São Paulo, Brazil, on October 1, 2022. Image Credit: Shutterstock/Yuri Murakami

When Brazilians went to the polls on Sunday, October 2, most observers—and most pollsters—expected that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the leftist former president, and his Workers’ Party (PT) would decisively defeat his chief opponent, Jair Bolsonaro, the current President from Brazil’s Liberal Party (PL).

But the predictions of the pollsters turned out to be wrong—and liberal and left-wing Brazilians were stunned to discover that Bolsonaro had forced a runoff, while his populist allies in many parts of the country had surged to victory.

Although Lula is still favored to win in the runoff, his victory is not assured. 

There are two fronts in the next battle. The first is the 20.9 percent of the electorate that didn’t vote in the first round. This is very strategic because the preferences of the people who voted last week are very entrenched and unlikely to change. Even though the defeated candidates Ciro Gomes and Simone Tebet declared their support to Lula, their capacity to transfer votes is unknown.

The second is the election in two Brazilian “swing states”: Minas Gerais and the Rio Grande do Sul. The Brazilian election is different from that of the United States because there is no state delegation and the popular vote decides the winner. Yet since 1994, the population in those states has repeatedly changed their electoral preference more than in others. This time, Lula won in Minas Gerais, and Bolsonaro in the Rio Grande do Sul. These are the country’s only real swing states; all the others have a more established preference for Lula or Bolsonaro.

Unfortunately, Bolsonaro has an advantage in the second front. Zema, the popular re-elected Minas governor, declared his support for Bolsonaro. Onyx Lorenzoni (PL), former chief of staff in Bolsonaro’s administration, is the favorite in the Rio Grande do Sul runoff. Thus, Lula will have more difficulty campaigning in these states.

Were Bolsonaro to win re-election, it would shame the country in the eyes of the world; Brazil’s government would continue to pursue regressive and potentially destructive policies in education, culture, and the environment.

If Lula is elected, he will face a challenging scenario, even more difficult than what his successor, Dilma Rousseff (PT), had to deal with in her second term as president and leader of the Brazilian Left.

The roots of Brazil’s current predicament lay in the “June Protests” of 2013. These demonstrations became the largest in Brazil in over a decade; initially organized to protest fare increases for public transportation, the protesters embraced other issues such as the corruption of the federal government and the brutal force the police used against the protesters.

Before the protests, the coalition federal government of the left-wing PT and center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) held more than 80 percent of the seats in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies.

After the protests, the popularity of both major parties plummeted—creating an opening for the social democratic party (PSDB) on the center-right and an increasingly far-right populist rhetoric led by Bolsonaro.

At first, the PSDB was able to harness middle-class dissatisfaction with the PT as its members suffered a decline in relative income. Also, identity politics and affirmative action triggered evangelical, racist, and patriarchal reactions that deepened political partisanship. The 2015–2016 major corruption scandal created more stresses for the ruling Workers’ Party, culminating in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-picked successor.

Yet Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 triggered another series of dramatic changes in Brazilian politics. The first is the PSDB’s collapse. Once one of the most important parties in Brazilian politics, the PSDB wasn’t even able to field a presidential candidate this year. Moreover, it didn’t elect any governor in the first round and it now has only four candidates contesting the runoffs—all with scant chances of success. In Congress, the PSDB shrank in the Chamber of Deputies from 22 to 13 (513 total) and in the Senate from 6 to 4 (81 total).

The second is the establishment of Bolsonarism as the most powerful political movement in Brazil: his coalition elected 8 governors in the first round and has a high chance of victory in 7 runoffs—including Sao Paulo. In Congress, supporters of Bolsonaro elected 187 deputies and 23 senators.

The third is the relative weakness of the left-wing “Brazil of Hope” (Fe Brasil) coalition created by Lula and the PT, in alliance with the Communist Party and the Greens, which is today less strong than Bolsonarims. Fe Brasil elected 5 governors, all in the North and Northeast regions, and is contesting the runoffs in 4 other states. In the Chamber of Deputies, its coalition now has 80 deputies (12 more). However, in the Senate, it elected only 11 senators, losing one representative. (Sources of electoral results: Uol and Folha de S. Paulo.)  

All in all, hardcore right-wing parties elected 256 deputies and 35 senators in Congress, while Bolsonaro’s opposition now has only 128 deputies and 13 senators. If there is a silver lining to these stunning results, it’s that Bolsonaro’s performance has prevented him from questioning the electoral process.

The fourth result is the deepening of polarization, especially when focusing on the presidential election. The most straightforward is the regional division—most northern and northeast states supported Lula while all the other regions supported Bolsonaro. Religious polarization again prevailed, with the majority of evangelicals favoring Bolsonaro. Lula has strong support among the poor and weak support from Blacks and women. (Source: Datafolha.)

There are good reasons to think Bolsonaro won’t beat Lula in the runoff later this month. During the pandemic, his popularity went down due to the terrible management of the situation, which caused thousands of avoidable deaths. (In November 2021, only 29 percent of the population approved his administration, and 65 percent rejected it. Source: AtlasIntel.) He underestimated the COVID threat by stimulating people to continue their activities even when infection rates were high, and vaccines were not yet available. He also delayed the vaccine purchase and publicly discouraged its use.

In June 2022, inflation peaked, reaching 11.89 percent per year. (Source: IBGE.) In 2021, the unemployment rate achieved a record high of 14.7 percent, and 15 million people were facing severe food insecurity. (Sources: IBGE, Global Voices.) Videos went viral on the internet with people searching for food in trash trucks or asking for bones in butcher houses. Every year since Bolsonaro’s inauguration, the Amazon rainforest deforestation rates have reached record levels—with a persistent invasion of Natives’ reservations. 

Still, Bolsonaro’s strong showing suggests that Lula also faces some real challenges. Many voters hold Lula responsible for the corruption scandals. Some conservative Brazilians believe that Lula threatens the family because he favors drug liberalization, homosexuality, and abortion. In the eyes of many electors, PT is responsible for the economic crisis between 2014–2017 that caused a 7 percent decrease in the GDP and high unemployment. Moreover, Lula’s support for the left-wing administrations in Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua raised fears that he would establish a left-wing dictatorship like that in Venezuela.

Brazil is at a political crossroads. If voters ultimately elect Lula, his priority must become finding someone else who can lead Brazilian sustainable development and reduce inequality. At the moment, Lula is both the problem and the solution—the problem because his history of corruption and his leftist agenda are polarizing; the solution because Lula at the moment is the only politician able to defeat Bolsonaro.

Theo Vasconcelos de Almeida is a PhD student of political science at the New School for Social Research.