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  1. International Politics
1 October 2022

Lula vs Bolsonaro: Brazil’s 2022 presidential election explained

The race to be the next president of Latin America’s biggest country could hardly be more polarised.

By Phil Clarke Hill

Brazilians will go to the polls for the first round of voting to elect a new president on Sunday, 2 October. Similar to the US, Brazil’s elections work in four-year cycles; the current incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, won the presidency in 2018. Recent polls suggest that former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could beat Jair Bolsonaro in the first round of the upcoming vote.

How does it work?

There are two rounds of voting, beginning on the first Sunday in October. If one candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote they win outright. Otherwise the top two candidates enter a run-off on the last Sunday in October. As voting is compulsory in Brazil, a second round can change the outcome of an election dramatically, as voters whose first-round candidates were eliminated switch their support to one of the final two.

Between 1964 and 1985 Brazil was under military rule. When a civilian government was restored, a myriad of different political parties emerged. There are currently 32 parties officially registered, which means that any elected government is a coalition. In any presidential race, however, it is generally a competition between two key candidates.

Who are the candidates?

It would be hard for the main candidates to be more polarised than those running this year.

While it is partly about left versus right, it is also an ideological battle between two starkly contrasting sides of Latin America’s most populous country.

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Luis Ignacio da Silva (known as Lula) is the leader of the leftist PT (Workers’ Party), Brazil’s second largest political party. When he was president (2003-2010), he consistently polled as the most popular politician in the country – and among the most popular in the world. For many Brazilians, these were years of prosperity and social mobility, remembered as a golden era. It was the time of the bloc known as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and latterly South Africa). The country experienced a commodity boom as a primary industry economy. Deforestation in the Amazon dramatically reduced year on year. Social policies were rolled out: the most well-known was the monthly welfare payment, the Bolsa Família, one of the most successful such programmes in a developing country. “Class-C” emerged as working-class Brazilians found themselves entering the middle class, with higher disposable incomes and an improved quality of life. The 2014 Fifa World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics were secured. In short, Brazil was booming.

The legacy of the current president Jair Bolsonaro is a stark contrast – a right-wing populist sometimes likened to Donald Trump, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, Bolsonaro has divided opinion amongst Brazilians. In 2018 he was elected as the candidate for the far-right PSL party, however, he is now a member of Brazil’s largest political party, the PL (Liberal Party). It is his ninth political party in a career spanning 30 years. During his presidency there have been more than 680,000 deaths from Covid-19 officially recorded (around 10 per cent of global fatalities). Throughout the pandemic Bolsonaro consistently denied the threat of the virus, calling it “a little flu”. A congressional inquiry held in Brazil into the country’s handling of the pandemic advised that he should be charged with several offences including crimes against humanity.

Under Bolsonaro’s watch the country has also experience devastating wildfires and a surge in deforestation in the Amazon. The president also made attempts to dismantle FUNAI ( the National Indian Foundation, which was established to examine policies relating to indigenous peoples), spurred on by his support of the powerful agribusiness lobby. Bolsonaro has struggled to gain respect on the international stage. With Brazil now experiencing the highest inflation in years and a crippling economic downturn, it would be hard to say his presidential term has been a success.

[See also: Brazil’s dangers for environmental defenders cost my friend Dom Phillips his life]

What happened during the 2018 election?

Bolsonaro came to power after a tumultuous time. In the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Brazil’s then-president, Dilma Rousseff (PT), faced impeachment proceedings for “breaking budget laws”; interim president Michel Temer opened the games in her place. Supporters of Rousseff and critics of the impeachment claim it was orchestrated by right-wing members of the Senate, an opportunistic way of ending the PT’s 13 years in power.

At the root of all of this political upheaval is the Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) corruption scandal. Years of backhanders, secret deals and appointments in the state-owned oil company Petrobras came to light, with kickbacks amounting to billions of dollars. Rousseff was a member of the Petrobras board, and although she was found not to have been involved in the corruption it became a point in her impeachment. Operação Lavo Jato was deeply embedded in business and politics, and exposed an open secret: many of those in power in Brazil funnel funds into private hands.

Temer was perceived as a caretaker president, so when the 2018 election campaigns were launched, Bolsonaro was announced as one of the candidates. Known as “the secret weapon of the right”, he was a relatively unknown senator and former military officer, most famous for publicly making outrageous, sexist and homophobic remarks.

It was a perfect storm. The PT was at an all-time low in the polls; the country was in dire financial straits after the World Cup and the Olympics; the economy was stagnating; the country was divided. People wanted a change, and so, driven by a push from the powerful right, Bolsonaro’s campaign gained traction.

In April 2018 Lula was charged with involvement in Lavo Jato; he was accused of accepting a renovated beachfront apartment as a bribe by the engineering firm OAS. He was barred from standing in the election and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment. His conviction was annulled last year after the Supreme Court’s Justice Edson Fachin ruled that the court that had convicted Lula had lacked the necessary jurisdiction.

Fernando Haddad, who replaced Lula as the Workers’ Party’s presidential candidate, lacked Lula’s popularity and track record, leaving the race open for Bolsonaro and the right to win. The right’s rhetoric claimed that Bolsonaro would clean up Brazil by being tough on corruption – “draining the swamp” – and tough on crime – “criminals will die like cockroaches”. When Bolsonaro was stabbed at a rally in September 2018, he used the experience as a signifier that Brazil needed cleaning up, which likely helped his campaign.

On 28 October 2018 Jair Bolsonaro won 55.2 per cent of the second-round vote, becoming president of the Federal Republic of Brazil.

[See also: Bolsonaro can’t end deforestation in the Amazon, even if he wanted to]

What will the 2022 election be fought on?

The election in October is a pivotal moment for Brazil and also an important global event.

Bolsonaro’s election campaign is continuing to support the agricultural and energy lobbies, where he has a strong base in both the ruling and working classes. Claiming to uphold traditional Christian values, he draws support from the sizeable evangelical community, in part due to his campaign pledge against abortion. He states that he will cut corporate taxes, privatise the postal service and state oil company, and loosen gun laws.

Lula’s policies differ to Bolsonaro’s in most ways. As a social democrat with a union background, he is unsurprisingly campaigning on tax reform to distribute wealth more evenly, changes to the rules to allow more public spending, and a commitment to protecting the Amazon and improving environmental legislation.

Crucially, Bolsonaro has repeatedly gone on record that he won’t accept a result in which he is not the winner: “Only God can remove me from office,” he said. Already dubbed the “Tropical Trump”, he is spreading criticism and doubt about Brazil’s electronic voting system. Brazil, however, has fewer safeguards against such claims than the US does. With a military dictatorship still very much in living memory, and president who has previously said he would like its return – the October election could be a precarious moment for this young democracy.

[See also: The future of the Amazon rainforest rests on Brazil’s presidential election]

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