Lula Should Still Win Brazil’s Presidential Race. But Bolsonaro Is Alarmingly Strong.

Lula won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election yesterday and should beat Jair Bolsonaro in the runoff later this month. But Bolsonaro and his allies outperformed expectations — and Brazil’s far right remains a potent threat to democracy.

Former president of Brazil and Workers' Party candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks during a press conference at the end the first round of national elections, October 2, 2022. (Alexandre Schneider / Getty Images)

Yesterday, October 2, Brazilians went to the polling booths to decide their next president, 27 governors, a third of the Senate, 513 congresspeople, and thousands of state and local officials.

During the campaign, the left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led in all polls against the far-right incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro. Though victory in the first round for Lula was never guaranteed, analysts were confident that Lula would hold a wide margin over his opponent, with other important positions, such as the governorships of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, also in play to be retaken by the Left.

However, Bolsonaro outperformed his own polling scores and secured a second-round runoff, pulling further ahead than expected in key states such as São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio. By the end of the day, Lula had 48.4 percent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 43.2 percent.

With Bolsonarist candidates securing a large number of senatorial and congressional seats as well as governorships, the Brazilian right’s brand of reactionary conservatism shows no sign of running out of steam. How did this happen?

A Polarized Contest

The historic election saw unprecedented levels of polarization between supporters of Lula and Bolsonaro. Other candidates who might perhaps have been strong contenders in another election year, such as Ciro Gomes and Simone Tebet, failed to even reach the 5 percent mark, as Lula’s coalition and Bolsonaro’s rhetoric left little room for any kind of third-way alternative. Both major candidates had clear and distinct campaign strategies, with one defending democratic values and political pragmatism while the other drifted increasingly toward hero worship and an authoritarian discourse.

Lula’s position has remained consistent since the start of the election cycle, preaching above all else a rejection of Bolsonaro and a defense of democracy. The trade-unionist-turned-politician has come a long way since his first presidential campaign in 1988. While he was originally positioned solidly on the left, Lula’s presidential victory in 2002 brought him closer to the center left, as he governed with a policy of mutual investment and support between the public and financial sectors.

Widely admired by the end of his second mandate in 2011 with an approval rating of 87 percent, Lula left office as the most popular president in Brazilian history, only to see his successor, Dilma Rousseff, fall victim to an impeachment process in 2016 that many described as a parliamentary coup. His Workers’ Party (PT) was increasingly demonized by a resurgent right, and Lula himself was eventually arrested on charges of corruption, which prevented him from running in the 2018 presidential race.

Following the annulment of his conviction by Brazil’s Supreme Court and eventual release in 2019, Lula was once again widely regarded as the front-runner for the 2022 election. The former president could have chosen to pursue a campaign based on avenging his arrest and condemning the Brazilian right and his former opponents who so avidly supported both Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and “Operation Carwash,” the politically biased investigation that put Lula in prison.

Instead, Lula pursued a policy of conciliation against the perceived greater threat of Bolsonaro’s far-right government. Ever the pragmatist, Lula established a coalition for his campaign that many would have considered a pipe dream just a few years before. As his running mate, Lula chose his historic rival Geraldo Alckmin, a former opponent in the 2006 presidential election who also ran in 2018.

Alckmin was a central figure in the ironically named neoliberal Social Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB), and he had been an ardent critic of Lula, calling the president corrupt and supporting his arrest. Now he has retracted his previous statements and become a pillar of Lula’s campaign, with the former rivals sharing almost equal space on the campaign trail. Throughout the election cycle, Lula gained the support of figures to his left and right, placing a defense of democracy above ideological differences.

This impressive coalition did not come without a cost. Lula held out a single political promise throughout the campaign: to remove Bolsonaro and undo the damage inflicted by the far-right demagogue. That immediate concern overshadowed the usual discussion on policy and promises of furthering social progress.

His campaign rhetoric focused on the successes of his earlier presidency instead of promises for a future one. With such a wide-ranging coalition backing him, the Lula of today is not the 1980s trade unionist or the center-left president of the 2000s, but rather a figure pushed increasingly to the center.

Clinging On

Bolsonaro’s campaign struck a very different tone from Lula’s. Deserted by much of the political, corporate, and military support that helped elect him in 2018, Bolsonaro closed ranks, intensified his attacks on the Left and on the democratic process itself, and attempted to portray the current chaotic state of the country as idyllic.

From the beginning of the campaign, the incumbent president voiced doubts about the electoral process, criticized the Brazilian voting machines, and claimed that the only way he could be defeated was through voter fraud. Much like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has sought to make up for his disadvantage at the polls by undermining the election itself. Unlike his US counterpart, however, he has a close relationship with the military, and Brazil’s own troubled history with the political interventions of its armed forces stoked up anxiety.

