Tension in South America’s biggest country is once again on a knife-edge ahead of Brazil’s Oct. 2 presidential election, with the political cage match between maverick populist President Jair Bolsonaro and former President and leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva drawing comparisons to the bitter partisan divisions and chaotic aftermath of the 2020 presidential campaign in the United States.
Mr. Bolsonaro, often dubbed the so-called “Trump of the tropics,” has consistently trailed in the polls to Mr. da Silva, amid growing concern of violence whatever the outcome in Brazil — the top U.S. trade partner in South America and the second most powerful economy in the Western Hemisphere. The result could mark either a major gain for or a sharp rebuke to the recent trends across the continent in which leftist candidates across South America have returned to power after a period of right-wing successes.
The acrid tone of the contest was laid bare in a fiery television debate two weeks ago when Mr. da Silva, whose career was derailed by scandals after he became a darling of the global left when he was president from 2003 through 2010, claimed Mr. Bolsonaro’s brand of unapologetic pro-market, right-wing populism has “destroyed” Brazil.
For his own part, Mr. Bolsonaro countered that Mr. da Silva was a “thief” who had turned Brazil into a “kleptocracy” by running the “most corrupt” government in the country’s history during the 2000s.
Mr. Bolsonaro also repeatedly referred to Mr. da Silva as an “ex-convict,” drawing attention to the 19 months the former president spent in prison between 2018-2019 for corruption and money laundering tied to sprawling scandals during his time in office.
Mr. da Silva’s early-2000s economic growth and anti-poverty initiatives were popular, and the 76-year-old former president remains powerful. Brazil’s Supreme Court threw out his conviction last year, and he has ridden a front-runner wave by claiming it was his socialist programs that lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty.
That the programs were paid for by an unexpected fossil fuel boom following the 2007 discovery of the massive Tupi oilfield off Brazil’s coast is rarely mentioned by da Silva backers.
Mr. da Silva and Mr. Bolsonaro are widely projected to finish first and second in the first round of voting Oct. 2, which will also see Brazilians choose state governors and a new national congress. Neither is expected to gain the 50% threshold needed for election, and a new poll this week gives Mr. da Silva a 51% to 39% lead in the head-to-head runoff election that would be held Oct. 30.
International media coverage of the upcoming election has instead focused on comparisons between Mr. Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, given the current Brazilian president’s track record of embracing controversy and spouting politically incorrect statements about everything from gay and women’s rights to climate change and gun control
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has cultivated a devoted political base that includes Brazil’s large evangelical Christian community, railed against the political establishment that long dominated Brasilia, and championed economic development in the country’s vast Amazonian interior by rolling back environmental regulations and other bars to economic development. He revels in symbols of Brazilian patriotism and military prowess, using Wednesday’s Independence Day celebrations to urge supporters to rally in the streets.
Mr. Bolsonaro made global headlines last year by refusing to be vaccinated for COVID-19, downplaying the severity of the virus and resisting lockdowns even as critics slammed his government’s response to the pandemic.
His unapologetic conservatism and flair for galvanizing supporters on the stump have made him a darling of populist U.S. conservatives. A recent PBS documentary featured an interview with longtime Trump advisor and former White House aide Steve Bannon, who referred to the 67-year-old Mr. Bolsonaro as “Trump to the 10th power.”
Despite a sharp downturn brought on by COVID and a surge in inflation, the latest economic numbers offer some positive signs for the incumbent. Brazil’s GDP beat analysts’ expectations by rising 1.2% in the second quarter of 2022, the fourth straight quarter of growth. Joblessness, while still high at 9.1%, is moving in the right direction for Mr. Bolsonaro and is at its lowest point in nearly seven years.
The Brazilian president’s staunchly pro-gun policies have drawn another kind of attention, with The Associated Press reporting that he has loosened restrictions, enabling his supporters to stock up on firearms and munitions ahead of the election.
The news agency also noted how, at the launch of his candidacy in July, Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Brazilian Army captain, asked supporters to swear they would give their lives for freedom, and repeatedly characterized the presidential race as a battle of good vs. evil.
Mr. Bolsonaro in recent months has also cast doubt on the use of electronic ballots in Brazilian elections — a practice that has been in place in the country since 2000. He has also drawn the ire for reportedly suggesting the Armed Forces set up a parallel system to count votes.
Mr. da Silva, meanwhile, has appeared eager to politically capitalize on concerns that Mr. Bolsonaro may refuse to leave office if he loses the election. The former president has called on his supporters to take to the streets for the campaign. “We cannot give in to this bully,” Mr. da Silva said in late July, asserting that he’s “never had any problems with any military commander or with any of the armed forces.”
“We will win by having courage,” he told a convention of the Brazilian Socialist Party, according to Reuters. “We have to go to the streets to show that the Brazilian people really want democracy.”
The latest polls have shown Mr. da Silva’s with a lead of roughly 13 percentage points over Mr. Bolsonaro, although as with Mr. Trump in the U.S., some caution that traditional polls tend to underestimate the president’s electoral support. Some Brazilian officials, as well as regional analysts say that if the lead holds, an election crisis may be inevitable.
Brazilian Federal Supreme Court Justice and Superior Electoral Court President Edson Fachin raised that specter in July, asserting that Brazil could be heading down the slippery path that produced the violent January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters determined to block the official election certification.
“We may experience an episode even more severe than the January 6 [attack] on the Capitol,” Mr. Fachin said at a virtual event hosted by the Wilson Center.
While it remains to be seen how the election will ultimately play out, concerns are soaring over the potential for serious upheaval.
“If Lula wins, as polls currently suggest he will, there will be an institutional crisis in Brazil in coming months,” argues Brian Winter, the editor of America’s Quarterly, who predicts Mr. Bolsonaro won’t willingly leave office.
“The only question is what it will look like — and who will ultimately prevail,” Mr. Winter wrote for the magazine recently, asserting that Mr. Bolsonaro may attempt to “follow in Trump’s footsteps, and try to reverse the election result in the courts.”
With Brazil’s more centralized vote-counting system likely to make limit the scope of potential court challenges, Mr. Bolsonaro might alternatively attempt to claim fraud “in the court of public opinion” and hope that the “‘people’ and/or the armed forces will support his claim to stay in power,” Mr. Winter wrote.
“But it’s one thing to contest, say, a two-point loss — and quite another if the margin is five or greater, as polls currently suggest,” he added. “That’s why many believe that Bolsonaro will try to force a ‘Brazilian January 6’ before the election.”