Bloomberg Opinion — In this Sunday’s presidential runoff, Brazilian voters will choose between reelecting incumbent Jair Bolsonaro or bringing back former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Neither man is the answer to the challenges facing Latin America’s largest democracy. Brazilians must at least hope for an outcome that doesn’t make things worse.
Though some polls had suggested Lula might prevail in the election’s first round on Oct. 2, Bolsonaro beat expectations by forcing a runoff, with his congressional and gubernatorial allies also performing well. The race has been tight enough that a contested result remains a possibility. Bolsonaro has previously cast doubts on the integrity of the country’s electoral system and has said he would accept the result “if voting is clean.” A prolonged post-election dispute would paralyze the economy, widen social divisions and undermine the incoming government from the start.
That Bolsonaro is within even striking distance of a second term is astonishing. If the Covid-19 pandemic was a governance test for leaders globally, Bolsonaro failed it. He shirked a centrally coordinated response, minimized the gravity of the illness, championed bogus treatments and cycled through health ministers. Close to 700,000 Brazilians have died, the second-worst absolute toll after the US.
Such mistakes might’ve been more excusable if the president could point to substantive achievements in other areas. That’s not the case. A climate change skeptic who has portrayed environmental concerns as a threat to sovereignty and development, Bolsonaro hollowed out agencies responsible for monitoring the Amazon and protecting indigenous rights; in the first six months of 2022, deforestation hit a record high. While the government made a start on much-needed pension reform, it has failed to carry out other urgent changes, such as overhauling the tax code and reducing the size of the public service. In the run-up to the election, Bolsonaro embraced fiscal profligacy with tax cuts and cash handouts.
All the while, he has left Brazil’s democracy weakened, making unfounded claims about voter fraud and politicizing the armed forces. A second term would further embolden Bolsonaro to stoke divisions and feed culture wars, while continuing to attack institutions. At a time when Brazil needs to concentrate on revving up growth while reducing public debt, he has not done enough to suggest he could pull off that balancing act.
He may win all the same. That’s in part because Lula is an imperfect alternative. While beloved by many poorer Brazilians, the former union leader is loathed by others. A graft investigation that landed him in prison for two years, before the country’s supreme court annulled his conviction, is still fresh in many voters’ minds. Lula’s previous time in office coincided with rising commodity prices, making it far easier to carry out transformational social policies without the risk of fiscal strain. Amid a food crisis that now has 33 million Brazilians going hungry, Lula’s reputation as a champion of the poor has rallied his core supporters. But middle-class voters are likely to be a harder sell.
One thing’s certain: The winner of Sunday’s election will quickly need to dispense with sloganeering and reach beyond his electoral base — a fractious legislature leaves no alternative. After a divisive campaign, that will be easier said than done. But Brazil’s future, and the stability of the region as a whole, depends on it.
--The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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