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Bolsonaro has tried to load the dice for today’s election in Brazil

Will the government’s cash handouts and changes to the rules boost his reelection chances?

Supporters gather as Brazil's president and candidate for reelection Jair Bolsonaro leads a motorcade in Joinville, Brazil on Oct. 1. (Rodolfo Buhrer/Reuters)

Brazilians will choose their country’s next president on Sunday. The latest polls favor former president Lula da Silva, from the left-wing Workers’ Party, to clear the 50 percent mark in Sunday’s first round. If that happens, defeating the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, would be a remarkable accomplishment — as the incumbent has taken unprecedented steps to tilt the voting in his favor.

What makes Brazil’s 2022 elections unfair?

Bolsonaro reportedly has directed government funding in ways designed to win favor with voters — experts say these moves are illegal and that they have tainted the upcoming elections.

For example, in July, Bolsonaro pushed through Congress an expansion of cash transfers to the poor. To circumvent constitutional provisions that barred incumbents from expanding welfare payments in the months before an election, the government declared a state of emergency — allegedly because of the war in Ukraine. Critics denounced the cash handouts as a pre-election move to draw support from the Brazilian poor, who support Lula by a 2 to 1 ratio.

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Later, the government issued a decree to redirect funds earmarked for scientific and cultural policies to pay for spending projects in the congressional districts of Bolsonaro allies. These payments occur through a special budgetary provision, created under Bolsonaro, with so little transparency that it has become known as the “secret budget.” The Federal Court of Accounts, which oversees public spending in Brazil, called this budgetary provision an “escape route from constitutional restrictions.”

Breaking with tradition, Bolsonaro also nominated allies to lead the attorney general’s office and the federal police. These independent institutions investigate abuses of power during elections, so this move appears to leave Bolsonaro more free to engineer his reelection, without fear of repercussions.

Elections were never perfectly fair, but this time they are worse

To be sure, Brazil’s elections were never perfectly fair. Incumbents usually enjoy major electoral advantages. Conditional cash-transfer programs created under the Workers’ Party administration helped the party win votes from the Brazilian poor. During the past 30 years, public resources also fueled campaigns through kickbacks from public procurement contracts. Lula, the front-runner in Sunday’s election, was himself convicted and jailed over such corruption charges, which were later dropped.

In the past, Brazilian courts and other oversight institutions prosecuted violations and, in many cases, successfully curbed corruption. Before the current elections, funds from corruption showed no partisanship, fueling campaigns from all major parties. And previous cash transfers had stronger conditionalities that helped limit how useful these programs were in boosting votes for incumbents.

Things are different in 2022. Lula and his Workers’ Party do not have access to resources that are equal to those spent by the federal government to favor Bolsonaro. This leaves the playing field tilted in favor of the incumbent in unprecedented ways. At the same time, Brazil’s oversight institutions are a shadow of what they once were.

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Free but unfair elections are common in hybrid regimes

Fair elections are a necessary condition of democracy. Putting it in a way that is familiar to Brazilians, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way characterized unfair elections as a soccer game in which the referee favored the home team. Without fair elections, voters have a harder time sending ineffective or unpopular politicians away than they would if incumbents and the opposition competed on a level playing field.

Regimes that allocate power through unfair elections have become more common across the world. Using data from the V-Dem project, Scott Mainwaring, Natan Skigin and I searched for countries that held at least one election that was free — which means the opposition was able to enter the race without facing major obstacles or intimidation — but also unfair, in that government institutions perpetrated irregularities large enough to change the results of the election.

We identified 50 countries with free but unfair elections after 1989. That’s twice the number between 1945 and 1989.

Making elections unfair is part of recent processes of democratic erosion

Illiberal, personalist leaders like Bolsonaro rely on populism to justify their efforts to weaken accountability institutions. They pitch the will of “silent majorities” — whom they claim to represent — at the expense of minority rights and the rule of law. Typically, personalist leaders target courts and legislatures, seeking to undermine their authority.

But personalist leaders who lack strong, broad-based, well-organized parties usually lead ineffective governments, the research suggests. They lack the tools to make democracy work.

As a consequence, personalist leaders lose popularity after a few years in power. They then switch from fighting congress and courts to fighting electoral institutions that ensure fair and democratic electoral competition. It’s not just Brazil — among other examples, Viktor Orbán reshaped Hungary’s electoral system in 2012, while former president Donald Trump challenged the integrity of the 2020 election and U.S. voting system.

This sequence is consistent with recent processes of democratic erosion around the world. Making elections unfair is critical to consolidating power in the hands of democratically elected but authoritarian leaders.

Why is Bolsonaro still likely to lose?

Bolsonaro’s cash handouts sought to compensate for his low approval rates. Brazil’s disastrous management of the covid-19 emergency and the inflationary crisis that followed greatly decreased the government’s popularity.

But voters perceived the handouts as election-motivated and continued to back Lula. Political scientist Mariana Borges argues that the Brazilian poor frown upon these short-term benefits provided by incumbents. Rather than boosting support for candidates, election-time handouts heighten the perception that some candidates only care about the poor opportunistically.

Brazil’s president is rallying his base — so that he can expand his power

At the same time, Lula managed to weave a broad, pro-democracy opposition coalition to challenge Bolsonaro. This coalition includes Geraldo Alckmin, a core leader of Brazil’s center-right political establishment, as Lula’s running mate.

Lula is counting on his strong name recognition and the high approval ratings from his previous time as president, from 2003-2011. And he’s hoping voters remember the strong rates of economic growth, fueled by the commodities boom of the 2000s — and the decrease in inequality brought about by policies of income redistribution during his government.

Winning the presidency without a level playing field, however, may become Lula’s greatest feat.

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Fernando Bizzarro (@fbizzarroneto) is a PhD candidate in political science at Harvard University and the author of “Party Strength and Economic Growth” (World Politics, 2018). He is working on a book project about personalism in Brazil’s elections.

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