Brazil election: Candidates are familiar, citizens have changed

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
Former Brazilian President and current presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva greets supporters during a rally in Curitiba, Brazil, Sept. 17, 2022. Nearly a dozen candidates are running in Brazil’s Oct. 2 election, but only two stand a chance of reaching a runoff: Lula and incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro.
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Four years after taking a gamble on right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, many Brazilians feel their president hasn’t delivered the transformation they’d hoped for their country.

On Oct. 2, they head to the ballot boxes, and are expected to elect leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The move is in part driven by nostalgia for an era when Lula, as he’s referred to, was last in charge, and Brazil was flush with commodity cash and viewed globally as a rising star. But it also has to do with changed attitudes inside Brazil.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Voters around the world have rejected the status quo in recent years. In 2018, Brazil selected populist Jair Bolsonaro. But four years later, his divisive reelection bid underscores just how much Brazilians – and what they seek in a leader – have changed.

Some of the anger and frustration voters espoused four years ago stemmed from charges of corruption against Lula and his Workers’ Party that have since been discredited. Lula’s claims of innocence are now seen in a fresh light, and people are questioning whether Mr. Bolsonaro is really the clean outsider running against a corrupt establishment, as he claimed four years ago. 

Lula “gained in credibility” over the past four years, says Samara Castro, a lawyer who studies political disinformation. Now, he and his party “are able to transmit a sense of hope of a more democratic future.”

This year’s election season in Brazil has been marked by a series of small but exceptional events that go a long way in explaining the divisions heaving Brazil as it heads to the polls Sunday. The ballot pits far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who has been described as the Trump of South America, against leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was a darling of Latin America progressives before he served jail time.

This month alone, a left-wing candidate for Congress canvassing for votes was threatened by an armed man with opposing political views; some 10 pollsters across eight states were followed and harassed after inquiring about voter intentions; and a state deputy from Mr. Bolsonaro’s ruling party physically harassed a well-known journalist and proudly published the video on social media.

While these aggressions were reported to come from Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters, the animosity is widespread, and highlights the deep societal distrust that has flourished over the past four years under the leadership of the former army captain. These incidents also underscore some of the reasons Brazilians are polling in favor of the former president, known simply as Lula, despite his fall from grace after two back-to-back terms a decade ago.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Voters around the world have rejected the status quo in recent years. In 2018, Brazil selected populist Jair Bolsonaro. But four years later, his divisive reelection bid underscores just how much Brazilians – and what they seek in a leader – have changed.

Four years after taking a gamble on the populist, divisive approach of Mr. Bolsonaro, many feel he has not delivered the transformation they’d hoped for their country, and they now look set to elect Lula, in part driven by nostalgia for an era flush with commodity cash and global regard for the nation as a rising star.

“Four years ago, people were embarrassed to say they supported the PT,” says Samara Castro, a lawyer who studies political disinformation, referring to Lula’s Workers’ Party. “Now, the PT, and principally Lula, are able to transmit a sense of hope of a more democratic future.”

Seeking credibility

The Oct. 2 ballot is one of the most bitter in decades, and themes of violence and civility are central to the polarization. The worries aren’t all new in a country with 2.7% of the world’s population and 20% of its homicides. But they are particularly visible in an election cycle that, from the very start, was dominated by an anger channeled by Mr. Bolsonaro into his upstart campaign.

In fact, his road to the presidency was marked, and in some ways helped, by his intemperate outbursts. Even before winning in 2018, he joked about strafing Workers’ Party members with a machine gun, compared Afro-Brazilians to livestock, and told one congresswoman she didn’t deserve to be raped – because she wasn’t good looking.

When Brazilians went to the polls in 2018, enough were prepared to overlook those obloquies, or found his lack of political correctness refreshing, in large part because Mr. Bolsonaro was not Lula (who wasn’t even on the ballot). Anger with Lula, who served from 2003 to 2010, and his Workers’ Party, were so strong that Mr. Bolsonaro beat his PT opponent in a runoff with 55% of the vote.

Anger among Brazilians has not abated in the years since, but its focus has shifted. Four years ago, Brazilians were outraged at the Car Wash operation, a massive corruption investigation that led to prison sentences for Lula and other members of the political and business elite. Mass protests were regular events, Lula’s protégé was impeached, and citizens demanded change.

