The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bolsonaro vs. Lula: A referendum on Brazil’s young democracy

Flags in Salvador, Brazil, promote President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, front-runners in the general election Sunday. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — He’s sowed doubt about electronic voting machines, undermined election officials and dubbed his main challenger a corrupt “thief.” An unabashed fan of the former military dictatorship, he has prodded his adoring base to “go to war” if the election here Sunday is “stolen.”

In the process, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, trailing in the polls for reelection to a second term, has raised fears of the old ghost that still haunts Latin America: a coup. Or, perhaps, a Brazilian take on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“There’s a new type of thief, the ones who want to steal our liberty,” Bolsonaro told supporters in June. He added, “If necessary, we will go to war.”

Thirty-seven years after Latin America’s largest nation threw off the military dictatorship, the presidential election is shaping up as a referendum on democracy.

The vote — Sunday is the first round — is pitting Bolsonaro’s supporters, the most radical of whom want a strongman in office, against Brazilians eager to end his Trumpian run. Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has overseen the accelerating destruction of the Amazon rainforest, dismissed the coronavirus pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Brazilians and weathered allegations that he has encouraged excessive use of force by police.

Critics say he has also deeply undermined democracy — filling key positions with present and former military commanders, picking a war with the supreme court, and stacking the prosecutor’s office and police with loyalists.

The choice between former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 76, and Bolsonaro, 67, has put Brazil on the front lines of the global tug of war between democracy and authoritarianism. The contest here is being closely watched in the United States — whose politics and polarization Brazil has seemed to mirror.

Sunday’s vote smacks of the Biden-Trump showdown in 2020. Bolsonaro, who has maintained links with Trump strategists including Stephen K. Bannon, is polling about 10 percentage points behind Lula, a lion of the Latin American left who has moved to the center and cast himself as a defender of Brazil’s young democracy.

“What is at stake at this moment is democracy or barbarism,” Lula told supporters during an August rally in the city of Belo Horizonte.

When pressed on his plans, Bolsonaro has said he will honor “transparent” election results, and analysts say his appetite for and ability to incite an old-school coup with tanks in the streets probably are very limited. After a supreme court judge warned of the potential for political violence, Bolsonaro pointedly told his supporters to not stage a “new Capitol” invasion.

But given his charged language, which often parrots that of his American political lodestar — former president Donald Trump — critics in Brazil and beyond are still warning of the potential for disruption or violence.

“President Bolsonaro’s reckless and dangerous rhetoric about electoral fraud raise[s] serious fears that he will potentially impede a peaceful transfer of power if he loses,” a group of 39 U.S. lawmakers led by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote this month to President Biden. “Having personally experienced the horrors of the Jan. 6 insurrection, we know all too well the consequences.”

Polls suggest Lula is in striking distance of 50 percent of the vote — the margin required to avoid an Oct. 30 runoff. Should he win outright, any attempt by Bolsonaro to cling to power would come up against institutions that are weaker than those in the United States — and would be the biggest challenge to democracy here since the end of the dictatorship in 1985. Should Bolsonaro win four more years, critics say, the world’s fourth-largest democracy could suffer a further erosion of institutions. It would also mark another victory for the global far right, after major wins this month in Italy and Sweden.

A peaceful transfer of power after a Bolsonaro loss could be a landmark moment of a different sort. Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly isolated in the world and coming under greater criticism at home over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Elected autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey could face a challenging reelection campaign next year, as will Poland’s hard-right government in parliamentary elections. Bolsonaro’s going gently into the political night could signal that the illiberal tide, built on populism, polarization, voter disdain, and mis- and disinformation — could be beginning to ebb.

“If Bolsonaro loses, that will be significant,” said Richard Youngs, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The fact that Brazil has gone backward in terms of democratic quality is quite a large part of the story in explaining these negative overall trends. I think a number of autocrats could very well be put on the back foot.”

Frederick Wassef, Bolsonaro’s lawyer, told The Washington Post that there had been “flagrant manipulation” of opinion polls and warned that “various national and foreign forces” were organizing a “coup” against his client.

Bolsonaro, he said, will take “all legal measures” to challenge any victory by Lula, and he suggested that the right wing will protest or stage national strikes if its candidate loses.

“I don’t believe in anything serious, in terms of violence,” Wassef said. “But the people are not going to stand by quietly as the chair is stolen from a president who everyone voted for and loved.”

