Brazil election: why was Sunday’s result so disappointing for the left?

The Guardian
The Guardian

Brazil’s left went into Sunday’s election hoping for an outright majority for their candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva over Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right figure who has been Brazil’s president for the last four years.

At the very least, they hoped for a commanding margin and a sense of momentum going into a runoff between the two. And progressives around the world were watching for an emphatic repudiation of Bolsonaro’s presidency that would signal that the forces of extremism were in retreat. But it hasn’t worked out that way .

Instead, Lula won 48% of votes, roughly in line with polls – but Bolsonaro did much better than expected, taking 43%, and his supporters also outperformed polls in state and senate races. Lula is expected to take most votes from the minor candidates who now drop out, and should be favourite to win in the second round on 30 October – but the road to victory looks rockier than it did on Sunday. The stakes could hardly be higher.
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro trample on a flag carrying the face of his rival, Lula. Photograph: Wagner Meier/Getty Images

So what just happened? And why does the result matter so much, for Brazil and for the world? We look at six key questions after the first round of voting with our Latin America correspondent Tom Phillips.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – widely known as Lula – is the charismatic leader of the PT (Workers’ party), the dominant left-of-centre force in Brazilian politics. His presidency from 2003-2010 is remembered by many in the country as an era of economic growth and declining inequality. In 2018, when he was unable to run because of a corruption conviction that has since been overturned , the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro came to power .

Backed by Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, Bolsonaro has arguably been as cartoonishly incompetent and malevolent a figure as either – presiding over the devastation of the Amazon , massive increases in poverty, and the deaths of more than 685,000 Brazilians from coronavirus.

“The mood among his opponents had been one of cautious optimism,” said Tom Phillips. “It’s been quite emotional for them – the idea that Bolsonaro’s presidency could be over, or nearly over. It’s been a long slog. They feel that so much damage has been done.”

What happened on Sunday?

The catharsis that Lula’s supporters had hoped for failed to materialise. “It’s massively dispiriting for the left,” said Tom. “And really surprising – not in terms of Lula’s vote, which is in line with what everyone thought, but in terms of Bolsonaro’s, which is significantly higher. The pollsters got that badly wrong. I went to Lula’s rally, and people were crying, or in a state of shock.”

That mood of disappointment for the left was heightened by victory for Bolsonaro’s allies in 19 of the 27 available Senate seats, as well as a strong showing in the lower house.

Bolsonaro’s former environment minister, who presided over huge increases in deforestation, won his congressional election; so did Eduardo Pazuello, the health minister who oversaw Brazil’s catastrophic handling of coronavirus at the height of the pandemic. “Nearly 700,000 people died here, and his management of Covid was demonstrably incompetent,” Tom said. “But that doesn’t seem to have impacted his support.”
Lula supporters shout slogans at the end of the general election day in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

What kind of a campaign has it been?

“It’s been pretty toxic,” Tom said. “I first covered an election here in 2006, and I’ve never seen this level of bitterness before. Bolsonaro treats elections as wars. A lot of people on the left have been frightened – one Lula supporter said to me on Saturday that it’s the first time in my life I’ve been scared to put a sticker on my car.”

Those fears are not idle: a Lula supporter was brutally murdered by a Bolsonaro supporter last month , one of a string of violent attacks by supporters of a candidate who has demanded leftists “be eradicated from public life”. And the murders in June of Guardian contributor Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira have also come at a time when Bolsonaro has made relentless verbal attacks on advocates for the rainforest.

Lula has sought to frame his campaign as the strongest possible contrast with that of Bolsonaro, and his message of unity is just one of the ways the race has echoed the Trump-Biden contest in the US of 2020. On Sunday, he told reporters: “We want no more hatred, no more quarrelling, we want a country that lives in peace.”

How important is this election for Brazil?

The vote comes against a backdrop of terrible damage during Bolsonaro’s presidency, as this piece from Tom yesterday made clear. Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies and contempt for any obligation to protect the worst-off have left Brazil facing a cost of living crisis and a lurch to the right on social issues.

While Bolsonaro authorised a welfare package worth billions of dollars during the campaign, he has also promised to privatise the state-owned oil company, pass pro-gun legislation, cut corporation taxes, and toughen restrictions on abortion.

One voter told Tom: “So many of the advances that took decades to achieve have been destroyed over the last four years.”

What does it mean for the Amazon?

Under Bolsonaro’s presidency, the destruction of Brazil’s rainforest reached a record high in the first half of this year; Lula has promised to put a stop to the deforestation. That is of global importance given the Amazon’s role as a store for carbon dioxide.

Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s environment editor, wrote on Friday that almost a million hectares of the Amazon have been burned in the last year, with fires at their highest level in a decade. “Bolsonaro has dragged Brazil back to the wild west days we thought we’d left behind,” one expert told him. “It’s no exaggeration, then, to say that the Amazon’s fate rests on the outcome of our election.”

While the identity of the next president remains crucial, last night’s results appear to be bad news for advocates for the rainforest whatever happens. Jonathan Watts, the Guardian’s global environment editor and former Latin America correspondent, noted on Twitter that congressional success for Bolsonaro’s supporters will make it hard for Lula to pass Amazon protection legislation even if he wins.

Was this result a repudiation of Bolsonaro?

Lula has drawn support from a broad coalition of voters. “A lot of the people who’ve voted for him are not leftists,” said Tom. “People in the centre and on the centre right viewed this as an emergency election. They want a hard stop to this period, and hopefully next time a normal election with normal candidates.”

That looks further away now. Cas Mudde, a leading expert on populism and the radical right, wrote in a sobering thread on Twitter last night that the result was the “worst possible Lula victory”, and that while he still expects Lula to prevail, the margin is likely to be small – or could be reversed if anything unexpected happens that favours Bolsonaro in the next few weeks.

Comparing the prospect of a Bolsonaro defeat to Trump’s in the US, he said that both men would have lost “very narrowly, and mostly because of a freak cause (the pandemic) … moreover, based on US experience, expect the right to further radicalise rather than moderate. And to be very competitive again in four years.”

What happens next?

Bolsonaro has long been planting the seeds of election denialism: “He’s been paving the way for the ‘big lie’ for years,” Tom said. In July, as one example, he made baseless claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system was vulnerable to subversion. The fact that the result now looks likely to be narrower than expected even if Lula wins “significantly increases the credibility of [the] “stolen elections” narrative among Bolsonaro supporters and thus the possibility of post-electoral violence,” Mudde wrote.

Many in Brazil are fearful that Bolsonaro may stoke an anti-democratic mood among his supporters – though, perhaps scenting the possibility of a revival, he was noticeably quieter on his baseless fraud claims last night than he has recently been. “I don’t think we quite know what happens now,” Tom said. “If he does lose, there are people who fear a January 6 style assault on government institutions. And the most radical of his supporters are in many cases armed.”

It’s worth emphasising that Lula remains the favourite – and that while Bolsonaro did better than expected, he is still the first sitting Brazilian president to go into a second round running behind since the 1980s. But after a deflating night for progressives, predictions about what might happen after a Lula victory risk being premature. “If people thought Bolsonaro and Bolsonarism were down and out they were wrong,” Tom said. “The far right is absolutely here to stay.”

• This article was amended on 4 October 2022 to correctly refer to Jair Bolsonaro as a far-right figure rather than “a figurehead” as an earlier version said.

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