Brazil is preparing for a duel of epic proportions. In five months, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 76, will take on the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro at the polls. The October election is shaping up to be a formidable battle between two powerful rivals: two veterans who have belonged to the establishment for decades and are both charismatic leaders. No other political contender is expected to overshadow them. In a context of maximum polarization, the electorate will decide whether to return to the path of democratic normality or deepen the shift to the far right. This shift was first made in 2018 after the Supreme Court removed Lula from the electoral race when he was a clear favorite, paving the way for Bolsanaro to come into power.
Lula, a former trade unionist, took part in an election rally a week ago that was interpreted as the official announcement of his candidacy, although his team did not confirm this. In a speech that was read, Lula said: “We want to come back so that no one ever dares to challenge democracy again. And for the return of fascism to the sewer of history, from which it should never have come out.”
There is little doubt in Brazil that the upcoming elections are the most momentous since the military dictatorship ended almost four decades ago. For Lula, the leader of the Workers’ Party (PT), what is at stake is the survival of Brazilian democracy. For Bolsonaro, a retired military general, the polls will settle a battle “between good and evil.”
During the last few months, the polls – which are avidly monitored in Brazil, with several published every week – have been very consistent: Lula is the undisputed favorite with 45% of the votes, followed by Bolsonaro, with a solid 25%. In recent weeks, however, Lula’s lead has fallen by five points due to missteps and controversy. The former president upset the public when he said in an interview with Time magazine that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was just as much to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Analyst Oliver Stuenkel, from the Getulio Vargas Foundation, explains: “This election marks the most important moment since 1985 because the danger to Brazilian democracy would increase exponentially if Bolsonaro is reelected. We have seen similar things in Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, Russia and Nicaragua, where the erosion of democracy accelerated after reelection.” While some argued that Bolsonaro would become more moderate as president, the former military general has shown this is not the case. If Brazil granted him a second term, it would give him a mandate to expand his radical agenda. Since coming to power, he has systematically attacked the country’s institutions, in particular the Judiciary. In the most recent clash, he pardoned a deputy whom the Supreme Court had sentenced to nine years in prison for his threats to democratic institutions.
No one no longer thinks that Lula will win the first round. There were considerably fewer people than expected May Day rally in São Paulo, two weeks ago, where Lula gave a speech. Even his followers feel that the battle is going to be extremely close. “I see many undecided people and there is still a lot of hatred for the PT,” said the 38-year-old domestic worker Persia Borges at the event. “But I know people from the neighborhood who voted for Bolsonaro and now they are going to vote for Lula,” she said with a smile. On the same day, Bolsonaro supporters held a slightly bigger rally on an avenue just two subway stops away.
The real battle begins now, when Lula – who was president between 2003 and 2011 – takes to the streets, where he is best at galvanizing support. At Saturday’s campaign rally, Lula was meant to appear alongside his running mate Geraldo Alckmin. But the 70-year-old conservative tested positive for Covid-19 and was unable to attend in person, appearing instead by video call. It was another setback for the former president who hopes Alckmin will allay the fears of those who consider him a radical and make him more appealing to centrist voters.
Indeed, Alckmin was once Lula’s rival, standing against him in the 2006 presidential election, which was won by the PT leader. The former governor of São Paulo is a practicing Catholic with a reputation as a good manager. His Covid-19 diagnosis means the two cannot yet embark on their planned tour of the country. Lula will have to start it alone.
Just like two decades ago, when Lula chose a businessman as his vice president, the former president and his team want to calm the concerns of the economic elites. “He is not a radical,” said Celso Amorim, former minister of foreign affairs and defense, in a café in São Paulo. According to Amorim – who was one of Lula’s most frequent visitors while he was in prison – if the former president wins the elections, “he will carry out a responsible economic policy, without austerity, he will not touch the Central Bank and he will not abandon social inclusion policies.”
I know people from the neighborhood who voted for Bolsonaro and now they are going to vote for LulaPersia Borges, Lula supporter
Until very recently Lula’s campaign was limited to online events. The former president has strictly complied with all coronavirus restrictions to highlight the Bolsonaro government’s disastrous management of the pandemic. Although poverty is on the rise and the economy is in a dire state, the media in Brazil has been dominated by the pre-campaign practically since the Supreme Court annulled Lula’s corruption conviction, meaning he could stand for election. The former president quickly rose to the top of the polls and it became clear that he was the person who could take on Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has never stopped campaigning or surrounding himself with supporters – even during the worst moment of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 600,000 people in Brazil. He travels the country inaugurating works, speaking to rallies of bikers (who are big supporters of the president) and every Thursday does a live broadcast on Facebook to rouse up his hardcore supporters. Bolsonaro, the mediocre lawmaker who won the last elections with anti-system politics and a pledge to fight corruption, has managed to maintain a clean image even though his sons and allies have faced corruption allegations.
Lula spent almost 20 months in prison after being convicted of corruption in the nationwide Lava Jato or Car Wash investigation into corruption allegations at state oil company Petrobras. But one by one, the convictions against him have been thrown out by the court on the basis that Sergio Moro, the investigating judge of the Lava Jato probe, had not been impartial. And a few days ago, the UN rights committee ruled that his political rights were violated during the Lava Jato trial. Lula, who always proclaimed his innocence, now feels fully vindicated. And Moro’s campaign to run for president has failed.
Lula’s campaign is anchored in the past. Two decades on, his legacy is his main selling point. He constantly refers to how life improved for Brazilians while he was president. He is seeking to repeat the successes of his two mandates (2003-2011), but the current economic and international situation in Brazil is much more adverse than it was when he was president.
The pre-campaign, which is centered on economic issues, is working to his favor, but if the debate moves to other issues, it will be much more difficult for him to win, explains analyst Stuenkel. “If the election is going to be about the economy, inequality, unemployment, inflation… It seems to me that Lula will win because during his presidency the situation was much better. If the elections are about values, about family, that will give Bolsonaro a very big advantage. If the main issue is abortion, LGBT [rights]…. It benefits Bolsonaro, who has a great capacity to mobilize the religious, especially evangelicals.”
For this reason, allies and analysts consider Lula’s recent statements on abortion to be detrimental to his campaign. During a meeting on European affairs, Lula said that abortion should be treated as a matter of public health. That he approached the issue spontaneously, without anyone asking him, in a conservative country where the issue is not on the political agenda, was considered a serious mistake – not only would it cost him votes, it would give further ammunition to Bolsonaro and his supporters.
Meanwhile, the far right continues to sow doubts about the electronic voting system. The fear is that if Bolsonaro doesn’t win, he will follow the example set by former US president Donald Trump and challenge the results. The difference in this case, however, is that Brazil’s institutions have proven to be far easier to shake than those of the United States.