The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bolsonaro beats the polls — and plunges Brazil into more uncertainty

A man walks past presidential campaign materials depicting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Sept. 23 in Brasilia. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro doesn’t do humble. But he had 51 million reasons to be thankful Sunday night, when the ballots were counted in the country’s general election. The same electoral system that he has repeatedly maligned as rigged — with allegedly fraud-prone electronic voting machines and an imaginary “secret room” for counting ballots — didn’t just assure him a place in the Oct. 30 runoff against former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. It also placed him within striking distance of reelection, a prospect that electoral punters had all but discarded.

Indeed, there was a helping of embarrassment to go around for just about everyone on Sunday. Headline pollsters and pundits had consistently touted former president Lula to win comfortably, if not by a landslide. Instead, they were surprised by his relatively modest showing: He picked up 48 percent of the vote to incumbent Bolsonaro’s 43 percent. Equally jolted were triumphalists on the left who had read every poll as a prophecy and were already planning the victory party.

They might want to hold off on the parade. While the Workers’ Party standard-bearer is still favored to prevail in the runoff, this year’s elections have already delivered some cautionary dictums. Not only Lula, but anyone concerned about the fate of democracy in Brazil, and Latin America, would do well to take note.

First, forget about Brazil joining the region’s new pink tide. Latin American politics is less about voters careening left or right than about their quarrel with the sitting establishment. That impulse has swept hapless conservatives from office and ushered left-of-center contenders into office in Chile, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. But feckless management, misreading the public mood and executive overreach have all contributed to voter rage. Toxic incumbency is now measured in months or even weeks. That was the lesson in Chile, which rejected a tendentious constitutional reform in September and sent president Gabriel Boric’s approval ratings tumbling. It’s worse in Peru, where the rudderless Pedro Castillo government has fired a cabinet minister a week.

Brazilian politics has been in and out of turmoil since 2013, when protesters angered by stunted opportunities, dead-end jobs and corrupt authorities filled the streets. The frustrated left and rancorous right mingled, collided and measured forces back then, Consuelo Dieguez observes in “O Ovo da Serpente” (“The Serpent’s Egg”), her new book on the rise of “Bolsonarismo” and the new Brazilian right. They have done so ever since.

Lula’s return to politics was seen as a much-needed point of inflection. It still could be. A personable pragmatist with a populist’s common touch, he knows he needs a broad base if not to win, then to govern, and so has courted orphaned centrists and onetime adversaries. Winning over former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, of the center-right Social Democratic Party, as his running mate illustrated Lula’s determination to stick to the middle of the road. That augurs well for Brazil, where Bolsonaro’s bilious style of leadership poisons democratic civility and has eroded the country’s international standing.

Yet Lula’s nod to the middle has been mostly a head fake. As the runaway favorite, he has until now given scant details of his plans, answering doubters instead by waving his résumé — as a conciliator, a onetime fiscal realist, committed to dialogue.

More than politesse, Brazil needs structural reform, integrity, respect for fiscal red lines and a political class that plays by the rule of law. Whether Lula would lead from that ecumenical high ground, let alone deliver growth with parsimony, is another matter — and a doubt Lula himself coyly encourages.

Whoever wins the election will have to steward Brazil out of another lost decade amid a tepid global recovery and rising demands for a new social pact the government cannot afford. Brazil spends 13.4 percent of its gross domestic product on public-sector employees, among the highest of the 70 countries tracked by the International Monetary Fund. Would a Lula government push the critical administrative reform that Bolsonaro never got around to, and, in doing so, go head-to-head with one of the Workers’ Party’s most prized constituencies? Lula isn’t saying.

Lula might yet win, but governing will be fraught. Bolsonaro’s ruling Liberal Party is poised to become the biggest in Congress, with 99 seats. His allies on the hard right fared surprisingly well in governor’s races and might even win Sao Paulo, the country’s engine room. Former culture minister Damares Alves, a fierce family values fundamentalist, won a seat in the senate. Voters in Rio de Janeiro rewarded Bolsonaro’s former health minister Eduardo Pazuello, an army general who presided over the worst period of Brazil’s disastrous pandemic response, with a seat in congress.

With that sort of muscle, Bolsonaro might be loath to change tactics. Look for him to double down on attacks on electoral court officials, a favorite target, and the “lying” polling companies. A tighter race poses greater risks for turmoil and violent conflict as partisan passions flare. So far, Brazil has laudably managed to defy the Cassandras who predicted blood in the streets as the rival campaigns collided. Keeping that equilibrium over the next four weeks will be a lot harder.