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September 5, 2022 / Riskline Informer

Brazilian presidential election marked by polarisation and looming threat to democracy

As voting day draws near, fears of violence and anti-democratic initiatives stand out amid a polarised race to Palácio do Planalto.
Introduction

On 2 October, Brazil will hold general elections to choose its next president, governors, senators, deputies and state legislators, with a possible runoff vote for the first two positions on 30 October. As voting day draws near, the political atmosphere is all but calm given the polarisation that has taken over the country in recent years. With nearly a dozen candidates in the running for the presidency, far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro of the Liberal Party (PL) and leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party (PT) have dominated the polls, trailed at a distance  by Democratic Labour Party (PDT)’s Ciro Gomes and Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB)’s Simone Tebet. Even though it would be imprudent to call an early victory for either the current or the former Brazilian leaders, it is certain that one of them will win the race to the Presidential Palace (Palácio do Planalto).

A Lula x Bolsonaro election

While polls have shown Lula as a strong frontrunner, Bolsonaro has recently narrowed the gap. On 31 August, a Paraná Pesquisas poll marked the first time the two contenders technically tied in the race, with 41.3 percent of likely voters expressing support for Lula and 37.1 percent swinging in favour of Bolsonaro. President Bolsonaro was elected on an anti-PT agenda in 2018 after the party ruled Brazil from 2003-2016 and its image was compromised due to financial scandals and the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff. From then on, Bolsonaro, who was not widely known despite having been a federal deputy for almost 30 years, emerged as the figure that would crack down on high criminality and corruption rates and positioned himself against Lula and the PT.

However, throughout his term the far-right leader did not deliver improved safety levels and his government and family have been entangled in countless corruption cases. Adding to this, his administration’s widely criticised management of the COVID-19 pandemic, high unemployment and inflation along with the ever-present threat of a renewed dictatorship in the country due to his close ties with the military all contributed to a Lula comeback after having corruption charges against him overturned. This has set the tone for a heated political campaign that officially kicked off on 16 August amid fears of violence, which were enhanced when weeks earlier a Bolsonaro supporter killed a local PT official in Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná state, after storming his birthday party.

Over the past few months, Bolsonaro has used virtually every trick in the book to boost support for his reelection. The president sanctioned a state tax cut that dropped fuel prices, suspended a federal tax on fuel and cooking gas, increased cash transfers in the Auxílio Brasil social welfare programme and gave a raise to school teachers, among other measures. The catch: some of these measures are only effective until the end of the year, a gesture widely seen as a political manoeuvre to guarantee his reelection. As for Lula, despite being a highly controversial figure himself, he is also very popular and seeks to tap into people’s memories of his two terms in office when his government lifted millions of people out of poverty and Brazil enjoyed economic growth as well as a highly valued international role.

What is at stake

Arguably the most central issue in this year’s presidential election, the economy will certainly play a major role in the popular vote, hence Bolsonaro’s attempts to improve it. Nevertheless, the threat to democracy deserves just as much attention in the eyes of the electorate. President Bolsonaro constantly raises doubts about the legitimacy of the Supreme Federal Court and Brazil’s electronic voting system. He has just as often hinted at the possibility of not accepting the election result in case of a defeat, which could represent a major blow to Brazilian democracy and altogether shatter it if he actually set up camp in the Presidential Palace. Aiming at garnering international support for the matter, in July, the president invited ambassadors from over 70 countries to a meeting where he reaffirmed his unfounded suspicions about the voting system; the United States (US) and other countries have since rejected such claims and warned of unrest in the event of a contested election.

What is more, as a staunch supporter of the Cold War dictatorship in Brazil and a former army captain himself, Bolsonaro has appointed multiple generals to government positions, including key posts such as the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Health. Despite this greater role the military acquired and fears that they might back the president’s alleged dictatorial aspirations, they constantly say, on and off the record, that they would not embark on a power grab. Still, the threat exists. In response, in July the prestigious Law School of the University of São Paulo came out in defence of democracy and organised a letter signed by over 1 million people, including several politicians, former supreme court justices and important businesspeople.

The role of Ciro Gomes in the election

Amid Lula’s apparent inability to break past 50 percent in polls of likely voters and Bolsonaro’s recent progress, chances are that the presidential election will head to a second round. That is where PDT candidate and former governor of Ceará state Ciro Gomes could play a crucial role. Ciro will not be Brazil’s next president, but he might help Lula get there. Polling around 7-8 percent, he is another strong voice against Bolsonaro and would certainly not back the incumbent president in a runoff but the question is whether or not he would stand behind Lula.

Back in the 2018 presidential election when he came in third place in the first round, he later decided to travel to Europe and frustrated expectations of a possible show of support for then-PT candidate Fernando Haddad, who ended up losing to Bolsonaro. Once close with Lula and a minister in the former president’s first term, Ciro has parted ways with the leftist leader and also inveighs against him. However, it is possible he might lend his support to Lula in a possible second round precisely to prevent a Bolsonaro win and a further deterioration of democracy.

Summary

Far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have dominated the polls in an extremely important election with regard to the maintenance of democratic rule. To that end, former governor of Ceará state Ciro Gomes could play a vital role in a runoff.

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