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Brazil’s election proves it – the pandemic did not kill nationalist populism

Jair Bolsonaro has run Lula surprisingly close in the first round of the presidential vote, piling on the pressure ahead of the second.

By Jeremy Cliffe

During the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 a cautiously optimistic narrative took hold that this unprecedented global shock would “change everything” and mark a turning point in international politics. The nationalist populist buffoons who had made so much progress in the proceeding years – Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Jair Bolsonaro – would be exposed as the bloviating incompetents that they had always been. The pandemic, went the argument, would make expertise popular again and perhaps even awaken electorates to the danger of that other, yet-greater looming crisis of the Anthropocene age: the climate emergency.

It is hard to imagine a better test of the theory than this month’s Brazilian election. No other major country recorded a higher Covid-19 death rate (some 700,000 Brazilians died of the virus, or 3,200 per million). In no other major country were policy failures during the pandemic so closely bound up with the personality and decisions of a populist political leader. Bolsonaro repeatedly downplayed the risks, blocked centrally coordinated mitigation efforts, undermined attempts by state governors and mayors to impose local lockdowns, promoted quack cures and poured scorn on the efficacy and safety of vaccines. Between March 2020 and March 2021 he went through no fewer than four health ministers.

Brazil’s president also personifies the worst of the world’s response, or indeed non-response, to climate change. Since coming to power at the start of 2019 Bolsonaro has removed protections for the Amazon rainforest and tacitly encouraged violations of those protections that remain. In 2021 the pace of deforestation reached more than 13,000 square kilometres per year – the highest rate in 15 years.

Had there been something solid to that optimistic pandemic vs populism narrative then Brazil’s presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections on 2 October would surely have swept Bolsonaro from office and eviscerated Bolsonarismo as a significant force in Brazilian politics. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his charismatic and popular leftish challenger fondly associated with the country’s boom years in the 2000s, would have easily achieved a double-digit lead in the first round of the presidential vote – perhaps even passing the 50 per cent of the vote needed to win outright without a second round. Much of the opinion polling pointed to a result on this scale. At the end of the campaign CNN Brasil’s poll aggregate put Bolsonaro on just 34 per cent to Lula’s 48 per cent.

Yet this was not to be. With 99.99 per cent of votes now counted, Lula is on 48 per cent. But Bolsonaro has drastically outperformed the polls with just over 43 per cent of the vote. That is far better than the abject defeat that he deserved and that would have spared Brazilian politics much ugliness in the weeks and months to come. It would also have substantiated the idea that the pandemic would kill, or at least severely injure, the cavalier populism whose inefficacy it had so emphatically exposed.

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Lula is still the front-runner for the second-round vote on 30 October. It is expected that supporters of two also-ran candidates now knocked out, the centrist Simone Tebet (who took 4 per cent) and the centre-left Ciro Gomes (on 3 per cent) will break for Lula. That should be enough for him to win. In no Brazilian election since the establishment of its modern democratic constitution in 1988 has the first-placed candidate in the first round of the presidential election been overtaken in the second round.

[See also: Lula vs Bolsonaro: Brazil’s 2022 presidential election explained]

But victory is not in the bag. The first round on Sunday (2 October) was also the closest of any post-1988 Brazilian election. And past first-placed candidates have seen their lead shrink at second-round votes: in 2014 Dilma Rousseff was eight points ahead of her main opponent in the first round but only three points ahead in the second. Similar slippage over the next four weeks would wipe out Lula’s lead over Bolsonaro.

Nor would a narrow Lula win mean the end of Bolsonaro. Brazil’s incumbent president has repeatedly evoked Trump’s refusal to concede in the 2020 US presidential election, claiming that his defeat could only occur through fraud, sowing doubt about the country’s electronic voting system and at one point claiming that the election could end in one of only three ways: his victory, death or arrest. If he does lose, the size of the margin will matter. The narrower it is, the greater the chance that Bolsonaro can stir up unrest, including violence, among his often gun-owning supporters. His links to the armed forces, in a country whose military dictatorship ended only in 1985 and where the divide between military and politics is more porous than in the US, are another reason to wonder whether Brazil’s democracy would endure such a test in the same way that America’s did after the US Capitol building was stormed on 6 January 2021.

Sunday’s result thus makes it much less likely that Bolsonaro will go gentle into that good night. Its divergence from most of the polling will encourage the president’s supporters – a coalition of rural voters, wealthy business interests, gun owners, military types, evangelicals and other social conservatives – in their belief that the polls were biased against him. They will now be invigorated going into the four weeks of campaigning before the second round. A Lula win on 30 October will be hard for them to accept.

And even if Brazil gets through the second round, Lula wins and a settled consensus forms around his result, Bolsonarismo now seems almost certain to live on as a significant presence. A restoration of Brazil’s more moderate right as the country’s main opposition force is now unthinkable for the foreseeable future. After all, the president’s allies are the main winners of the congressional and gubernatorial races; making the most gains both in the Senate (upper house) and in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house). One took the governorship of the state of Rio de Janeiro at the first round, another was elected as senator for the Federal District (containing the capital, Brasília), and a third looks set to become governor of São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, at the upcoming run-off.

Despite the terrible handling of the two great crises of our age – pandemic and climate – Bolsonaro and his allies have been rewarded with an unexpectedly close election result and substantial legislative and sub-national executive power. Even if Lula does win, they will be in a position to mount a disruptive opposition to his presidency. Reason, science and expertise have not won the sweeping victory that might have been expected, seen from the perspective of those early pandemic weeks in March 2020 when it felt like everything would change.

Culture wars and identity-based resentments still have the power to eclipse liberal and technocratic measures of good government. Italy, the first major Western country to experience a large Covid-19 outbreak, will soon have a post-fascist prime minister. The US Republican Party remains in the grip of Trumpism. Marine Le Pen took 41.5 per cent of the votes in France’s presidential run-off this year and now has a substantial parliamentary base. Orbán won re-election. And Bolsonaro can look ahead to a future spent not in political ignominy but, one way or another, as a major force in Brazilian politics.

All is not lost. The forces of moderation and progress can fight back. Brazil’s own Lula, for all his flaws, should not be underestimated. But Sunday’s result is one more reminder that the easy language of turning points, of political pendulums swinging back, of the tide of nationalist populism ebbing out as quickly as it flowed in, offers only false comfort.

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

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!