More than support for the candidates, it seems that voters’ rejection of Bolsonaro or Lula will decide the presidential elections.
A ‘country-continent’ with 215 million inhabitants, twice the size of the European Union and the leading power in Latin America. This is Brazil, a federal republic with a presidential system made up of 26 states plus the Federal District. On 2 October, 156.4 million Brazilians over the age of 16 will be able to vote in elections for the presidency of the Republic, one-third of the Senate, the entire Chamber of Deputies, and state governments plus their respective legislative assemblies. The combination of federal and state elections, with 32 contending parties, involves multiple negotiations and coalitions: for example, state candidates are being traded in exchange for support for presidential candidates.
The presidential election campaign is polarised between the tandems formed by Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party) with General Braga Netto and by Lula da Silva (Partido dos Trabalhadores) with Geraldo Alckmin (Partido Socialista Brasileiro), the latter defeated by Lula in 2006. Of the remaining nine candidates, the tandem of Ciro Gomes and Ana Paula Matos (both from the Partido Democrático Trabalhista) barely reached 8% in the polls.
In the latest polls, there is a rapprochement between the two front-runners, with Lula having 44% of the support and Bolsonaro 35%. Seventy percent of voters say they have decided their vote, with 55% rejecting Bolsonaro and 44% rejecting Lula, which could be a determining factor in the second round on 30 October. This has led to a kind of highly personalized reversed elections between the two leaders: the priority is not who gets more support, but who gets less rejection. The country’s pressing problems are not at the heart of the debate. The dichotomy of the effective vote in the first round is painful for those citizens disappointed with the current government, but who have lost confidence in the Partido dos Trabalhadores governments due to corruption scandals. President Bolsonaro’s strategy is very much focused on social media and with great support from the outside far-right, a formula that was successful in 2018, while Lula’s campaign on social media is much less developed. Disinformation by replacing data with fabricated stories has increased dramatically compared to the last elections.
Support for Bolsonaro is stronger among evangelical sectors (some presenting the elections as a choice between good and evil), but weaker among young people and women despite his wife Michele’s involvement in the campaign. Bolsonaro has support from three parties and is strongest in the states of the Midwest and South, with Lula having support from nine parties and being strongest in the Northeast. The states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais in the more populous Southeast region are considered key. Part of the Bolsonaro government’s erosion is also based on its environmental and scientific denialism. In addition to the refusal to host the COP25 climate summit that was scheduled to take place in Brazil, the 21% increase in the deforestation of the Amazon in the last year and the negligent management of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have also been large cuts in the federal budgets for education, science and research. More than 140 requests for the president’s impeachment were formally registered during the legislature without any of these processes being initiated by the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies.
The president is trying to close the gap with support for the poorest population (33.1 million do not have three meals a day and urban poverty stands at 23.7%). With this objective in mind, the government approved a constitutional amendment in Congress -which is against the law during the election period- increasing monthly subsidies for the August-December period of the Auxílio Brasil programme from 400 to 600 reais (115 euros) for some 27 million vulnerable families, as well as favoring truck drivers and taxi drivers with fuel vouchers. This electioneering gamble of 41.25 billion reais (7.86 billion euros) was inspired by the fact that the 2021 hike in the Auxílio Emergencial increased the president’s popularity by 5% in just one month. This strategy is supported by the current artificial deflation due to the reduction in fuel prices through the elimination of fuel taxes, from which the states benefit.
Bolsonaro has also stepped up his attacks on the electronic voting system, making repeated accusations of planned fraud with the electronic ballot boxes used since 1996, which have international prestige and have been audited several times. In this vein, the president invited the diplomatic corps to his residence in Brasilia and, in front of the representatives of 72 countries, disqualified the democratic institutions in his own country, accused the Brazilian electoral system of fraud, making underhand threats of a coup d’état in a barely veiled manner and accusing members of the Superior Electoral Court of plotting his defeat. His abuse of the international community for domestic purposes was countered by the fact that the US and other countries defended the Brazilian electoral system as being exemplary. YouTube and other digital platforms subsequently removed the video of the presentation.