Bolsonaro has for months laid the groundwork to blame a loss on electoral fraud. In July, he called dozens of foreign diplomats to the presidential residence to hear his claims that the electronic voting system, deemed reliable by election specialists, was easily manipulated. He cited a 2018 police investigation into an incident in which a hacker broke into the national electoral authority’s internal system. The authority has said the hacker did not gain access to voting machines or source codes, and could not alter the data or compromise results.

Those alleged electoral vulnerabilities — dismissed by independent experts — have been echoed by members of Brazil’s military. Bolsonaro also has pressed for the military to conduct a vote count in parallel with election officials. A compromise with election officials will allow the military to audit a small sampling of the ballots cast Sunday.

With many military commanders in Bolsonaro’s administration and other government posts, as many as 37 percent of Brazilians believe Bolsonaro might attempt a coup, according to a Datafolha poll in July.

Brazil’s right-wing dictatorship, which controlled the country from 1964 to 1985, tried to maintain a veneer of democracy. During its tenure, at least 434 people were killed or disappeared. Techniques for torturing dissidents included mock crucifixions. Congress remained open, but it operated largely as a rubber stamp. Elections were rigged, and most political parties were abolished.

The military now is seen as lacking the ambition to run the country, and few believe it has the stomach or interest for action that almost surely would lead to swift U.S. and European sanctions.

“They don’t respect democracy, they don’t respect congress, and they don’t respect the judiciary,” said João Roberto Martins Filho, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos and a former president of the Brazilian Association of Defense Studies. “But they do respect the American generals. So they may have listened to all the messages the U.S. has been sending them. They know that a traditional coup isn’t going to work.”

That has not stopped coup chatter among some Brazilian power players, who worry about a return of the left-wing Workers’ Party, which ran the country for 13 years until 2016 and saw one president impeached, and the other — Lula — jailed for a year and half for alleged corruption. (The conviction was eventually overturned, and Lula was released.)

In August, police acting on warrants issued by the supreme court judge who heads Brazil’s election authority searched the homes of several pro-Bolsonaro business executives who allegedly had mused on a possible overthrow in a private text group.

Analysts say the greater threat is a scenario from the Trump playbook, in which Bolsonaro alleges fraud and refuses to recognize the election result.

“He could summon his supporters to take to the streets and cause turmoil, especially if there’s a second round,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “He could try to subvert the results or force a state of emergency so he could postpone the second round until next year.”

Bolsonaro, protected by his attorney general, has sidestepped official investigations of alleged wrongdoing. But various accusations — including a bloated coronavirus vaccine deal at the Health Ministry — could embroil him once he leaves office. A show of force could serve as a warning to Brazil’s political establishment to back off.

Uncertainty has put the country on edge. Former presidential candidates across the political spectrum have thrown their support behind Lula for the sake of “democracy.” In August, thousands of Brazilians gathered at the University of São Paulo’s law school, site of an anti-dictatorship protest in 1977, to rally for the rule of law. Activists drafted a new “manifesto” decrying the risk of a break with democracy.

“We’ve been through a hard time, very polarized, just like in the U.S.,” said one of the “manifesto” authors, Thiago Pinheiro Lima, a public prosecutor who works with election authorities. “We want to avoid an episode such as the Capitol invasion.”

“I’m afraid,” he added. “We have a fragile democracy, and we have been under strong and aggressive rhetoric of discrediting the institutions and the voting process for some years now. This makes us fear institutional rupture.”

Bolsonaro, who often speaks in contradictions, has sought both to reassure and to threaten.

“If it is God’s will, I will continue,” he said in an interview with a pool of evangelical podcasters this month. “If it is not, we will pass on the sash, and I will retire, because at my age I have nothing more to do here on Earth.” Five days later, he had a very different message, telling a TV reporter during a visit to London for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II that “if I get less than 60 percent of the vote, something abnormal has happened.”

Some analysts caution that a loss for Bolsonaro should not be read as an endorsement of democracy but rather the rejection of a leader who did not deliver and has left the country with stingingly high inflation and a poverty rate roughly unchanged since the day he took office.

“This is not about democracy; it’s about the economy,” said the Brazilian political analyst Matias Spektor, a visiting fellow at Princeton University. “It’s because Bolsonaro failed.”