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On to a Second Round: Monitoring the Presidential Elections in Brazil

An interview with Thomas Traumann 

On to a Second Round: Monitoring the Presidential Elections in Brazil
 Thomas Traumann
Brazilian journalist and independent consultant

On Sunday, October 2nd, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva received 48,4% of the votes in the first round of Brazil's presidential elections, while Jair Bolsonaro got 43,23%, with 99.87% of the ballots counted. As the world closely watches the election two weeks prior to the final round which will divide both contenders, we asked Brazilian journalist Thomas Traumann to assess the underlying factors behind these first results. He gives an overview of what can be expected should either candidate win in terms of the economy, foreign policy, and popular discontent. Brazil is heading towards a presidential election which will have a profound impact on its place in the region and the world.

Two candidates on opposite sides of the political spectrum were runner-offs in this election. What does this reveal about political fragmentation in the country?

In the first round of the Brazilian presidential elections on October 2nd, 2022, 92% of Brazilians voted either for Lula or Bolsonaro. Normally, the two main candidates of an election get about 70%, so this result illustrates how the Brazilian population has been fundamentally divided from day one between the left-wing former president and the right-wing incumbent one. The ongoing elections actually represent the first time a past and present president oppose each other in a race to power, meaning that we have since the beginning of the campaign been witnessing a clash between their two terms and personalities. In fact, Lula and Bolsonaro are the two most popular politicians Brazil has ever seen in the past hundred years. They both nurture true connections with big segments of the Brazilian electorate.

Lula and Bolsonaro are the two most popular politicians Brazil has ever seen in the past hundred years. They both nurture true connections with big segments of the Brazilian electorate.

Lula was president from 2003 to 2010, when he gathered huge popularity. Over 80% of Brazilians approved his term, especially recognizing the success of his social programs on poverty and how he enabled Brazil to quickly recover from the 2008 financial crisis. However, he afterward left his population to Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016 for breaking Brazil's budgetary laws, while the country experienced its worst recession in over a century. Furthermore, the 2014 "Operação Lava Jato" (Carwash scandal) tarnished Lula and his party's credibility, as he was investigated along with Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT - Brazil's workers' party) officials for corruption. 

He was ultimately convicted and sent to jail in 2018, impeding him from re-running for president in the elections that year. During these elections, retired military officer and politician Bolsonaro made a point against the establishment of the PT and garnered considerable support from the population as a consequence. He also, which differentiates him from far-right parties in Europe, promised he would bring up militaries to fix Brazil. After he won the election, with considerable advantage, he had more military as his ministers than during the military regime (over 50% of his cabinet).

One year into his rule, the world was struck by Covid-19. Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic ranked amongst some of the most disastrous in the world, with almost 700 000 Brazilians dying due to his voluntary decision to let the population be infected in order to achieve herd immunity. Over 50% of Brazilians disapproved of Bolsonaro in the aftermath of the pandemic, leading to the emergence of true feelings of "anti-Bolsonarism" within the country. However, even if a considerable amount of the population of Brazil was against Bolsonaro, there was no true candidate in front of him that could pretend to handle the country differently. However, the Supreme Court eventually reviewed the case of Lula and understood that his condemnations were null and that his judge, Sergio Moro, was biased (right after condemning Lula, he became Bolsonaro's Justice Minister). Therefore, Lula was able to present himself as a candidate for the next elections. From the first day of this electoral campaign onwards, we have therefore been the spectators of an arm-wrestle between two extremely popular candidates, both loved and hated by many. Brazil is now an inherently divided country between anti-PT and anti-Bolsonaro camps, and this is why we irremediably come to such levels of political polarization reflected by the election results of October 2nd. Therefore, whether it is Lula or Bolsonaro who wins, each will have to face enormous opposition in the coming year. 

Bolsonaro has a grim track record in his handling of the pandemic, the economy, and in his contribution to deforestation trajectories in the Amazon. How, then, can we explain his receiving 43% of the votes? And how would you assess Lula's policy proposals, especially as they relate to Brazil's economic challenges?

Despite these elements, it is crucial to remember that Bolsonaro remains very popular in Brazil, as he truly represents some people. In regards to his heralded catastrophic handling of Covid-19, some people did really think that the lockdowns during the pandemic were exaggerated and that people had to go back to work as fast as they could, and were therefore aligned with him. Moreover, some people did really believe that having the PT in power was the worst thing that could happen to Brazil, which would be at risk of becoming a second Venezuela. A portion of conservatives also believe that Lula's political agenda is overall more liberal, whether this relates to affirmative action, women's rights, abortion, or family values. However, Brazil remains a very conservative country, with a significant percentage of people who do not agree with some views liberals push forward.

Bolsonaro, on the other hand, promotes conservative, family, and religious values which a lot of people relate to in the country. During his term, he established a powerful link with evangelicals, the rising religious movement in Brazil. They represent roughly one-third of the population and will be the majority in 20 years (the last Brazilian Census in 2010 found that 22,2% of Brazilians were evangelicals, from a previous 15% in 2000). That came with the decadence of the Catholic Church, that 20 years ago was comprised of 75% Catholics and now has a little over 50%. 