The repeated attacks by Bolsonaro appear to be aimed at sowing doubt and undermining confidence in the election, ahead of an alleged conspiracy to defeat him through the electronic ballot box, and even receiving possible sanctions from the Supreme Electoral Court that would justify his conspiracy theories and could trigger an uprising. However, these actions by the president have been widely disapproved, and several institutions such as the Senate issued communiqués in support of the institutions.
On 11 August, both the letter in defense of the democratic rule of law (“Estado de Direito sempre”) based on the historic letter of the same day in 1977 against the dictatorship (“Estado de Direito já”), and the manifesto launched by the Federation of Industries of São Paulo, which produce 50% of Brazil’s GDP, and signed by more than 100 entities, including the Brazilian Federation of Banks, were read throughout the country.
Notable is the statement made in Brasilia by US Defence Secretary General Lloyd Austin in favor of the rule of law, in which he affirmed that the military must submit to civilian control, and he conditioned military cooperation within a democratic framework. This US position reflects the correlation between the policies of its former president Trump and Bolsonaro’s actions, as well as the interest in strengthening ties with Brazil’s next government, a partner disputed by Russia (Brazilian neutrality in the war in Ukraine) and China.
The role of the army
The Armed Forces’ official position remains the defense of the Constitution, but their leaders’ actions towards the president’s authoritarian guidelines are ambiguous. While Bolsonaro announced that he will use the army to impose transparency, his defense minister presented plans in the Senate for a military audit of election results, which the army intends to carry out in parallel with the electronic ballots. The army has also started an audit of the electronic voting system’s software. The strong reaction of civil society against any coup attempt and the clear US opposition to Bolsonaro’s positions are still keeping the most radical elements in check.
The commemoration of Brazil’s bicentenary of independence on 7 September has become an electoral propaganda event for the president, with speeches of coup-plotting horizons incompatible with the historical significance of the bicentenary and with calls on social networks for military intervention and the closure of the Constitutional Court. Bolsonaro unlawfully appropriated the parade of the armed forces as an instrument of his electoral campaign. It will be recalled that on the same commemorative date in 2021, a coup attempt in the Constitutional Court was narrowly foiled.
Growing political instability
The Superior Electoral Court is reinforcing its systems against hacker attacks, including the transmission of constituency election results. The threat of a democratic rupture has made some sectors that initially sympathized with the president uncomfortable. Faced with the risk of institutional chaos and economic instability, several actors have had to reposition themselves, and part of the Brazilian elites and industry that supported Bolsonaro four years ago now fear that political regression will isolate and penalize the country politically and economically.
There are fears that the president will not recognize the results of the electronic ballot boxes and declare himself the winner anyway. His accusation of ballot box fraud could lead to clashes, justify rebellions or the self-coup that he himself announced in the event of an alleged conspiracy against him. Even if the president were to suffer a defeat in October, there would still be a risk of institutional rupture before the new government takes office on the first day of January. Nor would it rule out a possible uprising by extreme militia members and fanatics.
Brazil is currently considered to be the main platform of the international extreme right that supports his re-election. Bolsonaro stated the day after the events at the US Capitol that Brazil would be in bigger trouble without the paper ballot. Federal police have warned that gun registrations during this legislature have increased almost five-fold.
If Bolsonaro finds that he cannot win or force an institutional rupture, his resignation could be a softer scenario. In this regard, there is currently an attempt in Congress, with members of the Centrão -parties with no clear ideological identity that support the government- to force a constitutional amendment to shield former presidents of the republic as senators for life, i.e., maintaining their immunity position. The president and his family also now face numerous judicial processes related to interference in the federal police and digital militias, among others.
Nothing is yet decided, and the level of aggression, violence, disinformation, and unpredictability will increase significantly in the second round, in which the voting percentages of both camps will then be very close. The shocking events that took place just before the previous elections, such as the death of candidate Eduardo Campos (PSB) in a plane crash in 2014 and the attempt on Bolsonaro’s life in 2018, are not forgotten. Beyond Brazil’s image and international reputation, these elections are crucial for its institutions and democratic system, which appear to be in grave danger. As the song Meu Caro Amigo by Chico Buarque says, “a coisa aqui tá preta” (it looks bad here…).
Dr. Alejandro Zurita is a nuclear engineer. He was minister counselor on science, technology, and innovation of the European Union in Brazil (2016-2020).
(A previous version of this article was published in ‘Alternativas Económicas’ no.105 – Barcelona, September 2022).