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Brazil presidential election heads to second round

Former President Lula fails to secure majority over incumbent Bolsonaro

Supporters of Lula da Silva watch the vote count on October 2. Getty Images/Photo by Caio Guatelli/AFP

Brazil presidential election heads to second round

Brazil’s presidential election is going into a second round in which Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will face incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

With nearly all of the votes counted on Sunday evening, results released by Brazil’s Electoral Superior Court showed left-wing Lula, as he is called, winning 48 percent against right-wing Bolsonaro’s 43 percent. Opinion polls had predicted a much closer outcome. Lula’s supporters even hoped he might win the first round outright, which requires 50 percent of the vote.

The outcome means the tense, heated presidential campaign will continue, with the second round scheduled for Oct. 30.

If Lula wins, it will be the culmination of a remarkable political comeback. He served two terms as president of Brazil from 2003 to 2011 and left office with an 80 percent approval rating. But then the tables turned. First, Lula’s handpicked successor, President Dilma Rousseff, was impeached for corruption in 2016. Then, in April 2018, Lula was convicted in connection with a massive corruption scandal called Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash). However, he was released after only 18 months when the Brazilian Supreme Court quashed his conviction on technical grounds.

A significant portion of Brazilian voters believe he is guilty in Operation Car Wash. For his part, however, Lula is utterly unrepentant. Announcing his candidacy in May, he said, “I was the victim of one of the greatest political and legal persecutions in the history of this country, a fact recognized by the Brazilian Supreme Court and the United Nations.”

The Brazilian constitution only limits a president to two consecutive terms, making Lula eligible to run again. However, he has struggled to articulate why he wants a third term. During a lengthy interview with Time magazine earlier this year, he kept offering vague rationales like, “I am only running because I can do better than I did before.”

Brazil is a conservative society. Lula got into trouble in the spring when he said abortion should be a universal right. His remarks provoked outrage. He was forced to quickly backtrack, emphasizing that he is a father of five and personally opposes abortion.

Lula’s opponent, incumbent president Bolsonaro, is nicknamed the “Brazilian Donald Trump” for his right-wing views and combative, occasionally vulgar style.

Bolsonaro has positioned himself as the defender of traditional values. In the early 2010s he became a vocal opponent of abortion. This was likely due to the influence of his wife, Michelle, a devout evangelical who volunteers as a sign-language interpreter at her church.

Bolsonaro took office in 2018. He rode national anger over Car Wash to electoral victory, though his reputation is not as pristine as it used to be. He took steps to protect his sons, who hold elected office, from corruption investigations.

Bolsonaro attracted enormous criticism for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He opposed shutdowns, saying only those in the risk group should isolate. He refused to get a Covid-19 vaccine, arguing he has natural immunity after contracting the virus.

Lula was not shy about trying to turn the pandemic to his advantage. Last year, he called Bolsonaro an “agent of genocide.”

However, it is possible Bolsonaro’s opposition to shutdowns won him some votes. Shutdowns disproportionately hurt Brazil’s poor, who could not work remotely. Some of them see Bolsonaro as the only person who defended their interests. This group is difficult for pollsters to reach and that may be one reason why polls predicting Lula’s winning by a large margin yesterday were inaccurate.

In Brazilian presidential elections, the incumbent generally enjoys a significant advantage. Purely from a historical perspective, the likeliest outcome is that Bolsonaro will be re-elected Oct. 30. However, Lula has proven time and again that he is not to be underestimated. Brazilian voters will decide if he deserves one final comeback.

Emma Freire

Emma Freire is a senior writer for World magazine. She is a former Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. She also previously worked at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Dutch multinational bank. She resides near Baltimore, MD, with her husband and three children.



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