing parties claimed over 60 per cent of congressional seats.
Among those newly elected to Congress were several prominent ex-ministers of the Bolsonaro administration, including a general who as health minister presided over the pandemic public health catastrophe and an environment minister who denied the reality of climate change.
The traditional centre-right vote collapsed as supporters switched to the far right. The once-pivotal Brazilian Social Democracy Party didn’t have a presidential candidate of its own – instead supporting the failed bid of the MDB’s Tebet – and didn’t get any senators elected, only 13 deputies.
Bolsonaro allies were elected or re-elected as governors in key states such as Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. In São Paulo, Bolsonaro’s candidate unexpectedly came first but faces a runoff.
This means if Bolsonaro gets re-elected, he can easily pass any legislation he wishes. But if Lula wins, he’ll have to further moderate his plans, negotiate with other parties and make concessions to what’s called the ‘BBB (bullet, beef and bible) coalition’, a voting bloc of the arms lobby, agribusiness and fundamentalist evangelic churches. The voting patterns beyond the presidential race hint at a longer-term realignment of Brazilian politics even if Bolsonaro no longer holds presidential power.
Voices from the frontline
Daniela Silva is co-founder of the Aldeias Project, an education, art, culture and environment project for children and young people in the municipality of Altamira, in the Brazilian state of Pará.
The October elections are perhaps one of the most important in Brazil’s history. There is a lot at stake when it comes to the Amazon region. Bolsonaro has unleashed uncontrolled deforestation, land grabs and illegal mining on Indigenous lands. He is also encouraging violence against human and environmental rights defenders in the Amazon.
With Bolsonaro there is no possibility of dialogue or engagement of organised civil society in decision-making on environmental matters. If Bolsonaro continues as president, it is a threat to the Amazon and its peoples, and therefore to humanity. We are experiencing a global climate crisis and we need world leaders focusing on working alongside civil society, scientists and the international community to put together short, medium and long-term solutions to tackle it.
The spread of deforestation in the Amazon should be a key factor driving a Bolsonaro defeat in this election, but unfortunately it is not. Brazilian society remains very oblivious to the reality of the Amazon. Brazil’s large urban centres do not recognise the everyday reality of the forest and its peoples. The consequence of their ignorance is their lack of active concern about the current ecocide being committed by the Bolsonaro government. Fortunately, many Amazonian environmental movements are trying hard to pierce their bubble so Brazilian society gets to know what is happening and takes a stand.
Now, while acknowledging the utmost importance of defeating Bolsonaro in the upcoming election, we also have strong criticism of his main rival. Like right-wing governments, PT governments, led by Lula and his successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, also pushed initiatives that were environmentally destructive. However, we believe that with Lula we would be able to have a dialogue and there could be more space for civil society engagement in environmental decision making.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Daniela. Read the full interview here.
Lula’s political resurrection?
In a tight runoff race, the most likely scenario is still that Lula will make a comeback, 12 years after leaving the presidency after two terms in office. In the intervening years, his handpicked successor, President Dilma Roussef, was impeached and replaced by Vice President Michel Temer, in what was characterised by PT supporters as a parliamentary coup.
Lula spent 580 days in prison following his prosecution by Judge Sergio Moro – subsequently made minister of justice by Bolsonaro – for ‘active and passive corruption and money laundering’. He was one of many figures implicated in the vast Lava Jato (‘car wash’) corruption scandal. His conviction stopped him running against Bolsonaro in 2018, but it was later overturned. In March 2021 the Supreme Court ruled that Moro had been biased and in June 2021 all the cases Moro brought against Lula were annulled, leaving Lula free to stand again.
While Bolsonaro took his customary right-wing positions in the campaign, Lula appears to have changed. Rather than position as the mirror image of his far-right rival, he bet his political future on moderation, starting with his choice of vice president: well-known centrist Geraldo Alckmin, seen by many Lula supporters as disappointingly neoliberal. Lula characterised this alliance as offering a reset needed to fix the damage done by Bolsonaro. He chose to project an image of moderate leftist regional leadership, more aligned with Chile’s Gabriel Boric than the likes of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
Although his defence wasn’t always consistent or convincing, Lula worked to overcome the effects of the Java Lato scandal. He promised to fight against corruption and insisted he doesn’t want to place any friends in the judiciary or the police. He also highlighted the economic and social achievements of his last presidency, emphasising that some 28 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty under his watch.
Soon after the first-round results, the distant third and fourth-placed candidates, Gomes and Tebet, declared their support for Lula, although Tebet’s party gave its voters freedom of choice. According to polls, most Tebet voters and more than half of Gomes’s might vote for Bolsonaro.
Lula consistently led the polls in the run-up to the first-round vote, and he still does. With three weeks to go, all polls point to a narrow Lula win, with between 51 and 55 per cent of the vote. There are clear regional differences and a gender gap in voting behaviour: if he wins, Lula will owe a lot to north-eastern voters and women.
Ever since the 1985 transition to democracy, the candidate with the most first-round votes has won the runoff – but then again, incumbents standing for re-election have also typically won. Polls appear to show that Bolsonaro has far higher rejection rates – people who would never vote for him – than Lula. But it’s possible the polls are still underestimating the extent of the far-right vote as they did in the first round.
The voting patterns beyond the presidential race hint at a longer-term realignment of Brazilian politics even if Bolsonaro no longer holds presidential power.
If Lula wins, it’s highly likely to be by a small margin that would make it very easy for Bolsonaro and his supporters to claim fraud and reject the election as stolen. A victorious Lula would be seen as having a weak mandate while a galvanised far right could be expected to remain powerful and active.
The 76-year-old Lula is hardly a new face. If he wins, it may be less because of what he is than what he isn’t – because he is not Bolsonaro, and for many, right now that’s the most important qualification. But he will then face the challenge of delivering on being better than Bolsonaro, while bridging across the polarised divide only deepened by the campaign.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President Bolsonaro must publicly commit to accepting the election results and not encouraging his supporters to commit acts of violence if he is defeated.
Lula should focus on bridging political divides in the remaining campaign and in government if elected.
If elected, Lula must immediately reinstate environmental protections, enable environmental agencies and mechanisms and reverse restrictions on climate activism.
Cover photo by Reuters/Washington Alves via Gallo Images