These attacks on the Brazilian democratic process caused many to believe that Bolsonaro might attempt a coup to secure his victory. The president’s continual praise of the former military dictatorship, his overreliance on military figures to fill his cabinet, and his growing lack of options as the polls reliably predicted a Lula victory certainly indicated that he would be open to such a course.

His capacity to do so, however, is a different story. The corporate sector that threw its support behind Bolsonaro in 2018 has in large part (though with notable exceptions) deserted him in favor of Lula’s coalition. While he may be popular with many of the lower-ranking figures in the military, members of its upper echelons have repeatedly criticized Bolsonaro. Combined with the refusal of the Supreme Court to indulge Bolsonaro’s claims of electoral fraud, this made his chances of pulling off a successful coup slim at best.

While Lula built his campaign on the prospect of a return to normalcy, Bolsonaro presented the current national situation as one of progress and growth. According to the president, the country has experienced steady economic growth and a decrease in social unrest. These claims — made amid an inflation crisis, record deforestation of the Amazon, and an increase in violence against minorities and women — were dubious to say the least.

Key to Bolsonaro’s electoral strategy was his growing appeal to the Christian evangelical right. He relied upon evangelical pastors, a powerful force among the Brazilian lower classes, to garner votes, with classic conservative talking points of supporting family values, being tough on crime, and opposing “communism and gender ideology.”

All in all, Bolsonaro counted on conservatism holding strong in Brazilian society and voters’ rejection of Lula, and left-wing politics in general, to ensure himself a place in the second round. The fact that the president is currently being investigated in a number of corruption scandals only gave him more incentive to win the election, as a defeat could mean imprisonment.

Third Way to Nowhere

Though certainly the loudest and most popular candidates, Lula and Bolsonaro were not the only ones competing for the presidency. Among the other candidates, Ciro Gomes and Simone Tebet loomed large, promising an alternative to Brazil’s increased polarization. Instead, they found themselves caught between two stools.

Gomes is an old figure in Brazilian politics who was once a minister in Lula’s cabinet. In 2018, when the popularity of Lula’s PT was at an all-time low, Gomes ran for the presidency, presenting himself as a center-left pragmatist and the only candidate capable of defeating Bolsonaro.

However, his pitch as the “useful vote” against the far right failed to resonate with a majority of Brazilians, and Gomes ended up taking 12 percent in the first round, behind Bolsonaro and the PT candidate Fernando Haddad, Lula’s replacement. Many blamed him for splitting the vote of the Left, criticisms that were compounded by his refusal to endorse Haddad in the second round.

In 2022, Gomes once again launched a bid for the presidency. Now that Lula was seen as the “useful vote” to remove Bolsonaro, he backpedaled on his old line, instead arguing that the electorate should favor third-way idealism over the pragmatic vote. When election day came, his campaign appeared to collapse around him.

Tebet, a relatively unknown figure just a few years previously, gained some notoriety for participating in the congressional investigation of Bolsonaro’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The center-right politician, much like Gomes, built her campaign on being an alternative to polarization. Her capable oratory skills and self-presentation as a defender of democracy and women’s rights helped to propel the senator to the national spotlight, making her an unexpected contender for third place in the presidential first round.

When push came to shove, both candidates failed to entice the population, and the idea of “moderation” fell flat between Lula’s democratic front and Bolsonaro’s far-right appeal. Tebet secured 4.2 percent of the vote, while Gomes could only manage 3 percent.

Tense Finale

As election day approached, tensions grew between supporters of Bolsonaro and Lula, and the remaining candidates found themselves increasingly ostracized as possible spoilers for the top two contenders. On September 7, Bolsonaro turned the bicentennial of Brazilian independence into a political spectacle by politicizing the national holiday, converting what in theory should have been a day to bring all Brazilians together into a large-scale campaign rally.

As the president flew back to his native Rio de Janeiro and delivered a speech to thousands of supporters on Copacabana Beach, it became clear to many anti-Bolsonaro voters that he still possessed a significant and passionate voting base. At Bolsonaro’s side on Independence Day was not his running mate Walter Braga Netto, as one might have expected, but the televangelist Silas Malafaia as well as the retail magnate and hard-core Bolsonarist Luciano Hang.

The same day, in the state of Mato Grosso, a man was hacked to death with a machete by a Bolsonaro supporter after proclaiming his intention to vote for Lula. His death was not the last in a month that grew increasingly fraught, particularly as Bolsonaro rose consistently in the polls, shortening the distance between himself and the front-runner.

Lula’s campaign did not sit idle throughout the month either. The former president’s strategy placed an emphasis on strengthening his coalition by appealing to old allies and even rivals who were not in league with Bolsonaro.

