To partisans across a stark political divide, Brazil’s upcoming election is nothing less than a battle for the future of democracy in South America’s largest nation.
Brazil’s Oct. 2 vote pits 76-year-old leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, against the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, a former congressman and army captain.
Analysts fear Brazil, home to more than 210 million people, could face political violence or something akin to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, as Bolsonaro has consistently tried to delegitimize the electoral system.
With anti-incumbency running high and Lula ahead in the polls, Brazil could become the latest Latin American country to shift to the political left, following recent elections in Colombia, Chile, Honduras and others.
“You have two candidates who represent very different attitudes toward Brazilian democracy as well as having different visions,” said Matthew Richmond, a research fellow who tracks Brazilian politics from the London School of Economics.
“If we are going to take Bolsonaro’s recent statements at face value, as we probably should, he is unlikely to accept the result.”
‘Only God will get me out,’ Bolsonaro says
Most opinion polls, including one from Genial/Quaest released earlier this month, show Lula holding a double-digit lead over Bolsonaro in the first round of balloting. Other candidates, including a senator and a former governor, are polling at less than 10 per cent and the race is widely considered a showdown between Bolsonaro and Lula.
Under Brazilian election rules, a run-off vote between the two leading candidates is expected if a single candidate fails to win more than 50 per cent in the first round.
Like his political ally former U.S. president Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has consistently sought to undermine the credibility of state institutions, calling Brazil’s widely respected voting infrastructure “a farce.”
“We cannot accept a voting system that does not offer any security in the elections,” Bolsonaro told supporters last year. “Only God will get me out.”
He has also said he might not accept the results of the election, unless the computerized system used by Brazilian authorities is replaced by printed ballots.
Felipe Ferreira, a Rio de Janeiro-based data scientist, clarified that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are secure systems. “And no hacker or data manipulation attack has ever been reported.”
Despite this, Ferreira said a Jan. 6-style riot from Bolsonaro supporters following voting is possible and could have a significant impact on the country’s democracy.
“It remains for us to wait vigilantly.”
Lula: From prison to presidential palace?
Lula, a former metal worker, governed Brazil from 2003-2010, presiding over rapid economic growth and reductions in poverty due to high prices for the country’s key commodity exports, cash transfers to the poor and other factors.
Critics say it was a period marked by graft at the highest levels of government. Lula was jailed in 2018 on corruption and money laundering charges and spent more than a year in prison before his conviction was annulled by a Supreme Court judge.
The former union leader, who lost a finger during an accident while working at a factory before entering politics, maintains the charges were political, launched by a partisan judge who later became Bolsonaro’s justice minister. He has always proclaimed his innocence.
In this election, Lula has attempted to portray himself as politically moderate; a safe pair of hands who can revive Brazil’s economy and international reputation, while respecting the country’s democratic institutions.
“He is trying to avoid being seen as a radical or a populist,” said Richmond, the London researcher. “That’s very strategic, trying to win voters in smaller towns … it can also stunt his charisma a bit.”
Bolsonaro: From outsider to insider?
Branding himself as a tough-talking political outsider, Bolsonaro won power four years ago in the wake of a massive corruption scandal involving the state oil company, and anger over a grinding recession after the commodity boom went bust.
“In 2018, Bolsonaro presented himself as the anti-system, anti-corruption candidate; the one who wouldn’t make deals with corrupt politicians,” said Jill Hedges, senior Latin America analyst at the consultancy Oxford Analytica.
Once in power, however, he formed alliances with factions in Brazil’s congress known as the Centro, parties “whose only ideology is getting money,” Hedges said.
“He can’t portray himself as the anti-corruption candidate now.”
As well, more than 680,000 Brazilians died from COVID-19, with health experts lambasting the government’s response to the pandemic.
While economic growth has picked up in the second half of this year and Brazil’s inflation rate has declined, interest rates have risen to more than 13 per cent, compared to less than four per cent in Canada, straining budgets and curtailing investment.
But to Bolsonaro’s core supporters, which analysts estimate to be between 20 and 30 per cent of the population, he is on a historic mission to restore order and traditional values. They see attempts to beat him at the ballot box as a conspiracy by a corrupt political and media class.
WATCH | Supporters rally for Bolsonaro:
“Our battle is a fight between good and evil,” Bolsonaro told hundreds of thousands of cheering partisans gathered in Rio de Janeiro on Brazil’s Independence Day earlier this month.
Analysts fear such rhetoric, coupled with the general atmosphere of a country already experiencing high levels of insecurity, including deadly attacks between partisans on the campaign trial, could lead to broader political violence.
Eyes on the military
Brazil emerged from more than 20 years of military rule in 1985, and Bolsonaro has expressed fondness for authoritarianism, calling members of the junta who tortured dissidents in the 1960s and 70s “heroes” and arguing that Cold War-era dictatorships across South America “pacified” the region.
Condemned by human rights groups, the president’s tough talk has garnered widespread support from rank-and-file members of Brazil’s military, said Hedges. Military figures also hold senior positions in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, including the vice presidency.
A study from the Brazilian Public Security Forum, a non-partisan research group, found that more than half of the country’s military police, responsible for street-level crime fighting, actively participated in pro-Bolsonaro social media groups in 2021, an increase from the previous year.
The country has more than 400,000 military police officers, meaning that based on the study, at least 200,000 heavily armed people are actively backing Bolsonaro.
Unlike the common law enforcement motto, “to serve and protect,” some of Brazil’s official military police trucks are emblazoned with a skull, a dagger protruding through its head.
If pro-Bolsonaro soldiers believe the election was stolen, they could easily “riot or make an attempt on seizing government buildings,” Hedges said.
“I think it could get very violent,” said the analyst, adding that she doesn’t believe current senior military leaders would back a Cold War-style coup, making a full blown uprising that successfully ousts the government unlikely.
Political battle for the periphery
To reduce the likelihood of post-election conflict, Lula’s backers are hoping their candidate wins a convincing mandate, undermining any possible claims of fraud.
In Brazil’s 2018 vote, analysts said Bolsonaro beat a candidate from Lula’s Workers’ Party, based on support from two key demographics: middle class residents of smaller towns in the country’s heartland and wealthier southeast, and working class residents living in poorer areas on the outskirts of big cities, who historically backed the political left.
Winning back working class suburban voters and swaying moderates in the southeast will be key if Lula is to return to Brazil’s Palácio da Alvorada, said Richmond, of the London School of Economics.
Regardless of who wins next month, Bolsonaro has altered Brazil’s longstanding political dynamics, said Richmond, consolidating a far-right movement which will probably outlast his time in office.
“Lula or someone representing a centre-left alliance with conservative institutional actors will occupy that other side,” he said. “The previous politics of the centre-left and centre-right battling it out and respecting democracy is over for now.”
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