Skip to main content

Where is Brazil Headed? - The Future of Democracy After the Presidential Elections

By Maria Paula Angel Benavides

On the October 2 general elections in Brazil, the presidency was one of the popularly elected positions. The candidate who obtained more than 50% of the votes would have been the winner. No one succeeded. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva attained 48.4%, while incumbent Jair Bolsonaro got 43.2%. Thus, Brazilians will have to return to the polls. October 30 will be a decisive date for their future. 

Juliana Cesario Alvim Gomes (Visiting Professor at the CEU Legal Studies Department, and Human Rights Professor at Federal University of Minas Gerais), Claudio Goncalves Couto (Adjunct Professor at the Department of Public Management at FGV EAESP), and Thiago de Souza Amparo (Professor at FGV Sao Paulo Law School and at FGV International Relations) met with our Co-Director Renata Uitz in a panel discussion to analyze these results and discuss the prospects for democracy in the country.

According to Claudio Couto, the predictions were not entirely accurate. For instance, they were somehow right about Lula but not about Bolsonaro. The latter ended up being 5 points behind the leftist candidate, although polls said he could trail by 10. Why did this happen? There were methodological problems, he argued. One related to Brazil's census being out of date, which made it even harder to predict voting patterns. The other linked to the fact that

many people refused to participate in the polls or said they would not vote for Bolsonaro but ended up doing it.

Even though Lula had more votes, Bolsonaro was the real winner, the panelists argued. To begin with, his party (PL) got a large number of seats in both chambers of Congress (Federal Senate and Chamber of Deputies). Also, many of his people have already won the governorships or are likely to do so in the runoff. His candidate for Sao Paulo is one of them. 

In this election, Lula was finally able to return to the political scene. As stated by Juliana Cesario Alvim, the former president had to overcome the narrative of the 2018 elections, mostly related to the Lava Jato Scandal. Although he was convicted and imprisoned under charges of passive corruption and money laundering, he was acquitted. He left the presidency in 2010 with a popularity rating of over 80%. Dilma Rousseff, impeached in her second term, succeeded him. Her government was unpopular and controversial. 

In the opinion of Thiago Amparo, Bolsonaro is a contradiction in several ways.

He says he is an outsider, but he is not.

He has the support of the traditional political class, the economic elite, the armed forces, and the most conservative and religious sectors. He represents the far right, and leaders such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban back him. His performance as president has been described as poor by many. Economic indicators are not in his favor, nor are many others (including those related to his handling of the pandemic). He is not very keen on institutions and has very controversial views on torture and dictatorship. 

According to polls, women prefer Lula over Bolsonaro. The latter has been accused of misogyny and wielding rhetoric against women. Recently, he uttered derogatory statements about a female journalist in a debate: "I think you go to sleep thinking about me. You have a crush on me." This episode affected his performance negatively but wasn’t a decisive factor.

He proclaims traditional family values and is against abortion. His discourse in this regard is very religious. Some, like Juliana Cesario Alvim, believe his speech will radicalize in the second round. Others, like Amparo, suspect it will moderate. Anyway,

to ensure victory, both he and Lula must get the votes of the undecided or capture some votes of their contenders.

The panelists also emphasized that during this reelection campaign, Bolsonaro’s wife stepped into the spotlight to increase his appeal to women and solidify his religious base. It was not like that in 2018, when she was on the sidelines. 

The difference in votes was considerable, the panelist argued. Lula got five million more votes than Bolsonaro. To reach the necessary 50%, the former president must get 1.6% more, which is about two million votes. It seems like he has reasonable chances of winning. On the other hand, the incumbent must obtain 6.8% more. So he must get at least seven million additional votes.

Bolsonaro does not have it easy in the second round. However, as stated by Couto, the traditional political class, represented by ideological (ultra-conservative and far-right) and pragmatic (allies of the government who seek to maintain the status quo) sectors, support him. In addition, the entrepreneurial class (with income and wealth) and the armed sectors (both military and civilian) have his back. 

In contrast, Lula seeks to move towards the center while finding new ways of vocalizing the demands of the left he represents. Despite the anguish and violence experienced in Brazil, his followers have taken the streets to reclaim the narrative. They refused to being intimidated. 

The electoral justice supervises the elections. Spreading fake news and misinformation, Bolsonaro raised doubts about the Supreme Court and other entities, as well as the electronic electoral system. According to Amparo,

looking for an enemy to target and demonizing the judiciary was his strategy, since the institutional resistance to his government is significant. 

Political violence was also a big concern during the elections, the panelists mentioned. Before this campaign, it was more directed to candidates, but now it is to voters. Nevertheless, this fear did not affect the results: people went to vote.

Bolsonaro is a relevant figure for the worldwide extreme right, because, as Couto argued, he governs a country with geopolitical importance and a large economy. He has the support of leaders from liberal (United States, Italy) and illiberal democracies (Hungary, Poland). On the other hand, Lula has a different type of supporters. In any case, if he wins, he will have to compromise. Brazil is highly polarized, and Bolsonarism is going strong.

Watch the discussion:

Video URL