Brazil's election goes beyond a battle between left and right – democracy is also on the ballot

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is ahead in the polls. But will his authoritarian rival, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, accept the result if he loses?

By Jeffrey W. Rubin Published on Sep 27, 2022.
Winds of change in Brazil, or an ill breeze? Gustavo Minas/Getty Images

Two very different Brazils could emerge after voters go the polls to elect a president on Oct. 2, 2022.

In one scenario, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, will manage to stay in power – by either winning the vote or illegally ignoring it – and continue to push the country down an authoritarian road.

Alternately, the country will begin the process of rebuilding its democratic institutions, which have been undermined during Bolsonaro’s four years in power. That project will be the task of a broad center-left coalition led by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers Party.

As experts on Brazilian politics and modern Latin American history, we have studied Brazil from the ground up. Seen from afar, the dynamics playing out in the Brazilian election are a clear example of the broader crisis of liberal democracy, with right-wing authoritarians in ascent globally. But the high-stakes choice confronting Brazilians in this election has also been shaped by complicated social and political experiences unique to Brazil.

Whatever happened to the ‘pink tide’?

In the first decade of the 21st century, Brazil led a regionwide “pink tide” in which Latin America, governed largely by leftist presidents, experienced unprecedented levels of inclusive growth through democratic politics. Lula’s economic and welfare policies, for example, brought 30 million people out of poverty and provided lower-income, mostly nonwhite Brazilians with new opportunities for upward mobility.

After 2012, however, as Brazil’s economy slowed, traditional elites mobilized in order to resist this progressive path. Their efforts gained ground with an explosive corruption scandal, called “Lava Jato,” or “Car Wash.” Though politicians across the spectrum were implicated, the operation targeted the Workers Party in particular and generated widespread anger toward the party.

Subsequent anti-left sentiment, led by privileged groups and deftly managed through social media campaigns, grew to include voters across the economic and political spectrum. This provided a perfect opening for Bolsonaro, a former military captain and undistinguished congressman, to seize right-wing momentum. Building on the deepened polarization generated by the illegitimate impeachment of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro rebranded himself as an outsider poised to overturn a corrupt political establishment.

Bolsonaro, much like Donald Trump in the U.S. two years earlier, won 2018 elections by combining masterful spectacle with derogatory language. Bolsonaro’s campaign rhetoric was explicitly sexist, anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ. His victory was also tied to the fact that Lula, the front-runner then as now, was arrested on trumped-up charges and prevented from competing.

Repositioning Lula

The overturning of Lula’s corruption conviction in 2021 repositioned him as the most viable opposition candidate for the presidency, and he has consistently led Bolsonaro in the polls.

And while Lula is running as a leftist, he is perhaps more accurately seen in this election as the best chance to steer the country back to democratic norms.

As president, Bolsonaro has flaunted his authoritarian bent. He has praised Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, cultivated nostalgia for military rule – while filling his cabinet with retired and active-duty generals – and disparaged human rights, especially of minorities. Throughout his term in office, Bolsonaro has actively promoted the destruction of the Amazon forest and portrayed indigenous peoples and environmental groups as working against the interests of the nation.

He has also consistently attacked the country’s democratic institutions, particularly Brazil’s Supreme Court.

At the same time, Bolsonaro has made serious policy missteps that have dented his popularity, such as his egregious mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis and the rolling back of popular economic and social policies that improved the lives of ordinary Brazilians.

Around a third of Brazilians continue to support Bolsonaro’s bid for reelection. But the erosion in his polling numbers has opened the path for some moderate conservatives to join ranks with Lula to try to prevent Bolsonaro’s reelection.

Nostalgia for dictatorship … and traditional values

Despite party labels, this election is more complex than a conventional left-right optic would suggest.

Both sides of the political spectrum have become deeply embedded in Brazilian society in crosscutting ways that span religion, race, gender and sexuality, and class.

For example, some lower-income voters who benefited from Lula’s policies support Bolsonaro today, often out of outrage over past corruption scandals and the current economic precarity they themselves face. Meanwhile, nostalgia for a military dictatorship that most citizens never experienced influences some voters, particularly conservative ones.

Brazilians are also experiencing a period of social change marked by the advance of LGBTQ and women’s rights. While embraced by many, some Brazilians feel uncomfortable with new roles for women and with the queer identities increasingly prevalent among the younger generation. Spurred on by evangelical and charismatic Catholic movements, this distress has sparked longing for “traditional” values in family and community life, and has seen some Brazilians call for a return to dictatorship, claiming that life was more orderly and less violent then.

And after the election?

So where does this leave things going into the Oct. 2 election?

So far, Lula stands far ahead in the polls. Strategically choosing a centrist and past presidential candidate as his running mate, Lula has combined progressive commitments with promises to steer a mainstream economic course. In short, he is appealing both to the left and the center.

In turn, Bolsonaro has studied and weaponized Trump’s playbook, saying that he will accept defeat in the upcoming election only if he himself judges that they were fairly held. Many Brazilians worry that by attacking the results before polling day, Bolsonaro is preparing the way to try to stay in power illegally. There is also concern over how the Brazilian military might react should Bolsonaro refuse to accept the election results.

More than just the future of Brazil is at stake in these elections. The current return of the left across Latin America has renewed hopes that gains in cutting poverty, which took off 20 years ago, will resume. So far this year, leftists Gabriel Boric and Gustavo Petro have won elections in Chile and Colombia, respectively. Brazil now seems likely to join this group, swinging the region’s ideological pendulum to the left in an apparent revival of the “pink tide.”

But a Lula victory would do more than tip the left-right balance in Latin America. What links Lula, Boric and Petro is their commitment to progressive agendas and their willingness to negotiate in democratic contexts. Were Lula to win and take office in Brazil, the policies of these leaders could complement those of President Joe Biden in a hemisphere-wide effort to strengthen democracy.

The alternative – a Bolsonaro win, or worse, a coup – would dash these hopes.

Jeffrey W. Rubin received funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Mellon-LASA grants, the Open Society Foundations, the American Philosophical Society, and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University

Rafael R. Ioris received funding from the National Research Council of Brazil, the Research Agency of the State of Sao Paulo, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the Rockfeller Archive.

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