Gomes’s campaign felt the rug pulled from under its feet as old stalwarts from his Democratic Labor Party and even his own brothers voiced their support for Lula. On September 19, Lula held a meeting with eight former presidential candidates, including figures that ranged across the ideological spectrum from the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party to the conservative Democratic Movement (MDB), all of whom voiced their support for the former president.

Above all else, the coalition sought to ensure a first-round victory for Lula. That outcome would have significantly hampered Bolsonaro’s ability to undermine the election, as many of the state and local-level candidates that backed the president would be unwilling to cast the election results in doubt, lest they also damage the legitimacy of their own victories.

In the final presidential debate, held on September 29 by TV Globo, historically a very influential last stop on the campaign trail, Lula and Bolsonaro reprised their usual talking points of a return to normalcy versus supposed continual growth. The tone of the debate grew sharply hostile as Bolsonaro called Lula a convict and was in turn branded as a liar.

The greatest victor of the debate was arguably Tebet, who once again argued against polarization, while Ciro Gomes repeatedly stumbled and alienated some of his remaining base by appearing close to Bolsonaro. Fears that Tebet or Gomes might prevent Lula from achieving a first-round victory also rose in the last few days of the election cycle.

Right-wing Successes

There were over 123 million votes cast on October 2, with about 5 million of these being either blank or spoiled. Bolsonaro’s warnings of mass irregularities and electoral chaos proved groundless. Apart from occasional isolated incidents, such as a man gluing the keys of one voting machine to prevent votes from being cast, the process proved uneventful, although observers noted longer lines than usual in metropolitan centers.

In fact, Bolsonaro had little reason to worry about irregularities, imaginary or not, as his performance far exceeded that predicted in the polls. Lula’s hoped-for first-round victory failed to materialize, and the incumbent president outperformed expectations in nearly every single state. While Lula still surpassed his rival, securing a healthy 4 percent lead with a total of 57.2 million votes against Bolsonaro’s 51 million, the performance of the incumbent came as a surprise to many.

Below the presidential level, the day was a victory for the far right. Out of Brazil’s twenty-six states plus the Federal District, Bolsonarist candidates from the right-wing parties — Liberals, Progressives, and Republicans — secured four governorships in the first round, with a big lead going into the second-round race in four others, including the populous São Paulo.

Where pro-Bolsonaro parties did not win, they usually placed second after big-tent parties of a conservative bent, such as Tebet’s MDB, the Brazil Union, or the Social Democrats. These parties secured five outright victories in the first round, including the Federal District, and are the front-runners for the second round in three others. In Minas Gerais, the incumbent, Romeu Zema — the only elected governor from the libertarian New Party — secured his reelection by a landslide.

From the remaining ten states, Lula’s PT achieved victory only in Brazil’s northeast, where it has traditionally been strong. In that region, PT candidates won three governorships outright and are the front-runners for two others, including Bahia. This leaves five states: the centrist party Solidarity took one and is the front-runner in another, while the left-leaning Socialist Party leads the other three going into the second round.

This leaves the PT with as few as three or, at best, six governors, and very few possible allies. In the Senate, Bolsonarist parties elected fourteen senators out of twenty-seven, with the big-tent conservative parties gaining an additional seven seats. As for federal, state, and local congresspeople, the results are still being tallied but do not appear favorable to the Left.

Bolsonaro’s Last Stand

A victory for Lula in the first round was always a hope, never a guaranteed outcome. His margin of victory over Bolsonaro remains sizable, and with Gomes and Tebet out of the second round, the electoral mathematics are on his side.

However, much can happen between now and October 30, when Brazil will decide its next president once and for all. With the Right strengthened in such a manner, Bolsonaro can count on considerable support for his efforts to attack Lula’s campaign. Disinformation and threats have always been routine tools of Bolsonarism, and now that the gap is not unsurmountable, the incumbent will likely make use of all his tricks.

If Lula still triumphs, there will be the issue of legitimacy. Bolsonaro will find himself in the perfect position to contest the election result should he lose by a small margin in the second round, something which is entirely possible after Sunday’s upset. The president might not have the support of key elements necessary for a full coup, but his fervent base, certain of its leader’s victory, could prove a dangerous force. With the specter of the 2021 Capitol Hill riot still looming over many Western democracies, the possibility of Bolsonaro trying something similar seems less of an if than a when.

Finally, assuming that Lula does secure his victory and is able to take office without impediment, it is evident that the president will face the most hostile Congress in the history of his career. Lula, a left-wing politician who can no longer be elected solely through the support of the Left, might find himself incapable of governing even from the center, stranded in a conservative democracy that is growing more conservative by the day and less democratic by the minute. Even if Lula wins comfortably on October 30, there is an urgent need for the kind of social mobilization that can open up the democratic space in Brazil once again.