You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Lula Should Win—but Bolsonaroism Isn’t Going Anywhere

The candidate of the left has establishment backing for Sunday’s vote. But below the level of the presidency, signs are more ominous.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro holds a bag with the image of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in jail, during a motorcade in Sao Paulo on October 1.

On Sunday, Brazilian voters will vote in a runoff election that will decide whether the far-right incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro, is reelected, or if the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who served as Brazil’s president between 2003 and 2010, is returned to office.

That there will be a second round at all has come as a surprise to many, including in Brazil, where both many of Lula’s supporters and the pollsters had predicted that Lula would win in the first round. Prior to the election, some of the most important Brazilian polling firms, notably IPEC, Genial/Quaest, and Datafolha, had Lula defeating Bolsonaro by as many as 14 points, with support for him actually rising by several points in the week before the voting. Instead, Lula won the first round by only five points, a remarkable comeback by Bolsonaro, even in the highly volatile context of Brazilian electoral politics, and the tightest first-round vote in Brazil’s history since the return of democracy in 1985 after 21 years of military rule.

Brazilian pollsters have since justified this humiliating misreading of the electorate by invoking the so-called “embarrassed voter” theory, which holds that while voters on the left tend to be honest about whom they intend to vote for, voters on the right tend to be less so—though whether this is principally out of embarrassment about their intentions or because, encouraged by the Bolsonaro campaign, they mistrust and dislike pollsters whom they view as being on the left is a matter of debate. What is clear is that there is nothing especially Brazilian about polling organizations failing to accurately assess the right-wing vote, given that the same phenomenon occurred with British polling organizations in the run-up to Brexit and to their U.S. counterparts regarding support for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

But even assuming that Bolsonaro’s supporters were completely wrong to see the polling firms as representative not just of the Brazilian left’s antipathy to Bolsonaro but of the Brazilian center and center-right’s shift away from the incumbent and toward Lula, as evidenced by the recent endorsement Lula got from his erstwhile center-right adversary, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Bolsonaro’s showing makes two things clear. First, that his election in 2018 was anything but a fluke. And second, that despite the numerous ways in which his presidency could be viewed as a failure, above all in his catastrophically incompetent and ideologized handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and his own erratic and authoritarian conduct in office, Bolsonaro’s support has not ebbed to anywhere near the extent his opponents hoped and believed it had. Some of this enduring support can be attributed to the slight improvement that has occurred in the Brazilian economy over the past year, though this improvement has been fueled in part by a sudden wave of social spending, including massive direct cash transfers to poor Brazilians, on the part of Bolsonaro’s government, that is quite simply a one-off: economically unsustainable and likely to have grave consequences for Brazil’s fiscal stability in 2023. But even taking all this into account, the wellsprings of Bolsonaro’s support are not economic but ideological.

In this, the comparison that is so often made between Bolsonaro and Trump is an accurate one. Like Trump, Bolsonaro’s deepest instincts seem plainly anti-democratic; his rhetoric narcissistic, rancorous, violent, and undignified; and his misogyny—as a legislator, he once told a female colleague that he would not rape her because she “did not deserve it”—and his homophobia proudly and consistently self-advertised. Yet, unlike Trump, who was loathed by almost all the senior leadership of the U.S. military, Bolsonaro—who served in the army and once said of the old military dictatorship that if it had needed to kill 30,000 more Communist subversives, that would have been fine with him—retains strong ties to the military. For the 2022 campaign, he named as his running mate his former defense minister, retired General Walter Braga Netto. And rumors persist that should Bolsonaro lose to Lula in this Sunday’s runoff, he will not just challenge the legitimacy of the result, à la Trump, but would attempt to persuade the military to intervene to keep him in power.

There are, of course, limits to the Bolsonaro-Trump comparison. For one thing, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro was for many years a Brazilian federal legislator. For all his bulimic rhetorical malignity, he knows how the Brazilian government works, what levers to pull, and above all what he can and cannot do. A good example of this is the social spending he authorized in the run-up to his reelection campaign. Trump was, as they say in Texas, all hat, no cattle. In contrast, Bolsonaro knows how to deliver not just the culture-war red meat that his core constituency expects from him but the economic goods as well. In this sense, Bolsonaro represents a more genuine departure from the neoliberal Washington Consensus than Trump ever did. The failure of the Brazilian left and center to recognize this and to believe, instead, that a majority of Brazilians were fed up both with Bolsonaro and, crucially, with Bolsonaroism, helps explain the shock that greeted Bolsonaro’s unexpectedly strong showing in the first round.

In spite of that, most Brazilians in the center join their counterparts on the broad left in backing Lula—the consensus in Brazil is that outside the agricultural and mining sectors, which Bolsonaro has showered with favors (including, tragically, a virtual blank check to both industries to despoil the Amazon), the business establishment now favors Lula on the grounds of reliability. Again, shades of Trump. And Lula himself is now a figure of the establishment, as he has demonstrated by naming as his running mate the former governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, of the center-right Social Democracy Party.

