Brazil runoff shows depth of divisions – and heavy lift for next president

Bruna Prado/AP
Supporters of former President and candidate for reelection Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva participate in the plenary of popular committees, in Rio de Janeiro, Oct. 6, 2022. Lula will face current President Jair Bolsonaro in a runoff election Oct. 30.
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Pollsters got it wrong, again, when considering right-wing preferences – this time in Brazil. Incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro out-performed expectations in last weekend’s first-round vote, pushing what many thought would be an outright win for former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to a runoff on Oct. 30. But beyond a second-round vote, the results put Brazil’s deeply-entrenched divisions under the spotlight.

“We have a society that is very polarized,” says Vinicius Saragiotto Magalhães Do Valle, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo. “That’s going to remain, no matter who wins the second round.”

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Pollsters have repeatedly missed right-wing sentiments in projecting votes. In Brazil, the surprise success of Mr. Bolsonaro, and the upcoming runoff, underscore deeply entrenched divisions – and the need for unity.

Mr. Bolsonaro has fed off these divisions, analysts say, mobilizing his base over unfounded, preemptive allegations of voter fraud if he loses. But both candidates are realizing that to secure a victory, they need to build bridges and make concessions. Lula, as the former president is known, has spent the past week trying to build alliances with moderate politicians and parties, toning back promises to tax the rich in order to lift up the poor. Mr. Bolsonaro has zeroed in on poorer voters, typically part of Lula’s base, pledging broader welfare programming in the coming weeks.

“I think the shock of the first round will force people to go out and vote,” says Dr. Valle.

Larissa Santana looked on in disbelief last Sunday as the final vote tally flickered across the screen looming over a packed square in Rio de Janeiro’s historic center.

She, along with hundreds of Brazilians clad mostly in red, had flocked there expecting to celebrate the triumphant return to power of former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known more commonly as simply Lula. Instead, unexpected support for far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro forced the presidential elections to a competitive runoff, revealing a more divided Brazil than most previously understood.

“I never imagined a second round,” says Ms. Santana, a university student, wearing a shirt plastered with stickers of Lula’s face. “It’s a shock this many people still support Bolsonaro,” she says, referring to both his bombastic, often sexist, racist, and violent rhetoric, and the poor performance of the economy over the past four years that has plunged millions of Brazilians into poverty.

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Pollsters have repeatedly missed right-wing sentiments in projecting votes. In Brazil, the surprise success of Mr. Bolsonaro, and the upcoming runoff, underscore deeply entrenched divisions – and the need for unity.

Ms. Santana wasn’t the only one taken by surprise. Mr. Bolsonaro won 43% of the vote, outperforming polls that placed him a distant second. Lula drew 48%, landing in first place but falling short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff on Oct. 30.

Lula is still favored to win the presidency. But even if he is elected, Mr. Bolsonaro’s enduring popularity – along with the victories of many far-right candidates to congressional, senate, and gubernatorial posts – underscores an irrefutable consolidation of a far-right sentiment that pollsters and academics largely missed over the past four years.

“What this vote showed us is that ‘bolsonarismo’ is a really powerful and persistent force,” says Vinicius Saragiotto Magalhães Do Valle, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo. “It seems like it’s here to stay.”

For all the Bolsonaro critiques, Lula comes with his own baggage, still trying to shake off a corruption scandal that briefly landed him in prison in 2018. Brazil’s next president will face the overwhelming challenge of reconciling a deeply divided nation and winning the trust of voters with sharply conflicting visions for Brazil’s future.

“We have a society that is very polarized,” Dr. Valle says. “That’s going to remain, no matter who wins the second round.”

Whashington Alves/Reuters
President Jair Bolsonaro meets with businessmen from the Minas Gerais State Federation of Industries, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Oct. 6. Minas Gerais is Brazil's second-most populous state and considered key to winning the presidency.

Polarizing choices

A firebrand populist, Mr. Bolsonaro has styled himself after former U.S. President Donald Trump. The former Army captain says the political left represents a threat to “traditional values,” and he’s vowed to fight efforts to legalize abortion or to bring transgender bathrooms to schools. Such rhetoric has instilled fear in part of the population, while simultaneously winning him fans among conservatives, especially evangelical voters who now account for about a third of the population.

“Bolsonaro feeds off of these differences, he feeds off of demonizing ‘the other,’” says Dr. Valle. “This is what mobilizes his base.”

Still, many voters have grown frustrated with Mr. Bolsonaro, amid surging fuel and food prices that have made life harder for millions. The president has responded by spending heavily on welfare ahead of the elections.

