Brazil is now just two months away from its most pivotal, polarizing and potentially destabilizing presidential election in decades.
The country’s current far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is likely to face off against his nemesis, the leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Bolsonaro, who trails badly in the polls, has spent months raising baseless doubts about the integrity of Brazil’s centralized electronic voting system. Ominously, some members of the military have echoed those concerns, raising the prospect either of January 6 style violence after the vote, or a move by the military to interfere with the transfer of power. After all, just days ago, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned Brasilia to ensure that the military is fully under control ahead of the Oct. 2 vote.
To better understand what’s at stake and why things feel so on edge in Brazil right now, we sat down with Silvio Cascione, a director in Eurasia Group’s Brazil practice. The interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
Silvio, what do the polls say just two months out from the election?
It’s all about Lula versus Bolsonaro. They are both charismatic leaders – each in their own way – and are known by 100% of the electorate. It’s been very difficult for any alternative candidates to break through. Bolsonaro’s popularity has started to recover from a bad year in 2021, but he’s still trailing Lula by more than 10 percentage points.
What are the main issues or concerns for Brazilian voters at the moment?
Brazilians usually care a lot about the economy, but this is even more true now: inequality has deepened after the COVID crisis. Inflation is high and income is growing at the slowest pace in a decade. Unlike in 2018, when voters also cared a lot about fighting corruption and improving public services, this time around all of their attention is on economic grievances.
We’re hearing concerns about violence surrounding the campaigns, after a local official in Lula’s party was reportedly killed by a Bolsonaro supporter last month – what can you tell us about that? Who is being targeted and why?
It’s not like Brazil never had political violence before. Bolsonaro was stabbed on the campaign trail in 2018, and there were other incidents in the past against sitting officials and candidates. But this is made worse by the very deep polarization between Bolsonaro and Lula’s hardcore supporters. Lula’s party has reported death threats against him, and nobody can rule out another potential attack targeting Bolsonaro, after what happened in 2018. But while there are extremist individuals, there is no evidence of a concerted campaign against either candidate.
Bolsonaro has been casting doubt on the legitimacy of the vote itself for a while now, how worried are you about a contested election?
I’m not worried about election fraud or an institutional collapse. The election system in Brazil has a good international reputation and continues to be endorsed by most Brazilian institutions. Whoever gets more votes will be the president in 2023, period.
But it’s true that Brazilians have lost faith in political institutions for the most part, and this anti-establishment sentiment has led part of the electorate to question the voting system too. It’s never good when you see 20% or 30% of people, depending on the polling institute, saying they don’t trust the electoral system.
There’s no constitutional process to contest electoral results, but you could still see acts of violence or large protests, some of which could even cause economic disruptions, such as trucker strikes. I’m worried about events like that.
Brazil returned to democracy almost 40 years ago now. Is that in peril now?
That would be an overstatement. There are no conditions for an authoritarian regime in such a divided country with this institutional complexity, even more so considering the current international backdrop, which is very different from the 1960’s Cold War.
There will continue to be elections and Brazilian leaders will still be subject to checks and balances from Congress, courts, state governments, media, and other institutions.
But such a deep polarization and this risk of political violence are obviously not good for a healthy democracy. The quality of public debate gets poor, governance takes a hit. This is obviously bad. And, in the long term, the next generation of voters and institutions could be vulnerable to a more dangerous democratic erosion.
How might a contested election affect Brazil’s relations with the rest of the world?
We are seeing representatives of Western democracies warning Brazil about the importance of free and fair elections. There will probably be a lot of international support for Brazil’s institutions and civil society when they come together to defend the electoral results. [Assuming Lula wins] this “alliance” should help Lula in the early days of his potential administration, as he could reinforce his role as a “national unity” leader that can put Brazil back on the international stage.