Small wonder then, that while the Brazilian hard left glumly supports Lula on the precautionary principle, and Bolsonaro and his supporters have painted him as a mad radical who wants to turn Brazil into an economic Venezuela with the cultural politics of a Queer Studies department at a U.S. university, no serious analyst expects him to stray from the kind of “enlightened” economic orthodoxy that wins approval from the World Economic Forum and the full support of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. To put the matter starkly: Yes, a Lula presidency will certainly mean the reestablishment and strengthening of social welfare programs, government action to promote LGBT rights, and, most crucially in global terms, a reestablishment of at least some protection for the Amazon. And yet financial policy will continue to be anti-inflationary; that is to say, considerably less bold than even the leftist variants of Keynesianism. As Alckmin put it in a tweet last week, “The first point [in a new Lula administration] is fiscal responsibility, which is non-negotiable.”

Despite Lula’s broad establishment support, and the odds continuing to favor him in the runoff, Bolsonaro still has a strong chance of winning. That the mainstream media outside Brazil should have badly misunderstood the mood of the country or, more accurately, the degree to which it was almost evenly divided between Lula’s and Bolsonaro’s supporters, is predictable. With a few exceptions—Michael Reid in The Economist (as always) and, from the left, Benjamin Fogel in Jacobin and The Brazilian Report—Brazil is routinely misreported, not only in the English-speaking world but in the Spanish-speaking world as well. Some of this has to do with language, but it can also partly be explained by the fact that in many ways Brazil is like India—not so much a country as a world. There are other Lusophone countries—Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and, of course, Portugal itself—but Brazil is remarkably self-contained culturally, and Brazilians themselves pay little attention to the rest of the world, even to countries such as Argentina and Paraguay with which the Brazilian economy—and much of its ecology—is inextricably linked.

Small wonder, then, that the reaction to Lula’s failure to prevail over Bolsonaro in the first round, in the left-leaning press in both the United States and the U.K., and in left-wing newspapers across Spanish-speaking Latin America (the Kirchnerist Página12 in Argentina has been particularly egregious in this regard) was a mix of consternation and denial. In and of itself, the consternation was of no great consequence. But the repeated claims that as long as Lula defeated Bolsonaro in the runoff, Brazil would be on a new and positive path, when in fact all that a Lula victory will guarantee is that the situation in Brazil does not grow a great deal worse than it is now, served as nothing so much as a prophylactic against understanding what had really taken place.

This does not mean a Lula victory will be of no consequence. Benjamin Fogel was quite right to insist that, despite the disappointment of Lula’s having failed to win election in the first round, the high probability that he would prevail in the second offered the hope that, as he put it, Brazil could be pulled back from the “abyss” of further environmental catastrophe and the consolidation of a government with no serious commitment to democracy. But even if Lula’s electoral prospects seem excellent, the first-round legislative and gubernatorial results told a very different story—one of a crushing victory of the right in the elections for both houses of the Brazilian Congress. The fact is that voters in those elections supported the right across Brazil, with the sole exception of Lula’s stronghold in the country’s poor northeast. If, on a national level, voters were giving any group the cold shoulder, it was the left, not the right. Despite slight gains for Lula’s Workers’ Party, the PT, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, the PL, won 99 seats out of the 513 in Brazil’s lower house (up from 77), and in Brazil’s fragmented party system, the right-wing parties now control about half the chamber. In Brazil’s Senate, things are even worse: There, the right has gained a majority.

New senators include such notables as Bolsonaro’s former minister of health, General Eduardo Pazuello, the architect of Brazil’s nihilistically denialist response to the Covid-19 pandemic—along with India’s and America’s among the worst in the entire world—and Sergio Moro, Bolsonaro’s former minister of justice, whose excesses drew wide-scale condemnation even from fellow jurists in no way aligned with the Brazilian left, which eventually led to Moro’s resignation. The right’s gains in gubernatorial elections have been less comprehensive but are considerable just the same.

Again, the odds are still very much in favor of Lula being elected. There are reports that Bolsonaro now realizes this, which is why he and his supporters have been talking so much in the last few days about election fraud. But assuming Bolsonaro fails to foment a coup, his victory or defeat hinges on who wins the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second-most populous and fourth-biggest. No Brazilian election since 1950 has been won without the victor winning Minas Gerais, and the polls, for what they are worth, show Lula with a commanding lead there. One must be careful, however, and not only because of the unreliability of the polls. Minas Gerais is home to a huge evangelical population, and they form the base of Bolsonaro’s support. Bolsonaro’s (legal) middle name is Messias, and to Brazil’s enormous evangelical community, he is little short of that.

Indeed, on one level, the Brazilian presidential election can be read as a clash between Protestant and Catholic Brazil, with the former favoring Bolsonaro and the latter Lula. Certainly, the evangelicals will pull out all the stops to see that he is victorious. And even if Lula does win, he will only have defeated Bolsonaro himself, while Bolsonarism will be alive and well, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.