For Rafaela Souza, a cook in Rio de Janeiro, the president hasn’t done enough to ease the economic pain of the working class. “I’m neither for nor against Bolsonaro,” she says. “But look at how expensive everything is, look at our salaries. It’s not fair.”

Last Sunday, she voted for Lula, and she plans to repeat that choice in the runoff. “When Lula was president, he helped the poor a lot. Things were easier for us.”

Lula was president from 2003 to 2010, a period marked by sky-high commodity prices that funded his social agenda, like the famous cash-transfer program Bolsa Familia, or the anti-hunger program Fome Zero. Millions of Brazilians are nostalgic for that golden era of prosperity and support. But a sprawling corruption scandal embroiled his leftist Workers’ Party (PT) and landed him in prison in 2018, making him a lightning rod for polarization.

A Supreme Court scrapped his conviction last year, ruling that the judge in the case had been biased. Despite clearing his name in court, millions of Brazilians can’t forget his fall from grace.

“Lula is a crook, all he did was rob our country,” says Paulo Henrique Duarte, a taxi driver in a beachside neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. “People don’t want scandal and corruption anymore.”

Mr. Duarte voted for Mr. Bolsonaro in the first round, in a bid to keep Lula from returning to power. When his candidate came in second, he suspected electoral foul play. “The vote was rigged, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “Bolsonaro should have won.”

For months, Mr. Bolsonaro has tirelessly sowed doubts about the electoral system. Taking a page out of Mr. Trump’s playbook, the incumbent has claimed without evidence that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are rigged in his rival’s favor. Like Mr. Duarte, many Bolsonaro supporters are convinced that the left is trying to steal the election.

“Bolsonaro will continue to bet on this radicalized discourse,” says Marjorie Corrêa Marona, a political science professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “This can incite violence, not only in the form of hate speech, but also spilling out onto the street with voters.”

Politically motivated violence has already marked the elections. There were multiple reports of citizens being stabbed for their political views, and in July, a police officer fatally shot the treasurer of a local PT branch at the victim’s Lula-themed birthday party over their differing political views.

Roughly two-thirds of Brazilians say they fear becoming victims of violence based on their political choices, according to a recent survey by pollster Datafolha. As the second round nears, concerns are growing that a potential loss for Mr. Bolsonaro could result in a violent backlash.

“If Lula wins, all of Brazil will go out to the streets in protest,” says Izabel Pereira Costa, a hair stylist who says she’ll join the boycott. “We’re going to fight for our country.”

Mariana Greif/Reuters
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, greets supporters in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, Oct. 6. Lula is counting on some of the country's 32 million voters who sat out the Oct. 2 election to choose him in the runoff against incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro.

Building bridges?

As Lula and Mr. Bolsonaro scramble to shore up support ahead of the runoff, they are eyeing the 10 million, mostly moderate, voters who cast ballots for third-party candidates in the first round. The victor will need to “establish a dialogue with this slice of the electorate” in order to win the second round, says Dr. Marona.

For much of his campaign, Lula has vowed to tax the rich and spend on the poor. But in his quest for more support, he’s recently struck a more conciliatory tone, reaching out to centrists, forming new political alliances, and promising to govern for all Brazilians.

Mr. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is leaning on conservative allies, including the newly-elected governors of Brazil’s three most populous states. In a bid to woo poorer voters, Lula’s traditional base, he’s also pledged to boost spending on welfare. “This can make a big difference in the last stretch of a tight race,” says Dr. Valle.

It wasn’t just the entrenched support for Mr. Bolsonaro that surprised observers in the first-round vote. Voter turnout, which dipped to its lowest levels since 1998, was unexpected in a race that seemed to push Brazilians into two extreme camps from the start. Of those that did vote, some 5.3 million ballots were cast blank or spoiled.

The polarization and violence of this election cycle “keeps many people away from the public spaces, from public demonstrations – and it silences the debate,” around key issues, says Dr. Marona. “We may have even higher abstention than we had in the first round.”

Genilson Galdino, a doorman in a wealthy part of Rio de Janeiro, believes Lula is the better choice for Brazil. But, last Sunday, he didn’t make the two-hour trip to the polling station. “I’d rather pay the fine – it’s less than I’ll spend on transport to get there,” he says of the penalty for not voting in elections, which are compulsory in Brazil.

He recognizes the next president will determine a lot about his country’s future – as well as his day-to-day economic struggles. But will he vote on Oct. 30? Maybe, he says. “If it falls on my day off.”

Others see the unexpectedly close race as a possible incentive to mobilize voters in the second round. That’s the case for Ms. Santana, the university student. “It’s up to us” to vote for the results we want to see in the second round, she says.  

“I think the shock of the first round will force people to go out and vote,” says Dr. Valle. “This could help Lula.”

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