The Brazilian left’s dream of a first-round victory was crushed Sunday night. Incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, of the far right, managed to garner 43.5% of the popular vote, despite almost all polls showing him winning just 30%. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – popularly known as “Lula,” the leftist ex-president who governed Brazil from 2003 until 2010 – garnered 48%, just falling short of the 51% needed to avoid a runoff election.
After a long, violent campaign – where at least two supporters of Lula were killed – Brazil is more divided than ever. On October 30, the population will have to decide which of these two men will govern for the next four years.
The 76-year-old Lula is now closer than ever to achieving a third term in power. His victory in the runoff vote would allow him to put the 20 months he spent in prison for corruption behind him, even though all charges were eventually dropped. It could also have implications for the future of the Amazon, as his environmental platform has promised to slow deforestation and break with the Bolsonaro administration’s development policies in the world’s largest rainforest.
Over the past several months, Bolsonaro, 67, has criticized the polls, which consistently put him 10 or 15 points behind Lula. His followers said that their candidate was being underestimated, as he was in 2018. This proved to be correct. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party will have the largest bloc in the Chamber of Deputies and a strong presence in the Senate. His gubernatorial candidates have won power in three major states: Río de Janeiro, Paraná and the Federal District.
Sunday’s vote was marked by high turnout and long lines. Except for one incident that saw a man in São Paulo injure two police officers with a gun, over 100 million Brazilians managed to cast their ballots peacefully.
While going to vote in São Paulo – the city where he began his career as a union leader and politician – Lula recalled his time in prison: “Today is important for me… four years ago, I couldn’t vote, because I was the victim of a lie. I want to help my country return to normal.”
Since 1996, Brazil has used an electronic voting system. Numbers are assigned to each candidate, with a picture of their face included. Citizens then press a button on the voting machine to make their choice. This measure was introduced to combat fraud and ease the process for voters who were illiterate – it has been a source of national pride. However, in the 2022 election, the incumbent president actively worked to undermine the system’s credibility.
“If the elections are clean, without problems, may the best man win,” he declared on Sunday, while voting in Rio de Janeiro. He warned about fraud – without any evidence – until the last minute, fueling a discourse against the electoral authorities. The fear now is that, should Lula triumph in the runoff, Bolsonaro will mobilize his supporters violently, in the style of Donald Trump’s assault against Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021.
A total of 156 million Brazilians were eligible to cast a ballot on Sunday, where they could vote for candidates for the presidency, the Chamber of Deputies, a third of the Senate and the legislative assemblies and governors of 26 states and the Federal District. In the case of the presidency and the governorships, if no candidate secured 50% plus one vote in the first round, a runoff vote between the two top finishers must be held by the end of October. Voting is mandatory in Brazil, but as the fine is quite modest, abstention lingers at around 20%.
Bolsonaro’s four years in office have been turbulent. After serving for 27 years in the National Congress with a combative, crude nature, nothing much changed upon his ascendance to the presidency. The former army captain’s nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85) and his inaction during the Covid-19 pandemic disturbed large segments of the population. His delay in buying enough vaccines at the height of the pandemic disillusioned even some of his strongest supporters. Bolsonaro has also clashed repeatedly with state institutions, including the judicial system, hinting at the possibility of a military coup.
Lula, meanwhile, since his release from prison in 2019, has been in permanent campaign mode. Nostalgia has been at the center of his rhetoric: he promises Brazilians that he will return the country to the prosperity of his eight years in power. Always ambiguous, he has never offered details about how he intends to reactivate the country’s stagnant economy.
Lula’s coalition includes 10 parties from across the political spectrum, including communists and conservatives. His running mate, Geraldo Alckmin – the former center-right Governor of São Paulo, once a Lula critic– has helped soften his image among moderate voters.
The ex-president’s campaign speeches have constantly reminded attendees of the poverty reduction that Lula oversaw during his time in office. Many lower-income Brazilians hold Lula and his Workers’ Party in high regard – they stuck with him even during his corruption scandals, considering the charges to be politically motivated. Their loyalty hasn’t faltered, especially as the judge who sentenced Lula to prison, Sergio Moro, was overruled by the Supreme Court and went on to become Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice.
Based on the results in the first round, the profile of the average Lula voter is a low-income woman of color. On the other hand, Bolsonaro has done well among middle and upper-class Brazilians, especially white men.