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Brazil’s Future on the Line in Runoff Election

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Trees reflected in a calm river. Amazon rainforest, Amazonas, Brazil.

Brazil’s voters will likely choose the Left on Oct. 30, but the right wing will remain mobilized.

Some 100 million Brazilians will head back to the polls Sunday, Oct. 30 in a presidential runoff election that poses a stark choice between democracy and authoritarianism, between a people-centered progressive project and a far-right vision that sees internal enemies wherever it looks. 

The first-round presidential election October 2 gave former President Luiz Ignacio “Lula” da Silva a decisive victory, but not a majority of votes. Lula now faces current President Jair Bolsonaro, who came in second. Lula comes out of the union movement, led strikes that helped bring down the dictatorship in the 1980s, and helped form the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT, Partido dos Trabahaldores). He won the presidency in 2002 and served until 2010. Bolsonaro, by contrast, came to office in 2019 as a self-proclaimed “outsider,” running on his experience as a former army captain and on anti-corruption sentiment against the PT.

The results of the first round of voting this year surprised pollsters who had predicted as much as a double-digit difference in Lula’s favor. In response to this surprising reality, the past few weeks have seen a redoubling of campaign efforts calibrated to better reach median voters, including religious ones. While Lula is likely to win the contest this weekend, he will come to power in January facing a divided electorate. A sector of the population will remain hostile and mobilized, serving as Bolsonaro’s legacy long after he leaves office.  

Divisions on display

The fierceness and enthusiasm for Bolsonaro-style strongman politics has been on full display in recent times and was particularly evident on election day—even far from Brazil. At Cathedral High School on New York’s Upper East Side, the polling site for Brazilians living in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, emotions were high on election day. Bolsonaro supporters donned Brazilian national team jerseys and waved flags, some Brazilian, some American. Their opposition wore their party color, red, in everything from red blankets and towels with Lula’s face plastered on the front to repurposed t-shirts and scarves. Any flash of the color was a sign of support. The mostly green and yellow line wrapped around the midtown block, and volunteers showed voters how to use the new voting app, which has proved to be highly effective despite Bolsonaro’s claims of potential electoral fraud.

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A crowd of zealous Bolsonaro supporters formed at the site’s exit, cheering or booing at people as they left. Across the street, a smaller crowd in red coalesced by the scaffolding. The booing and cheering soon turned to direct confrontation, and what started with songs about Lula being a thief quickly escalated into homophobic slurs, threats of violence, and the infamous finger-guns that Bolsonaro has made his trademark.

Pick-up trucks with Bolsonaro paraphernalia drove in circles around the block, sometimes menacing Lula supporters. Though the street and the cars on it technically separated the groups, tensions continued to escalate and Bolsonaro’s group grew in both size and aggression. US-based progressive groups have publicly denounced these behaviors, which also took place at other polling sites in the US, as reported by Brazil’s main newspapers.

More than the Tropical Trump

Bolsonaro-style politics is an angry and often incoherent mix of nationalism, moralism, religious conservatism, rejection of science, machismo, dog-whistle politics on race, gender, and sexuality, and an outright hatred of the Left. Though often described as a Tropical Trump in American media (Bolsonaro makes no secret of his admiration of all things MAGA), the label doesn’t do him justice. During his term, he has systematically undermined all public institutions: he has hobbled public higher education, undermined Brazilian science and R&D, nearly destroyed a once-robust public health system, and introduced censorship in public schools.

As his opponents like to point out, over four years Bolsonaro has managed to reverse course on many of the social gains of the previous decade-and-a-half, including the reduction of informal work and the near-abolition of hunger, which now has returned in shocking numbers. Bolsonaro, too, has overseen irreversible damage to the Amazon rainforest and its peoples as a result of his policies, introducing a new term to everyday discussions in Brazil: “ecocide.”    

While Bolsonaro’s platform has continued to tilt even further right during his campaign, Lula has run on a simple core promise: to help Brazil’s poor. His campaign drew on self-consciously populist imagery, alternating between allusions to barbeques and beer and the social achievements made during the combined 13 years that he and his successor Dilma Rouseff ran the country. This included broadening access to higher education, expanding healthcare, and drastically reducing poverty and hunger.

This is recent and powerful history, but it has often been overshadowed by the opposition-led anti-corruption witch hunt that landed Lula in jail for 580 days. (The charges were eventually annulled for improprieties). This election season saw Lula successfully shift attention back to those successes and promise more if elected, building enthusiasm through his voter base that has returned to a style of grassroots-style campaigning that harkens to the party’s early days.

