Brazilians head to the polls on Sunday in perhaps the country’s most consequential elections in a generation. On the ballot will be the presidency, one third of the senate, all of the lower chamber, state governors and state legislatures. But the stakes are far higher than a simple accounting of winners and losers. As in much of the world, there is significant demand for change in Brazil, amid rising polarization, economic woes and a pandemic that has killed more than 686,000 Brazilians. In a presidential race that is as much about the past as it is about the future, the tense contest will also test the country’s commitment to democracy.
State of the Race
Nothing is certain in politics, but the presidential race has proven stable in recent months – and with just two days left before the election, the window for a sudden shift is closing fast. The latest figures suggest that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, polling at roughly 46 percent, will win the largest share of the vote on Sunday. President Jair Bolsonaro, polling at approximately 34 percent, will likely secure enough votes to force a runoff on October 30. The other candidates, including Ciro Gomes and Simone Tebet, poll in the single digits.
There is a chance that Lula could pull off a first-round victory.”
With roughly 80 percent of Brazilians firmly decided on their preference, there is a chance that Lula could pull off a first-round victory. To avoid a second round, Brazilian election law requires a candidate to secure more than 50 percent of valid votes. Notably, Lula has pulled slightly ahead in much of the Southeast except Rio de Janeiro, a region that voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 by a margin of 15.3 million votes in the first round. In short, the president faces a problematic electoral map.
If 2018 was an anti-establishment election – in which voters expressed deep frustration with corruption and poor governance, and Bolsonaro campaigned as a straight talking outsider – this year is a more traditional anti-incumbent dynamic. Voters are focused on the president’s performance, and the reviews are not positive. According to a recent IPEC survey, 59 percent of voters disapprove of how Bolsonaro has governed. Similarly, a recent Quaest/Genial poll found that only 31 percent of voters had a positive image of the government.
Bolsonaro’s unfavorable ratings held even as the economy improved.”
Interestingly, Bolsonaro’s unfavorable ratings held even as the economy improved in recent months. That was partly due to the unequal distribution of economic ups and downs, with higher-income Brazilians more likely to experience the modest economic recovery. Among those who say the economy has improved, more than two-thirds intend to vote for Bolsonaro. However, two-thirds of Brazilians say the economy has remained the same or worsened over the past year. That sentiment is particularly strong among lower-income Brazilians. Inflation has fallen in the last two months, but much of that decline reflects dropping fuel prices. Food remains expensive, and concerns over hunger are growing.
Thirty-eight percent of voters cite inflation, unemployment and economic crisis as Brazil’s main problems, and another 22 percent point to social welfare concerns such as hunger. Although worries about the economy have declined recently, social welfare concerns have grown. Even more worrisome for the Bolsonaro campaign, voters seem to regard the government’s efforts to reduce inflation and boost household incomes as political ploys rather than meaningful social policy.
Lula’s campaign has leaned heavily on economic nostalgia.”
At the same time, Lula’s campaign has leaned heavily on economic nostalgia. Lula governed from 2003 to 2010 during a global commodities boom. He left behind a legacy of social policies unique in Brazilian history. Poverty fell from 27 percent to just 15 percent, and economic growth averaged 4 percent – hitting nearly 8 percent in 2010, Lula’s last year in office. One of Lula’s campaign jingles is titled, “Tô com saudade do tempo de Lula” (“I miss the Lula years”). It’s an ode to the past, when “people had gas in their cars and meat on their plates.” For many Brazilians, Lula’s two terms were the first time they could afford a television, a refrigerator or a car. A return to those good old days is at the heart of Lula’s argument for reelection.
Stress Test of Brazilian Democracy
There is another explanation for Lula’s strong showing in the polls: concern over the state of democracy in Brazil. The incumbent has long been known for defending Brazil’s military dictatorship. His term has involved constant tension between the branches of government – especially between the president and the courts. For many months, Bolsonaro has sought to undermine confidence in Brazil’s electronic voting system and given mixed signals about whether he would accept an electoral defeat.
At the same time, support for democracy in Brazil is at its highest since pollster Datafolha began asking the question in 1989. Seventy-five percent of Brazilians say democracy is the best form of government, compared to 70 percent last year and 62 percent in 2019. Support for a military regime has fallen from 12 percent in 2019 to just 7 percent last month. These results suggest little appetite for an outright rupture, although there is a risk of protests and political violence if Bolsonaro loses – particularly as much of his base no longer trusts Brazil’s electronic voting system.
However, even if Brazil’s election goes smoothly, there are longer-term threats to its democracy. Perhaps the most significant is Brazil’s failure to address the many struggles ordinary Brazilians face. Despite poor quality public education, an underfunded health system, weak economic productivity and corruption, political parties appear more focused on maintaining power than improving governance.
This will prove a tough assignment for Lula should he return to the presidency. Support for his Workers’ Party is low; although it is expected to gain seats in congress, the conservative Centrão coalition will likely retain its dominance, with lawmakers from the right and center-right holding a majority of seats. With many Lula votes reflecting anti-Bolsonaro sentiment, Lula would confront daunting challenges without a solid mandate.
About the Author
Latin America Program
The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action. Read more
The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors. Read more