Seven reasons why Lula won Brazil’s presidential election

After defeating Bolsonaro, the left-wing former president will govern Latin America’s largest economy and most populous country for a third time

Lula's supporters celebrate his victory on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.
Lula's supporters celebrate his victory on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.MAURO PIMENTEL (AFP)

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – popularly known as “Lula” – won Brazil’s runoff election on October 30, 2022. The most powerful figure in Latin America’s democratic left, he defeated President Jair Bolsonaro by less than 2%, denying the far-right leader a second term.

Lula – who governed Brazil from 2003 until 2011 – achieved victory due to many factors. But here are the seven main reasons for his return to power:

1. The fear of authoritarianism. While many Brazilians haven’t forgiven Lula for the corruption that plagued his two previous administrations, there was a pervasive fear across the population that Bolsonaro – a former army captain – was leading the country towards dictatorship. Bolsonaro – who repeatedly hinted that he wouldn’t recognize an electoral defeat in 2022 – appointed members of the Brazilian Armed Forces to key government posts during his administration. This contributed to Lula’s campaign strategy of making this an election not about him, but about the defense of democratic institutions.

2. The pandemic. Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the pandemic response – which led to the deaths of nearly 700,000 Brazilians – cost him at the polls. He was slow to buy vaccines and impose health restrictions – he even openly mocked getting vaccinated. His lack of empathy towards the victims of Covid-19 and his opposition to the quarantines imposed by various governors damaged his image domestically and internationally.

3. The power of alliances. Lula – as he did in his previous two electoral victories – expanded his base, welcoming parties from the left, center and right into his coalition. The fact that his running mate was Geraldo Alckmin – a center-right leader who was defeated by Lula during the 2006 presidential election – drew the attention of many moderates who don’t typically support Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT). Another historical rival of Lula’s – center-left ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso – also endorsed him, speaking out against Bolsonaro’s hateful rhetoric.

4. Nostalgia. The Northeast Region of Brazil – made up of nine poor and racially diverse states – gave Lula landslide victories. Voters had fond memories of his tenure, which drastically reduced poverty, created social programs and improved healthcare and educational access. As they live through the socio-economic aftershocks of the pandemic, they are hoping for a return to the good times. Lula will have to work hard to satisfy the high expectations of lower-income citizens, especially since the rapid economic growth of the early 2000s no longer exists.

5. The Jefferson Effect. Bolsonaro’s close relationship with Roberto Jefferson – an ex-congressman who, last Sunday, shot and threw a grenade at police officers when they came to arrest him – left a bad taste in the electorate’s mouth. Jefferson was being charged for leading “antidemocratic digital militias” and threatening a female member of the Supreme Court online. Bolsonaro quickly threw Jefferson under the bus, calling him a “gangster” in a video he posted on social media, but the damage was done. He likely lost some undecided voters because of his former ally’s brazen, criminal actions.

6. The ability to compromise. After being sworn in next year, Lula will have to govern with a Congress that is dominated by conservative parties. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party will control 99 seats: a fifth of the Chamber of Deputies. Many centrists Brazilians likely saw that, after the strong showing for the hard-right in the first round, the country would require a conciliatory president to build a functioning legislative majority. Since his first term in office, Lula has shown his capacity for negotiation – it will now be more necessary than ever.

7. The evangelical community. A third of Brazil’s population – more than 65 million people – identifies as evangelical Christian. In the first round, nearly 70% of these adherents voted for Bolsonaro’s socially-conservative program. But Lula held his own with this group, spending the last days of the runoff election doing outreach among evangelicals. He denounced the lies being spread by Bolsonaro – he even wrote a “letter to the Christians,” in which he promised to never restrict religious freedom. He also made some controversial, tactical decisions: he claimed to be anti-choice, but said that the matter of abortion was in the hands of the Congress. At one point, to counter Bolsonaro’s transphobic rhetoric, he said that his government wouldn’t impose unisex bathrooms in public.

Bolsonaro was, of course, his own worst enemy. He and his allied pastors campaigned so aggressively via church networks that they scared away moderate believers. Millions chose Lula – or chose to stay home – over the prospect of rewarding Bolsonaro’s crude, angry rhetoric with their votes.

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