On Sunday, an estimated 156 million Brazilians will head to the polls to elect a new president.
The outcome will serve as something of a bellwether of the international political scene. With increasing concern about the rise of far-right candidates across the globe — such as the recent election of Giorgia Meloni in Italy — Brazil’s presidential race will either reaffirm a global trend toward “pseudo-fascism” or mark a complete rejection of it; there will be no gray area once Brazil’s presidential elections are over.
That no viable alternative emerged to soak up the general level of frustration with the two front-runners is as unfortunate as it is worrisome for the future of the country and the world.
Although Brazil is a multi party country, Sunday’s election has been distilled down to a choice between which of the two viable candidates running is capable of doing the least amount of harm. Sadly, no matter which way the Brazilian electorate decides to go, it will almost certainly mark a wrong turn.
On the one hand, there is the incumbent officeholder, Jair Bolsonaro. The “Tropical Trump” who is not only endorsed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, but has cribbed many a move from the MAGA playbook. This includes downplaying the coronavirus and causing untold needless deaths, challenging climate science, spreading baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, sowing doubts about election integrity and stoking widespread fears of a Trump-like quiet coup attempt should the results be close.
The other option will be former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who served two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, and comes with his own collection of heavy-duty baggage. Up until 2019, he was nearly two years into serving out a 12-year prison sentence for his role in “Operation Car Wash,” one of the largest public bribery scandals ever uncovered anywhere. It led to 278 convictions and over $800 million in graft and illicit commissions being seized and returned to the Brazilian government. But his conviction was annulled, a decision upheld on procedural grounds by the country’s supreme court. It’s worth noting that the court is stacked with judges that either da Silva or his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, appointed while president — a move that not only freed him from jail in 2019 but ultimately positioned him to emerge as the leftist front-runner poised to take on the highly divisive Bolsonaro.
I have been a student and observer of Brazil for nearly 30 years. I received my master’s degree in economics at the UNICAMP, one of the country’s top public universities, and I worked for many years both in Brazil and abroad for Brazilian-owned companies.
What has become clearer to me over the years is that while there is a small but highly vocal contingent of dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the leaders from the two most prominent parties, most Brazilians I talk to across all political stripes wish there were better viable alternatives to choose from. That feeling is similar in the U.S.
Perhaps most importantly for the rest of the world, the next Brazilian president’s efforts to address climate change will prove critical.
But, unlike in the U.S., where voters who aren’t particularly drawn to one candidate or another tend to stay home on Election Day (nearly a third of eligible voters did not cast votes in the 2020 election, the lowest in modern history), in Brazil voting is mandatory for all eligible citizens 18 and older. The end result is a large number of reluctant voters who cast a vote for a candidate begrudgingly. Other disaffected voters will opt to leave their ballot blank or nullify their vote by voting for a candidate who is not on the ballot. According to a recent polling of 1,500 Brazilian voters, 4% would go this route — even though those ballots are not tabulated in the final count — instead of having to vote for Lula or Bolsonaro in a head-to-head runoff, should neither candidate win 50% of the votes outright in the first round.
This frustration with both leading candidates is evident on social media. Feeds are replete with hashtags such as #forabolsonaro (“Throw Out Bolsonaro”) and #naolula (“Not Lula”), but most striking is the frequency with which both hashtags are used together — a sign that the two candidates are disagreeable in equal measure.
That no viable alternative emerged to soak up the general level of frustration with the two front-runners is as unfortunate as it is worrisome for the future of the country and the world. In fact, among the many other candidates running in this presidential election, not one has even polled above 7% in recent months.
Sunday’s election is occurring against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty in the country. Brazil's economy hasn't fully recovered since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the pandemic's wake, historical racial inequities have been exacerbated. And a noticeable uptick in a radical Christian evangelical movement threatens to tear at the very threads that have long held this predominantly Catholic country together. Violent crimes continue to terrorize cities across the country and systemic corruption is still rampant.
In many respects, these pressing problems are the result of the policies and actions of Brazilian leadership over the past two decades — inextricably linked to both the Lula and Bolsonaro administrations.
Perhaps most importantly for the rest of the world, the next Brazilian president’s efforts to address climate change will prove critical. While Lula’s track record on the environment is mixed at best, Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental agenda has never been a secret. Like it or not, Brazil is the steward of the Amazon rainforest, what National Geographic has called the “giant air conditioner that cools the planet” and one of the most powerful natural resources for mitigating climate change. And protecting it has implications far beyond Brazil’s borders.
While Sunday’s vote or the ensuing runoff will produce a winner, in the end, this election has been a race to the bottom, with neither candidate representing the best of what the country has to offer. Far from it.
There is a tongue-in-cheek saying among Brazilians that “Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be.” We should all hope that someday Brazil will have the requisite leadership to marshal the country’s immense resources and galvanize its people to realize its full potential — unfortunately, such a moment is increasingly unlikely to occur at any point in the next four years under the leadership of Lula or Bolsonaro.
Until then, Brazil’s future will have to wait.