Still, Lula’s performance on October 2nd was a blow to the PT’s campaign and morale. Supporters chanted “primero turno,” first round, across polling stations that day and plastered the slogan all over Workers’ Party promotional material. Lula’s victory was certainly definitive, 48% of total votes in comparison to Bolsonaro’s 43%, but not the majority needed to skip the run-off and go straight to victory. The rebranding was fast, as the party switched to emphasizing Lula’s turnout as the largest in Brazilian history, 57 million votes, and the campaign pivoted to appealing to more moderate voters who had voted for other candidates.  

Analysts have been discussing what to make of the stronger-than-predicted Bolsonaro showing, with most settling on a version of the “shy conservative” voter—the person who is embarrassed to admit reactionary views outside of the voting booth. The important fact is that the electoral base of the Left, and of Lula’s support, has shifted over the years. Once the Workers’ Party had strongholds in the wealthier South and Southeast, where the party originated, and where union movements and liberal lower middle-classes and middle classes could be counted on to provide support.

Today the electoral map looks very different: the North and Northeast are solid PT strongholds. At the same time, according to recent opinion polls, Lula’s strongest base is among the poor and Afro-Brazilians. Meanwhile, well-off white southern and southeastern Brazilians—from the tony neighborhoods of Rio to the rural countryside in the far South—have abandoned the PT and its pro-poor message in favor of a moralistic conservatism that hates the poor and anything that reeks of a handout.

They disdain Lula and the PT, which they see as a corrupt party of the poor. But within the broader Bolsonaro electorate there is a belligerent and organized core that is fiercely loyal to Bolsonaro himself and is attracted to the most ideological and right-wing part of Bolsonaro’s message. This is what Brazilian political scientist Camila Rocha has called a “purified and disenchanted” core of his base, and it is unlikely to disband any time soon.

Looking ahead

The electoral outlook for this coming Sunday’s contest is nonetheless positive for Lula. The math is clearly in his favor, as is the near-consensus of political analysts who are predicting his victory based on, among other things, better polling. The sharp political polarization in Brazil means that people are unlikely to switch preferences from the first round, and the vote transfer from other candidates is unlikely to bring big surprises. By law, too, those who didn’t vote in the first round are unable to vote in the run-off.

The country’s shadowy but powerful military establishment has indicated they will not interfere in election results and will respect the rule of law. Whatever ideological misgivings military officers may have with Lula, it is difficult to imagine any kind of post-election intervention or military-backed coup scenario as right-wing outlets have been promoting. This did not happen 20 years ago when Lula assumed power for the first time, when he had a more openly leftist platform, and when the country’s dictatorship period was a much more recent memory.

The congress that will be seated in January 2023, while not ideal for Lula, would not render a progressive agenda unviable either. The Left, including the PT, has actually gained seats, with the PSOL (the party closest to the PT to its left) having its largest caucus ever; a viable left/center-left ruling coalition of some 300-plus legislators in a congress of 513 is quite possible. Lula himself is a remarkably able politician and many parties in Brazil, for better or worse, have no ideological underpinnings and participate in ruling coalitions. This last election has also brought important activists to the assembly representing some of the country’s most vibrant movements, including the indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara, the housing movement leader Guilherme Boulos, and two trans women activists, Erika Hilton and Duda Salaber.

 A Lula victory will bring immediate and tangible change for the country. We can expect Lula will act by presidential decree in short order—from the reestablishment of Amazon monitoring to emergency food assistance—and the temperature of political conflict will go down. Other policy promises, such as the establishment of a national participatory budget, will take longer to enact and will require a mobilized population in the face of a complicated congress.

And the stakes could not be higher. Regionally, a Lula victory will mean that the balance of power of Latin America will tilt Left, as Brazil would join the recently elected leftist governments of Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Peru in what some are calling a “New Pink Tide” for the region. Globally, the results will determine whether the populous and economically powerful country continues on the path of authoritarianism, or takes a more democratic turn. And perhaps most importantly, Lula’s victory will mean there is hope to save the Amazon rainforest, “the lungs of the world,” and its people.

The problem for Lula, and for the country more generally, was on display in New York on election day. It has been on display every single time Bolsonaro and his allies take to Facebook or to a microphone. It’s in his calls to violence and hateful rhetoric, in the flirtation with fascism, and in his separation between those whose lives have value and those who deserve only death. These sentiments predate Bolsonaro’s presidency but they have been especially legitimated during his tenure. Violence increased nationally throughout his term, as did incidents of politically motivated killings, gender-based violence, and hate crimes.  Though there is little to back up Bolsonaro’s allusions to a coup, not all his rhetoric has proven to be empty.

Featured image: Amazon rainforest, Amazonas, Brazil. Photo by Antonio Campoy. License CC BY 2.0. The rainforest itself has a huge stake in the upcoming election.