Wednesday, December 7, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Brazil braces for turbulent presidential election

President Jair Bolsonaro is behind in the polls to leftist former leader Lula da Silva as fears grow over political violence.

(CN) — Brazil faces one of its most polarizing presidential elections on Oct. 2 with the current far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s sustained attacks on the electoral process stoking fears of political violence.

The current president trails former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the leftwing Workers’ Party in the polls. Lula da Silva served as president for two terms between 2003 to 2010.

Lula da Silva has been consistently leading in the polls ahead of current president Jair Bolsonaro. PollingData

“We know we are facing a battle of good versus evil,” Bolsonaro told a sea of supporters in the capital Brasilia on Sept. 7, as the country marked 200 years of independence from Portugal. “The people are on our side — the side of good.”

Bolsonaro has consistently called into question the legitimacy of the electoral process, describing the electronic voting system as vulnerable to fraud. The former army captain, who is a supporter of the country’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985, said in the run-up to his election victory in 2018 that he would not accept the result if he lost.

There are similar fears this year. The head of Brazil’s electoral body, Edson Fachin, warned of a similar scenario to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol given the sustained attacks on democratic institutions and processes.

“Electoral justice is under attack,” said Fachin during a speech in Brasilia. “Democracy is threatened. Constitutional society is on alert." He added it is necessary "to defend electoral justice, democracy, and the electoral process.”

Multiple incidents over the last couple of months have punctuated the deepening polarization in the country and heightened the concerns about political violence.

On Jul. 10, Marcelo Arruda, a Workers’ Party activist, was shot and killed by a supporter of Bolsonaro during his birthday party. The 50-year-old victim was celebrating at a sporting club in the southern city of Foz de Iguacu when the gunman entered and began shouting his support for the current president before fatally shooting Arruda.

On Sept. 7, the day of the nation’s bicentenary, a political argument broke out among two farmworkers in the country’s central-west region — a Bolsonaro stronghold. It led to a supporter of Bolsonaro murdering Benedito Cardoso dos Santos, a Lula supporter.

Brazil isn’t the only South American country to witness a rise in political violence. In neighboring Argentina, Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner survived an assassination attempt after a gunman fired at her from point-blank range, but a malfunction resulted in the pistol failing to fire.

Cristiano Alexandre Batista, 40, is a professor who lives in Brasilia. Until a few weeks ago, he wasn’t sure who to vote for, wavering between Lula da Silva and fellow leftwing candidate Ciro Gomes, who’s polling at 6%.

“In the end, a useful vote beats a useless vote, so I decided that I’m going to vote for Lula,” said Batista. “Bolsonaro is a guy who scares me because of his absurd, arbitrary and prejudiced speeches. He is a political parasite who uses politics to enrich his clan and offend the intelligence of all Brazilians. After his defeat, he should be prosecuted and imprisoned.”

With a view from the capital, Batista has a front-row seat to the deepening polarization in the country. “Only one side is inciting violence and hatred,” he said. “Only one side is putting people against each other under the flag of ‘Family, God and Homeland’ and attempting to exclude from political participation and public life those that have no religion or don’t believe in God. And that only those that do are the true patriots. This is not healthy for society and is not good for democracy.”

In office, Bolsonaro’s tenure has been dominated by his response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the handling of precarious environmental issues.

Brazil has recorded 34.5 million Covid-19 cases, the third highest in the world, and 685,000 deaths, the second highest after the U.S. The country’s high death toll can partly be explained by what academics François Roubaud and Mireille Razafindrakoto call the “Bolsonaro effect,” with the president’s denialism obstructing the state from effectively combating the pandemic.

Environmentally, the Amazon remains in critical condition. Data from Brazil’s space agency shows over 1,500 square miles of the world’s largest rainforest were cut down — an area three times the size of Los Angeles — in the first half of 2022, the highest level in six years. Deforestation has accelerated under Bolsonaro as his administration has loosened environmental protections and displaced many indigenous communities.

If he wins next month’s election, Lula da Silva has promised to strengthen Indigenous land rights and bring in regulations to tackle illegal mining and logging. 

Deforestation slowed by 82% during Lula da Silva’s presidency between 2003 to 2010. His presidency also introduced sweeping social programs that helped tackle high rates of poverty and inequality.

“For me, the Lula administration was excellent during his two terms in office,” said Batista, “and his speeches are moderate. They are speeches of inclusion and union,” adding that “Lula is our best option” in the presidential election.

Approval rate of Brazil presidents, covering Fernando Enrique Cardoso (2002), Lula da Silva (2003-2010), Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) and Michel Temer (2016-2018). Statistica

Despite leaving office with one of the highest approval ratings of any world leader, in 2017 Lula da Silva was convicted of corruption as part of the broader Car Wash investigations and sentenced to 9 1/2 years in prison. However, after spending almost 580 days behind bars, he was released after the Supreme Court ruled he was tried by a court that didn’t have the proper jurisdiction. By June 2021, all cases against Lula da Silva were annulled by the Supreme Court, allowing him to run for a third term in the presidential elections next month.

With around 156 million registered voters, Brazil is the world’s fourth-largest democracy. In October, it will undergo one of its greatest tests since the return of democracy in 1985.

Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.