The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s presidential runoff is between two populists

Bolsonaro and Lula supporters alike show a preference for anti-traditional politics and strong leadership, a new survey shows

Brazil's second-round runoff voting for president takes place on Oct. 30, between Lula da Silva and current President Jair Bolsonaro. Above, a Lula campaign event in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 23. (Andre Coelho/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

On Sunday, Brazilians head to the polls to choose their next president in a runoff election between former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Lula, the left-wing Workers’ Party leader, received 48 percent of the votes in the first round on Oct. 2. Bolsonaro got 43 percent.

Two central themes of this year’s campaign have been populism and the risk of democratic erosion. Bolsonaro rose to power four years ago thanks to anti-establishment anger. Once in office, he worked to curb the power of the judiciary and directly attacked electoral institutions.

During this year’s campaign, Bolsonaro has repeatedly cast doubts on the electoral system. He claimed, without evidence, that electronic voting could lead to electoral fraud — announcing that his receiving anything less than 60 percent of the vote would mean “something abnormal [had] happened.” Fear of violence permeated the campaign. Not surprisingly, many analysts see the vote as a referendum on Brazil’s young democracy.

What do Bolsonaro’s and Lula’s supporters think?

Between Sept. 29 and Oct. 2, we conducted an online survey with the market research company Cint. The sample, which comes from an opt-in panel, included 1,160 Brazilian citizens aged 18 or older and mirrored Brazil’s census breakdowns for age, gender and race. Overall, the sample was more educated and wealthier than the general population. On education, our sample was close to the quotas of the 2018 survey by Latinobarometer, one of the leading survey-collection efforts in Latin America (4 percent of respondents report having received no education, 32 percent an elementary education, 46 percent a high school education and 18 percent completed higher education levels).

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

Of our respondents, 419 indicated they would vote for Lula in the upcoming election, while 447 said they would support Bolsonaro. The remaining survey participants said they would choose another candidate, were uncertain about their choice or would not vote at all.

Our data suggest that populist and authoritarian values are widespread. An overwhelming majority of Lula and Bolsonaro supporters (72 percent and 70 percent, respectively) think that “the people, and not politicians, should make the most important decisions.” A key tenet of populism is the idea of a division between “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” The anti-establishment feeling is often coupled with the belief that politics should express the will of the people. Bolsonaro and Lula both have been described as “populist.” Hence, it may come as no surprise that their supporters share the belief in the centrality of the will of the people.

Bolsonaro’s supporters also embrace the desire for a strong leader. A majority (55 percent) agree with the survey statement that “a strong leader in government is good for Brazil even if the leader bends the rules to get things done,” a position that’s also shared by 43 percent of Lula’s supporters.

The classic populist rhetoric in Latin America since the 1940s has focused on anti-traditional politics and the promise to let the people rule. Charismatic leaders of populist movements, especially on the left, often made this promise. But right-wing populism has also thrived in the region, including in Brazil and Peru. A commonality across the political spectrum has been the appeal of the strong leader.

Why are so many police and military candidates running in Brazil?

Our data also capture Brazilians’ desire for strong authority, using a battery of questions scholars use to measure libertarian-authoritarian values. Two-thirds of Bolsonaro’s supporters and half of Lula’s supporters believe that “it is better to live in a society where law and order are strongly enforced than to give people too much freedom.” Three-quarters of Lula’s supporters and almost 90 percent of Bolsonaro’s supporters agree that “schools should teach children to obey authority.” Moreover, almost 1 in 3 Bolsonaro supporters and 1 in 4 Lula supporters think that “the person who contributes the most money to the home is the one who should have the final word in household decisions.”

These numbers suggest that authoritarian values are widespread among Bolsonaro’s electorate. But support for authoritarian values is relatively high even among Lula’s supporters on the left. After all, Lula is a populist leader in a country where crime and corruption are hot topics. This may explain why left-wing voters respond to appeals to law and order. We may be seeing elements of what political science calls working-class authoritarianism.

The two sides tend to agree on immigration

More than two-thirds of supporters for both presidential candidates think that “there are too many immigrants in Brazil,” suggesting that Bolsonaro and Lula supporters might agree more than disagree on immigration. This concern has grown with the large numbers of Venezuelan immigrants in the past few years.

Brazilians worry about how immigration affects the job market and welfare access. A third of Bolsonaro’s supporters and a quarter of Lula’s think that “immigrants limit the possibilities of finding work for people born in Brazil.” Nearly 40 percent of Bolsonaro supporters think that “immigrants take advantage of welfare services and government assistance,” and a quarter of Lula supporters agree.

Don't miss any of TMC's smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Bolsonaro, who has described immigrants as a threat to Brazil’s economic stability, has enforced high levels of deportation. Yet he continued to implement the Operação Acolhida program, which offers some Venezuelan immigrants humanitarian assistance. He has capitalized on the idea of “saving Venezuelans from communism” — and also argued that Lula would bring communism to Brazil. Among Lula supporters, the immigration concerns related to jobs and welfare might reflect their worries during the covid-19 pandemic, as well as rising food prices.

The runoff has Brazilians on tenterhooks. Some predict that Bolsonaro will refuse to concede defeat if he loses, and that his supporters will respond with violence. If he wins, some fear democratic erosion in the country will continue.

Will the largest democracy in Latin America see a peaceful transition of power — a minimum requirement for democratic countries — or a revolt, like the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in the United States? Will Bolsonaro’s attacks on the democratic system continue once the election is over? We’ll have some answers soon.

Professors: Check out TMC’s latest topic guides for your classroom.

Zoila Ponce de León is assistant professor of politics and core faculty member of the Latin American and Caribbean studies program at Washington and Lee University.

Gabriele Magni (@gabmagni) is assistant professor of political science and director of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University.