Brazil remains a very conservative country, with a significant percentage of people who do not agree with some views liberals push forward. 

During Bolsonaro's regime, the Minister of Education was a Calvinist priest, Milton Ribeiro, and the Minister of Human Rights and Family Ministry was an evangelical pastor, Damares Regina Alves. Evangelicals also appointed judge André Mendonça to the Supreme Court for the first time in Brazilian history. They held true powers thanks to Bolsonaro, giving them the legitimacy of a political party. These first elements, therefore, help explain why Bolsonaro still holds substantial support from a big part of the Brazilian electorate, illustrated in his close score behind Lula in the first round of the elections. 

In regards to the economy, one must note that contrary to what is happening in Europe and the US, the worst period of inflation in Brazil is already over. Inflation was very bad at the beginning of 2022, from January to March, but we are now witnessing deflation in the country. This is because Bolsonaro cut all federal fuel taxes in order to win votes. Prices as a result went down, prompting inflation to be lower today than it was three months ago. These factors consolidate the view that the economy is not in such a bad state in Brazil under Bolsonaro, with inflation going down, employment going up, and the country growing a little bit overall. In the second quarter of 2022, the Brazilian economy actually expanded by 3,2%. Keeping the above in mind, we can better understand why he still garners important support from a big portion of the Brazilian electorate. 

On the Amazon, in the first half of 2021, nearly 900,000 acres of Brazil’s rainforest were wiped out, according to INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. New deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is at its highest annual level in a decade. Despite these facts, one must understand that even though educated people are extremely worried about what is happening there, this mind scheme is not a generality in Brazil's Amazonian states (Roraima, Pará, Mato Grosso, Rondônia, Amazônia and Tocantins). Bolsonaro won the majority of votes in the agriculture frontier during the first round of the elections, where most of the illegal deforestation and mining is going on, because people do not want to have more Indigenous land in their vicinity, and are not willing to fight for the preservation of the forest, as it impedes them from exploring it the way they want and reaping economic benefits from it. 

Bolsonaro retains considerable support within Brazil despite his track record because he defends values and ensuant policies that resonate with broad segments of the population. 

80% of Congressmen from the Amazon states are both anti-environmental and pro-agribusiness and are aligned with Bolsonaro’s "do whatever you want" policy in regard to the Amazon. Their voice holds considerable weight, unfortunately overshadowing the efforts from various Indigenous communities and others involved in conservation efforts who fight to stop the destruction of this irreplaceable ecosystem. Therefore, Bolsonaro retains considerable support within Brazil despite his track record because he defends values and ensuant policies that resonate with broad segments of the population. One may better understand him still obtaining 43% of the votes in the first round. 

In regard to Lula's policy proposals on the economy, he plans to increase spending on social programs. This will mark the going back on Bolsonaro’s previous budget cuts on these and spending more for the poor, and on health and education. That will entail that a lot of the Brazilian elite will view this as Lula throwing money around and not being fiscally responsible. A lot of Brazilian banks are extremely pessimistic about Lula as a consequence and are already holding campaigns for Bolsonaro, as they believe that under his government there will be more privatization, fewer taxes, and a more business-friendly environment than under Lula. 

In terms of foreign policy, the first thing that Lula will do is most likely to try to initiate a new conversation with Europe (previously shut down under Bolsonaro, who only talks to Putin) and his South American neighbors. Promoting a trade agreement between Mercosur and the European community was indeed a major point of Lula's program before. He will also obviously have a much better understanding with Biden and all Brazilian and South American leaders - anything he does on that front will be an improvement from what we have seen in the last four years.

Given the unexpected results and with just under a month to go, can we expect both campaign sides to intensify and be more on the offensive? Finally, in your opinion, how serious is the threat of a post-election coup in the country?

Having obtained 48,4% of the votes in the first round, Lula needs less than 2 million votes to win the elections, while Bolsonaro needs 8 million. One must have these figures in mind to understand that though the post-election momentum is pro-Bolsonaro, Lula is still closer to victory. Many people in Brazil consider that the only way for Bolsonaro not to contest the result is if Lula wins by a very large margin, hence garnering around 10 million votes. The fact that we are going to a very hard and tough election indicates that we will probably have a very small margin between the two candidates. On October 2nd, the margin was 6 million, and it might be even smaller on the 30th. This might just be the excuse for Bolsonaro to claim he won, and push people to take it to the streets and contest the results. The fact that we are facing a second round makes it all the easier for him to refuse defeat. 

Brazil is not in the state of a coup d’état per se, but in a situation where people taking to the streets in the form of great manifestations is possible. A scenario in which armed generals with tanks take over is unlikely but we could witness fights, invaded spaces, heavy casualties, and potential deaths. Under Bolsonaro, gun sales have exploded in Brazil, leading to the gradual escalation of violence. Therefore, brutality in the aftermath of a Bolsonarian defeat is a possibility, though maybe not a fatality. In sum, we are facing a situation where supporters of both camps feel like their lives are being decided, and are hence viewing these elections as a battle between evil and good, not willing to accept defeat. No matter the results of October 30th, Brazil will be a country as divided as the US, but with irremediably weaker institutions. 



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