Brazilians head to the polls Sunday to choose between two very different candidates for president representing starkly different visions for Latin America’s largest country as it tries to emerge from a devastating pandemic facing an uncertain economic outlook.
For months, Bolsonaro has cast doubts on election security. His lawyer told The Washington Post this week that Bolsonaro can lose only by fraud, and in the event of a Lula victory, they would use “all legal measures” to challenge it.
Here’s what you need to know.
When is the election?
The first round of the election is Sunday. There’s no early voting before Election Day. If no candidates reach 50 percent of the vote, the top two will go to a second round on Oct. 30.
What offices are being contested?
In addition to president and vice president, Brazilians will elect a third of the Senate, all 513 members of the House of Deputies, state governors and state legislators. The congressional races will be decided in a single round; gubernatorial races may go to a second round, also Oct. 30, if no candidate reaches a majority.
Who are the front-runners for president?
There are 11 candidates, but two are clear front-runners. Lula, 76, is a lion of the Latin American left. A charismatic politician, he was raised in poverty, served as a metal worker and union leader and was president from 2003 until 2010. His administration is remembered for massive social welfare programs, funded by a regional commodities boom, that lifted millions out of poverty.
Lula was convicted of corruption and imprisoned in April 2018 as part of the “Lava jato” investigation into a massive kickbacks scheme involving Brazil’s oil company Petrobras that ensnared politicians and business executives across Latin America. His imprisonment sidelined him from running for president that year. He was ordered released by Brazil’s Supreme Court in November 2019 and his conviction was annulled in April 2021.
Bolsonaro, 67, is a former army captain and congressman who captured more than 55 percent of the second-round vote in 2018 to win the presidency. He’s known as the “Trump of the Tropics” for his plain-spoken, sometimes abrasive style, his ties to Trump strategists — most notably Stephen K. Bannon — and his affinity for Brazil’s former military dictatorship.
It’s a title both Bolsonaro and Donald Trump have embraced. The former U.S. president endorsed the Brazilian incumbent last month: Bolsonaro “has done a GREAT job for the wonderful people of Brazil,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform. “When I was President of the U.S., there was no other country leader who called me more than Jair seeking Tariff & Tax cuts, Trade Renegotiations, Strengthened Drug & Border Policies (to put the “bad guys” in jail!), Military Help, & more.”
As president, Bolsonaro has presided over the accelerating deforestation of the Amazon. And he’s been accused of mismanaging the coronavirus — dismissing it, promoting its unproven and potentially harmful treatment with hydroxychloroquine and discouraging the use of vaccines — in a country that has suffered more than 685,000 deaths from covid-19.
Who’s going to win?
Throughout the campaign, polls have consistently shown Lula leading Bolsonaro, currently by double-digit percentage points, with the margin widening as Election Day approaches. It’s possible that Lula could win outright in the first round.
Christopher Garman, managing director for the Americas at the Eurasia Group, points to the global inflation shock in the second half of 2021. That drove real income in Brazil down, which hit low-income families the hardest. Inflation is now falling and Brazil’s economy is recovering, but real income has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“We’re seeing this across many countries,” Garman said. “Being an incumbent in this environment is tough.”
Nick Zimmerman, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute, says several factors have coalesced for Lula. The former president has cast himself as the democracy candidate; he has built a broad coalition, enlisting former political rivals such as his running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, a center-right former governor of São Paulo, to defeat Bolsonaro.
“He’s become the big-tent candidate,” Zimmerman said. “Bolsonaro has really polarized the Brazilian populace. The economy, though it is improving as of late, hasn’t done very well. The pandemic was brutal in Brazil.
“It’s a little bit of the perfect storm.”
What happens next?
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric leading up to the election has raised concerns of backsliding in one of the world’s largest democracies.
Throughout his presidency, Bolsonaro has questioned the integrity of the electoral process — apparently to lay the groundwork for claims of fraud if he loses, raising concerns of a Jan. 6-type insurrection or a coup.
Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Frederick Wassef, told The Post that any Lula victory would be challenged by his client using “all legal measures.” At times, Bolsonaro has said he will respect the electoral outcome. But he has also said that if he doesn’t win 60 percent of the vote on Sunday it might be because “something unusual” had happened at Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court.
On Wednesday, Bolsonaro’s party claimed, without proof, that election results could be manipulated by government employees and contractors “without leaving a trace,” the New York Times reported. The Superior Electoral Court swiftly rejected the claims.
Bolsonaro is an incumbent president who “has developed a narrative of election fraud” and attack on election institutions for years, said Zimmerman, who also worked at the White House National Security Council as the director for Brazil and Southern Cone Affairs during the Obama administration. “This has been part of his arsenal for quite some time.”
What’s at stake?
Beyond Brazil’s economy, recovery from the pandemic and young democracy, the fate of the Amazon is in play. The “lungs of the world,” the vast rainforest, 60 percent of which lies in Brazil, plays a pivotal role in curbing climate change by soaking up carbon dioxide. Bolsonaro has described it as a resource to be exploited to lift Brazilians out of poverty. Deforestation, driven largely by cattle ranching, a vital sector of the Brazilian economy, reached a 15-year high on Bolsonaro’s watch.
About 17 percent of the Amazon has been deforested. If the loss reaches 20 to 25 percent, scientists warn, the rainforest could reach a tipping point, at which the ecosystem changes from rainforest to open savanna.