Brazil’s presidential election campaign is in full swing after its official launch on August 16, pitting left-wing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) against right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.
Lula is the
clear favorite to win. With the approach of the first round of the ballot on October 2, the former president is ahead of the voting intentions by around 9 points. Neither Lula nor Bolsonaro seem likely to secure enough ballots to win, however, so the two candidates will face off in a runoff on October 30. On average, all polls indicate that Lula is currently leading this race with a 12-point advantage over the president. .
It’s the economy, silly
In 2018, Bolsonaro was elected on an anti-establishment, tough on crime and anti-corruption platform, in line with voter demands at the time. But this year, the main issue is by far the economy.
After years of weak growth, the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian-Ukrainian war and rising interest rates in the United States have hit Brazil – and Latin America – hard, causing a spike in inflation, an increase in unemployment, a decline in real income and an increase in poverty.
Most Brazilians are unhappy with the deterioration in their standard of living and fear that the worst is yet to come. As is usually the case, they blame the president for their misfortunes.
In contrast, voters attach great importance to Lula for the economy, as they recall the major socio-economic gains Brazil made during his first two terms – when prices for Brazil’s commodity exports reached historic highs – and have high hopes that he can “make Brazil great again”. It also helps the outraged ex-president that corruption is no longer a priority for voters. All Lula has to do is stay on message.
Bolsonaro is still in the race
But don’t count Bolsonaro just yet. Brazil’s economy has exceeded expectations over the past two months, with unemployment recently falling below 10%, growth estimates revised up and inflation falling.
This is partly due to the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and lower global food and energy prices, but the President has also participated by increasing social benefits, lowering fuel taxes and raising the minimum wage.
The stronger-than-expected recovery has supported economic sentiment and helped Bolsonaro close the gap with Lula. The president’s approval ratings have fallen from 35% a month ago and 30% in January to 38%, a sign that voters are feeling an improvement.
And most forecasters expect the economy to strengthen further in the coming weeks, meaning Bolsonaro’s bid becomes more competitive just as the campaign enters its decisive phase.
The president will spend the rest of the campaign extolling the economic merits of his administration. And while Bolsonaro cannot directly campaign on an anti-corruption message, he can use his anti-system credentials to tarnish Lula, the courts, the media and the electoral system as agents of the establishment – an accusation which resonates deeply with the vast majority of Brazilians who are tired of “business as usual”.
It was the strategy that got him elected in 2018 – the same that also helped elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, Gabriel Boric in Chile and, more recently, Gustavo Petro in Colombia.
Too little, too late?
While the race will tighten and some polls could show a draw or even Bolsonaro ahead, the president is unlikely to be able to turn the tide.
Economic issues remain the main concerns of voters; despite recent improvements, most Brazilians are still worse off than before the pandemic – and they doubt Bolsonaro can and will change that.
The president has to run a near-perfect campaign and pray that Lula stumbles if he is to stand a chance, but so far the TV interviews and debates have been a wash for both candidates. This is bad news for Bolsonaro, who needs to gain ground – and soon.
But even if the election result isn’t that close, a close race will give Bolsonaro more reason to claim the vote was rigged.
He laid the groundwork for this scenario by casting (unfounded) suspicions on Brazil’s electronic voting system and warning that the election will be stolen by the corrupt establishment. In fact, for years the president also claimed that he actually won in the first round in 2018 (he didn’t).
So if he loses – as he is likely to – Bolsonaro will almost certainly challenge the result and urge his supporters to take to the streets to overturn the vote, much like Donald Trump did on January 6 in the United States. United. Protests could turn violent.
The chances of them succeeding, however, are also close to zero. Brazil has no legal mechanism to challenge elections, and the courts and military are said to respect the rule of law. At the end of the day, whoever wins will be sworn in.
The greatest danger is that the threat to democracy is here to stay.
Brazilian society is deeply disenchanted with the system, and a January 6-type event would only further erode trust. Whatever happens in October, the forces that propelled Bolsonaro to power will not fade away.
Will the institutions hold together the next time a crisis comes knocking? I am not looking forward to this response.