Lula vs Bolsonaro: inside Brazil’s elections

Left: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images; Right: Andre Penner/AP

by Asia Corsano

These days, the world has its eyes on Brazil, which is currently dealing with an incredibly polarised and occasionally violent presidential election. Indeed, Brazilians are called to vote between two men that have been both, from different aspects, controversial for the country, and could not be any more diverse from each other: former president Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva, representative of the left wing, and Jair Bolsonaro, exponent of the right wing. 

The candidates at a glance

Although the candidates were in total eleven, public opinion was always concentrated on the two leading candidates, with the rest drawing support in the single digits.

What it is interesting is the complete difference in the programme and ideology of Lula and Bolsonaro, but their similarity in being controversial figures of Brazil’s history. Lula was president for two mandates from 2003 to 2011 but spent 580 days in prison for corruption charges between 2018 and 2019, when his conviction was thrown out after the Supreme Court ruled that the judge in the case was biased. He made his political comeback in 2021 and is now seeking his third mandate at his sixth presidential election, at the head of a very broad coalition. Bolsonaro has been president since 2018, and during his term has faced protests, threats of impeachment, a Covid-19 inquiry commission and several corruption scandals, together with a series of diplomatic incidents, the unprecedented economic crash, and record fires and deforestation in the Amazon that all weakened his support base. Still, he has many supporters on social media and in the ultra-conservative population.

Which are their electoral programmes?

Echoing the rhetoric that helped him win back in 2018 thanks to the votes from the ultra-conservative and evangelical population, Bolsonaro promises to defend the family by opposing legal abortion and transgender education in schools. Moreover, an important part of his programme is dedicated to the fight against crime: Bolsonaro pledges to expand the access to firearms and define legitimate defence as a fundamental right as the only policy capable of reducing violent crime rates across Brazil. From the economic point of view, Bolsonaro plans to reduce state-intervention in the economy by also selling state-owned companies, create jobs by eliminating bureaucratic red tape, slashing taxes, and investing in technology. In a further nod to investors, who backed him in 2018, Bolsonaro vows to maintain a free market approach.

On the other hand, leftist Lula vows to raise taxes on the rich and boost public spending, with also the increase of subsidies for poor families. Lula has also promised to adjust Brazil’s minimum wage in step with inflation and revive a housing plan for the poor, while guaranteeing food security for people facing hunger. Special attention was given to the environment: unlike his opponent, who believes that the Amazon should be opened up to mining, ranching and agriculture and diminished environmental protection, Lula assured he will fight illegal deforestation and promote zero net deforestation.

Disinformation in the campaign and the increasing violence in the country

The presidential election has been characterised by major online disinformation campaigns, mainly in favour of Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro himself was added to the list of people suspected of disseminating false information by judge of the Supreme Federal Tribunal Alexandre de Moraes, who ordered the opening of an investigation. To a greater extent, Brazil is identified as a country “at risk” of disinformation campaigns and theoretically benefits from additional tools to detect and counter destabilization operations. Nevertheless, several political ad campaigns online containing false information were published, containing details such as the wrong election date and misleading messages about absentee voting.

An increasing rate of violence denoted the electoral campaign as well. Bolsonaro himself fuelled the tension: by questioning the integrity of the election and citing unfounded claims of voter fraud, he warned that he would only leave office if he is “killed, jailed, or victorious.” On the campaign trail, he told his supporters to brace for a fight and declared that “if necessary, we will go to war.” This alarmed international officials and political violence experts, who are afraid that Bolsonaro’s supporters may act following the example of Trump’s advocates with their attack on the Capitol in January 2021. After a pro-Bolsonaro police officer killed a local official of Lula’s Workers Party, attacks among political supporters have escalated, with several reports of beatings, assaults, stabbings and even murders. Violence against political candidates is not unprecedented in Brazilian elections, however, officials and analysts declare that this election season has seen an unusual uptick in attacks between supporters and violent threats against public officials, ministers, and poll workers.

The polls and the vote of the 2nd of October

As the elections approached, several voting intentions were published, all showing Lula having a wide advantage over his opponent: Brazil’s polling companies, Ipec and DataFolha, released the final polls of the campaign season on October 1st claiming that Lula would receive a 13- or 14-point margin over Bolsonaro, who was predicted to receive around 36% of the first-round votes. Other polls claimed that Lula would emerge victorious in the first round alone, holding 52% of voters’ intentions excluding abstentions and null votes. The reasons for President Bolsonaro’s decrease in popularity can be found in his management of the pandemic, the economic crisis of the country and, generally, his ultra-conservative attitude.

Bolsonaro’s support vote share was underestimated, though: on Election Day on October 2nd, Bolsonaro outperformed the polls and secured 43.2% of the votes, trailing close behind Lula, who won 48.4% of the votes. This means that Lula could not reach the majority as predicted, and the two candidates will proceed to a second round of elections, with the run-off established on October 30th. Analysts have blamed the underestimation of Bolsonaro’s support share on faulty demographic data emerging from an outdated census. Additionally, during his two terms as President, Lula introduced sweeping measures aimed at combating poverty and uplifting the working class, making him widely popular among the poor in Brazil: many of the polling companies are said to have overestimated the number of people in the lowest income bracket, and thus projected that Lula would have a greater lead.

What do Brazil’s election mean for us?

Brazil is home to the world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon and is also currently the world’s sixth largest greenhouse gas emitter – mostly due to deforestation and methane from agriculture. The current deforestation rate is pushing the Amazon to what scientists call a “point of no return,” beyond which the rainforest will not be able to recover on its own and will turn into a dry savanna, in the process emitting more planet-warming greenhouse gases than it absorbs them. With countries around the world importing products like beef and soy from the region, and the Amazon playing a vital role in our planet’s ecosystem, this election has global significance. A victory for Bolsonaro would mean continuing the dismantling of environmental protections and could cause further catastrophic deforestation.