By Simone Iglesias
Brazil’s presidential election in October is shaping up to be a riveting head-to-head contest between two larger-than-life figures representing opposite ends of the political spectrum: the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who ruled the country from 2003 to 2010.
While there are 10 other contenders in the race, none has a realistic chance of winning. The election outcome will have profound implications for South America’s biggest and most-populous nation. Why is the October election so compelling?
Lula, a former labour union leader, was found guilty of money laundering and corruption in 2017 and sentenced to almost 10 years in prison, which prevented him from running in the elections that brought Bolsonaro to power four years ago.
He was released in 2019 after a change in appeal laws, and the nation’s top court annulled his conviction on procedural grounds in 2021, clearing the way for him to stage a political comeback. A 76-year-old cancer survivor, Lula is revered by those who credit him with implementing social policies that lifted millions out of poverty during his two terms in office and reviled by others who see him as a symbol of corruption.
Bolsonaro, 67, a former army captain who was stabbed while on the campaign trail in 2018 and has been hospitalised several times as a result of that attack, is equally controversial. His supporters consider him a guardian of traditional family values and an anti-corruption crusader, while his opponents have labelled him a far-right authoritarian and accused him of advancing sexism, racism and homophobia. What’s at stake?
The next administration will have to respond to growing public outrage over surging living costs and rising poverty and hunger in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, even as it tries to convince investors that it is committed to sound fiscal policies.
Bolsonaro has pledged that, if re-elected, he would privatise state-owned oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA and the national postal service; cut corporate taxes in a bid to boost investment; pass pro-gun laws; and make it more difficult for women to have abortions.
Lula has said he would change rules that limit public spending; reform the tax system so the rich pay more and the poor pay less; ensure Brazil becomes self-sufficient in oil and fuel; and protect the Amazon rainforest.
The vote will also be a key test for Brazilian institutions since Bolsonaro appears to be laying the groundwork to challenge a result that goes against him. How is Bolsonaro questioning the election’s integrity? He’s stated that only God could remove him from office and has systematically sought to undermine institutions that impose checks and balances on his powers.
He has repeatedly cast doubt about the reliability of the country’s electronic voting system even claiming without proof that the 2018 election was rigged against him because he didn’t win in the first round, and there are fears he may mimic Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the result of the US’s 2020 election.
Last month, top Brazilian banking and company executives, jurists, economists and other professionals signed a letter in defence of the country’s voting system, and said the unwarranted attacks on it posed an “immense danger” to democracy.
The more than 60 000 signatories didn’t mention Bolsonaro by name. Bolsonaro has denied that he’d consider staging a coup should he lose the election. What do polls show? An Ipespe poll of 2 000 people surveyed in July showed Lula winning 44% support in the first voting round, on October 2, to 35% for Bolsonaro. It also indicated that Lula would win a possible run-off on October 30 by 17 percentage points.
Other polls have also shown Lula to be the clear favourite. What is Lula’s appeal? He has evoked memories of a golden period for Brazil, when government policies funded by a commodities boom successfully eradicated hunger, reduced poverty and bolstered the ranks of the middle class – good times he has pledged to revive.
He’s also considered the only viable alternative to Bolsonaro by those who accuse the incumbent of botching the handling of the pandemic and undermining democratic institutions and civil rights. Can Bolsonaro still win? Bolsonaro has spent big to ease the impact of Covid-19 and, more recently, to temper rising living costs for vulnerable Brazilians.
His popularity hit a record high during the pandemic as the government gave 600-real ($112) cash handouts to the poor. With the inflation rate exceeding 10%, Bolsonaro has spearheaded legislation to temporarily increase grants for about 18 million families.
He will also give temporary cash handouts to truck and cab drivers to cushion them against higher fuel prices. But it remains unclear whether those measures will be sufficient to close the gap with Lula, especially with the economy expected to start cooling down after the central bank aggressively raised interest rates.
* This article was first published in The Washington Post