Brazil can lose even if Lula wins

Brazil will elect its new president today. The presidential race is very tight between the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaroand the candidate, the former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Lula won the first round of elections on October 3 by 5.23 percentage points and was less than 3% away from securing victory in the first round. The fact that no presidential candidate trailing in the first round won the general election favors Lula. However, his supporters should note that, at the same time, since 1998 every incumbent candidate has won re-election.

Bolsonaro and Lula flags during the electoral campaign in Brazil.

Wesley Marcellin


These elections are marked by polarization and fear. They are the most divisive in the history of Brazil. The concern and anxiety about the future of the country is not limited only to the electorate, but to Brazil’s international allies around the world.

The last presidential debate, on October 15, exacerbated these sentiments. Lula, as expected, came out strong in the first part, criticizing Bolsonaro for his management of the pandemic, and how the president encouraged hoaxes about the disease and delayed the procurement and distribution of life-saving vaccines

However, as the debate progressed, Lula lost strength. He did not mention that Bolsonaro has consistently discredited Brazil’s electoral process, including his call to abolish Brazil’s Supreme Court. In the final moments, Bolsonaro took the initiative, taking advantage of the fact that Lula had given him seven minutes to speak freely without interruption.

[Tensión entre Lula y Bolsonaro en su último debate antes de las elecciones de Brasil]

The president hurled baseless accusations of corruption at his rival. He then dodged suspicions over his own “secret budget,” a fund that has given members of the Brazilian Congress access to more than $44 million in anonymous public grants.

Bolsonaro, however, focused on unraveling his ultraconservative agenda. Namely, the protection of the traditional heterosexual family, the prohibition of the right to abortion and the right of the population to bear arms. He also bragged about being a Christian and accused Lula of being anti-religious (despite the fact that Lula was the one who created the religious freedom law).

“Opinion polls in the first round found that Bolsonaro’s support was actually 10 percentage points higher than initially thought”

All of this made it clear that the president was not just targeting his base, far-right sympathizers, evangelicals, conservative women, and a large proportion of middle- to upper-class white men. but also to Embarrassed Bolsonarists [bolsonaristas avergonzados]. That is, voters who support the president, but who they dare not declare his true intentions to the pollsters.

This constituency of voters, and their hesitation to publicly commit to voting for Bolsonaro, has risen to prominence after opinion polls in the first round found that Bolsonaro’s support was actually 10 percentage points higher than initially thought. . Bolsonaro’s rehashing of 2018 campaign promises during this debate can also be interpreted as a nod to the repentant group of Bolsonarista voters who helped elect him then but have come to disapprove of his mandate.

Much of the concern about the Brazilian elections also centers on whether Bolsonaro will accept a legitimate Lula victory this Sunday. When the results of the first round came out, Bolsonaro said that “he has never lost an election and that is not going to happen now.”

In an interview on TV Record on September 29, he presented himself without evidence as a victim of the Supreme Electoral Court, but said he would respect the election results “if the elections are clean.” Remains to be seen whether it will respect the result of today’s vote.

“Many Bolsonarist senators and governors elected on October 2 will work to block the implementation of Lula’s electoral promises”

But clearly, his campaign has cast doubt on the legitimacy of Brazil’s electoral process. In the presidential debate, Bolsonaro concluded by declaring that he wants Brazil to be “a free country”, understood as free from “gender ideology”, drugs and abortion. Lula responded by calling Bolsonaro a “tiny dictator” who cares little for the 33 million Brazilians living in extreme poverty.

Voters who want to remove Bolsonaro from office are convinced that attacks on civil rights, minority groups, environmental problems and the democratic fabric of Brazil will continue if he is re-elected.

Given his strategy of promoting division, they fear that he could take note of Trump’s style and incite an insurrection, similar to the one that took place in the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. The Bolsonaristas’ penchant for fake news and the spread of political violence that has spread across the country during the president’s tenure mean that such a scenario cannot be ruled out.

[Opinión: Si pierde Bolsonaro, es probable un ‘asalto al Capitolio’ en Brasil]

The fact that gun ownership in Brazil has increased by three points between 2019 and 2021, and that gun owners generally align themselves with Bolsonaro and his political ambitions, implies that this Sunday’s election and its immediate aftermath could be a powder keg for democracy in Brazil.

Even if the vote goes smoothly, and Bolsonaro is defeated and accepts the result, Brazil will still have a long way to go in his rehabilitation.

On the one hand, Lula will have to deal with a Congress of the opposite political sign. Not to mention the many Bolsonarista senators and governors who were elected on October 2 and who will work to block the implementation of their promises to protect the environment, defend the rights of minorities, support education, strengthen the public health system and grow the economy.

It may be that Lula wins, and that there will be a peaceful transition of power. However, the legacy and shadow of Bolsonarism, and the division it has sown in Brazilian society, will not disappear immediately.

*** Vânia Penha-Lopes is a researcher at the Washington Brazil Office and author of the book The presidential elections of Trump and Bolsonaro, white men and the nation.

Brazil can lose even if Lula wins