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Brazil’s Messiest Election Yet Puts Democracy on the Line

Regardless of who ultimately wins, a tightening and ugly race between two deeply polarizing politicians will test the resilience of the country’s democratic institutions

A street vendor sells towels with images of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former president, near Eldorado dos Carajas, Para state.
By Clara Ferreira Marques
April 21, 2022 | 09:31 am

Bloomberg Opinion — Brazil’s race for the top job is heating up. After lagging for months behind leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President Jair Bolsonaro is closing the gap in polls. An ugly scramble lies ahead, and a potentially tight result in October could pose the toughest test for Brazil in more than three decades of democracy.

Brazil’s democracy is likely to survive 2022. But Bolsonaro’s efforts to bring military men into government, and his rabble-rousing, disinformation and repeated undermining of public trust in basics like the voting system raise troubling questions about the potential long-term damage to Brazil’s institutions. The worrying precedent set in Washington is a reminder that even if the “Trump of the tropics” eventually retreats to backbench obscurity without a conservative political powerhouse behind him, he can still cast a long and disruptive shadow.

For now, this is Lula’s election to lose. Since his triumphant return to the fray last year, after his corruption convictions were overturned on procedural grounds, the former leader has been the frontrunner, picking centrist former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin as running mate to reassure business elites, and cashing in on his enduring popularity among poorer voters. The former metalworker may be a thief to many wealthier and more conservative voters, but he remains a hero to those who credit him with life-changing initiatives like Bolsa Familia, a conditional cash-transfer program that, along with a commodity boom, helped almost 30 million Brazilians to escape poverty between 2003 and 2014. That could hardly matter more in what one commentator described as “the hunger election,” with nearly a quarter of Brazilians reporting they have not had enough to eat at home over the past months.

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Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is blamed for mishandling the climbing cost of basics like rice and beans, which has prompted some city stores to lock meat freezers. He faces protests over eroding wages even at the central bank, supposedly battling inflation. For some voters, those concerns eclipse even his disastrous pandemic performance, which went from denials to quack cures, cycling through health ministers — one of four a military man with no medical training — then vaccine hesitancy and corruption allegations. Businesses are not thrilled either. Bolsonaro and his economy minister, Paulo Guedes, promised big changes; they have executed relatively little beyond an early stab at pension reform.

And yet, a PoderData survey last week, confirming a trend seen among other pollsters, put the gap in second-round intentions at just 9 percentage points — with Lula at 47% and Bolsonaro at 38% — down from a 17 percentage-point gap in early February. Why?

Awaiting October | Second-round voting intentions show a narrowing gap between the former president, still ahead, and the incumbentdfd

As I discovered on travels around Brazil last month, Bolsonaro is down but not necessarily out. The importance of basic issues like wages eroded by inflation means that initiatives like his Auxilio Brasil — a rebranded version of Bolsa Familia — plus other profligate crowd-pleasing spending could yet turn some undecided voters. And while his rejection rate is remarkably high — more than half of voters say there’s no way they’ll vote for him — so is Lula’s, at 37%, according to the same poll.

I found plenty of voters in the arid northeast, a stronghold for Lula’s PT and his home region, who hope the former trade unionist’s return will rekindle the prosperity of the 2000s, a time of rising incomes and jobs. A man who was once hungry understands, I was repeatedly told.

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But I also met many educated, wealthier voters, especially around Sao Paulo, who vowed they would never vote for the former president — even if he was likely to build a better, more market-friendly cabinet. They cited concerns over corruption and the threat of an even larger state. That partially explains why the exit of Sergio Moro — the judge from the epic Lava Jato investigation and third-place candidate, who appealed to disillusioned Bolsonaro voters — appears to have helped Bolsonaro, not the opposition. Never mind the allegations facing the administration.

In Brasilia, in the corridors of Congress, I found ample evidence of the current president’s core supporters, in the agricultural lobby and among evangelicals, and of their clout. Little ideology ties down Brazil’s multitude of parties, but these are powerful interest groups keen to keep Bolsonaro in power. Of course, Bolsonaro also has what Brazilians call “the machine,” or the state apparatus, and is making ample use of it, inaugurating any public works he can and spending at every opportunity.

No, Thanks | The current president's rejection by voters - those who say they will not vote him - remains at more than halfdfd

Lula, by contrast, has been relatively subdued, his campaign slow to take off and missing key ingredients, like a spokesman on economic matters. Just this month, he’s managed to tangle with the military (he’ll remove them from the administration) and the middle classes (apparently too prosperous). Worse, he waded into the issue of abortion, pointing out that a system in which abortion is illegal disproportionately hurts the poor, so it should be a public health matter. Accurate or not, it’s a message alarming to Brazil’s conservative evangelical voters.

It’s still hard to see how Bolsonaro will win in the end. If he does — and there are months to go — it will be cause for alarm. He has more legislative support today than he did early in the first term and will have far more opportunity to erode institutions like the judiciary, a firm bulwark against many of his government’s excesses and failures. Never mind the damage he can do to the Amazon, education and more.

Fortunately, a January 6-style coup is also unlikely. That’s not for lack of desire from Bolsonaro — as he demonstrated around Brazil’s Independence Day in September, inflaming his supporters and threatening institutions — but rather for lack of military support, and thanks to the strong Supreme Court; moreover, without ideological ties to the president, even friendly deputies have little incentive to back an authoritarian adventurer over their own interests.

Unfortunately, even the more realistic outcome of a hard-fought race that Bolsonaro loses is a worry. He still has time to do plenty of environmental and other damage by revising rules to stoke up his base; he will test the budget and spending limits in this effort to win votes, one in which disinformation — even with new restrictions and the impressive vigilance of electoral authorities — spreads like wildfire. Most concerning, there will be deepened divisions, regardless of who wins in October. Such polarization may well make the reforms that the economy urgently needs — from simplifying taxes to reducing the size and cost of the public sector — all but impossible.

More on Brazil’s 2022 elections:

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.