But when judges were shown to have colluded with prosecutors to prejudice the former president, he was released from prison. The lead judge in the case was picked by Mr. Bolsonaro to be his justice minister, causing further division. Lula’s claims of innocence were seen in a fresh light, and people began to question whether Mr. Bolsonaro was really the clean outsider running against a corrupt establishment, as he claimed.

Over the past four years, “the Car Wash operation was totally discredited,” says Ms. Castro. “And then there was a string of scandals involving the Bolsonaro government and his family. Lula was released, which meant that he gained in credibility.”

Eraldo Peres/AP
A demonstrator dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag performs in front of a street vendor's towels for sale featuring Brazilian presidential candidates, current President Jair Bolsonaro (center) and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in Brasília, Brazil, Sept. 27, 2022.

“What is at stake”

Hope has long been a central plank of Lula’s political thinking. A former factory worker who lost three presidential elections in a row before finally winning in 2002, he famously declared that victory proved “hope had overcome fear.”

For optimists – amid a struggling economy, pandemic mismanagement that claimed more than 685,000 Brazilian lives, and Mr. Bolsonaro’s shocking and sometimes vulgar speaking style – Lula is an easy sell. He’s painted himself as someone who can return competence and decency to the highest office.

“You are going to have to make a decision,” he said in a last-minute campaign video. “What Brazil do you want? A Brazil of love or a Brazil of hate? A Brazil of goodness or a Brazil of nastiness? A Brazil of truth or a Brazil of lies? The choice is in your hands.”

Polls give him a double-digit lead over Mr. Bolsonaro. If no candidate wins a majority on Sunday, there will be a runoff on Oct. 30.

It’s not just a tough economy and divided society at home that have Brazilians seeking change this election. Many feel the nation’s international reputation has been tarnished over the past four years.

While for more than a decade Brazil was seen as a rising leader on the world stage, emphasizing South-South cooperation, hosting the World Cup and the Olympic Games, and serving as a poster child for the so-called BRICS emerging economies, Mr. Bolsonaro took a step back from traditional diplomacy. He’s insulted the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, suggested U.S. movie star and philanthropist Leonardo DiCaprio funded arson attacks in the Amazon, waited six weeks to congratulate Joe Biden on his presidential victory in 2020, and flew to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin the week before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Under Mr. Bolsonaro’s watch, deforestation in the Amazon has shot up, hitting a record high in the first half of 2022. He cut funding for key government agencies, encouraging illegal loggers, ranchers, and miners to pour into the region. And invasions of Indigenous land have almost tripled since he came to power.

Mr. Bolsonaro has also encouraged Brazilians to arm themselves, and the number of weapons in circulation has shot up 474% since 2018, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety.

Divisions have grown so intense between Mr. Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters, estimated at a quarter to a third of the population, and those who oppose him that many candidates feel they can’t go out and meet voters for fear of political violence.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s backers attacked Lula’s rallies, twice throwing excrement or crude bombs into the crowd, and in two separate attacks men shouting pro-Bolsonaro slogans shot and killed Workers’ Party voters.

“That is what is at stake,” says Ana Julia Bernardi, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul who studies political culture and disinformation. “This election will decide whether people want politics at gunpoint.”

Hope for democracy?

But there’s reason for optimism, says Mônica Sodré, executive director of the Network for Political Action on Sustainability. She sees a growing appreciation for democracy in Brazil.

In 2017, as Mr. Bolsonaro was rising to power, just shy of 20% of Brazilians agreed strongly with the statement “Democracy is better than any other form of government,” according to the Latin America Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University. By 2021, that figure rose to 43%. 

“More than 65% [of Brazilians] say arming the population won’t resolve its problems,” said Ms. Sodré, according to a study published by her organization.

Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly questioned the integrity of the vote in the lead-up to this weekend’s election, implying that anything short of his own victory will be contested and considered fraud. But according to Ms. Sodré, almost 90% of Brazilians polled by her organization say the winner of the election has to take power in January. She believes respect for institutions is on the rise.

“Despite all the attacks on the integrity of the vote,” she says, “Brazilians still believe in democracy.”

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