RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — On Sunday, Brazilians choose between a future of conservative values under a far-right leader or the hope of returning to a prosperous past presided over by a leftist. In the fiercely polarized country, many are simply voting against the candidate they despise.
On the one hand, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva points to his track record improving Brazilians’ livelihoods while president from 2003 to 2010, and pledges to care for them again. Opposing da Silva is President Jair Bolsonaro, who appeals to religious conservatives and claims da Silva’s return to power would usher in communism, legalized drugs and abortion.
For months, it appeared that da Silva was headed for an easy victory. Opinion polls can be highly unreliable predictors of election results, particularly in an enormous, sprawling nation like Brazil. But analysts and politicians agree that the race has grown tight.
Bolsonaro has railed against Supreme Court justices and insistently cast doubt on the reliability of the nation’s electronic voting system, which analysts have warned is a clear sign that he could reject election results — like former U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he admires.
The Brazilian president, who says he hates socialism, has had little problem spending vast sums on the poor in the run-up to Brazil’s Oct. 30 runoff.
Bolsonaro expanded Brazil’s biggest welfare program, granted cooking gas vouchers to low-income Brazilians, gave 2.7 billion reais ($500 million) to taxi and truck drivers, and announced a program to forgive up to 90% of state bank debts for some 4 million people, among other measures.
Since July, an additional 3 million families have been added to the flagship welfare program and its spending was boosted. It cost 67.4 billion reais ($12.7 billion) in the first 10 months of the year, according to data from the Citizenship Ministry.
“Never has this amount of money been thrown to people at the same time, and the machinery been used in such an audacious way as Bolsonaro is doing,” said Thomas Traumann, an independent political analyst.
Da Silva’s Workers’ Party, which traditionally draws support from the poor, underestimated how Bolsonaro would use the levers of power, Traumann said.
Analysts say that da Silva has at times acted as though victory was assured, a matter of merely running out the clock. The Oct. 2 first-round vote was a wake-up call, with Bolsonaro significantly outperforming polls that he and allies have long dismissed as undervaluing his support. Some had shown da Silva ahead by double-digits; Bolsonaro finished within about five points.
Still, the former president has kept focus on kindling nostalgia for his tenure, when Brazil became the B in the BRICS group of emerging nations and tens of millions were rising into the middle class, eating well and traveling. The man universally known as Lula has promised a return to those glory days without detailing plans as to how he will bring them about.
“Lula’s campaign is about the past; that is its biggest strength and biggest weakness,” said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “It is the memory of boom years of the 2000s that makes people want to vote for him. But his unwillingness or inability to articulate new ideas and bring in fresh faces has left him somewhat helpless as Bolsonaro closes the gap.”
Most polls now show da Silva with a narrow lead. On Oct. 22, his party’s president released a video saying that he will only win if everyone turns out to vote. Traumann noted that the tone marked a departure from the party’s previous overconfidence.
Years after the revelation of massive Workers’ Party corruption, some voters are holding their noses and backing Bolsonaro — even those who disagree with his culture-warrior crusade, or blame him for many of Brazil’s nearly 700,000 COVID-19 deaths, and the worst Amazon rainforest deforestation in 15 years. Likewise, others who had sworn off his Workers’ Party have declared their vote for da Silva .
“This is an election of rejection, not an election of choosing who represents one’s ideals best,” said Thiago de Aragão, director of strategy for Arko Advice. “The majority of Bolsonaro supporters don’t necessarily love Bolsonaro, or endorse him, but they hate Lula more. And vice versa. They’re two of the most rejected politicians in Brazil’s history.”
In April, da Silva tapped center-right Geraldo Alckmin, a former rival, as his running mate — part of an effort to create a broad, pro-democracy front to counter Bolsonaro.
Da Silva over recent months has hemorrhaged support among evangelical voters, who now comprise roughly one-third of Brazil’s population, and his campaign was slow to enact a strategy to stanch the bleeding. Evangelicals were key to Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, but support was soft this year.
A Bolsonaro-backed social media blitz to return them to the fold has borne fruit. Some of it has been unscrupulous, claiming da Silva communes with the devil, for example, part of this e lection’s broader disinformation torrent.
Bolsonaro’s campaign outplayed da Silva by forcing him to debate a values agenda, according to Creomar de Souza, a political analyst and CEO at Dharma Politics, a consultancy.
Both campaigns have been thin on plans, and much more engaged in mudslinging and slander in person and on social media. Much more content has originated from Bolsonaro’s camp. To the extent that there have been proposals, they have centered on who will provide continued welfare, despite very limited fiscal room going forward.
In their first and only head-to-head debate, on Oct. 16, the two candidates hurled insults and each called the other a liar more than a dozen times.
Da Silva scored points as he confronted Bolsonaro with criticism of his pandemic management, causing the incumbent to repeatedly fumble in attempting to muster a response. Later, the tables were turned as Bolsonaro attacked da Silva on his party’s recent history with corruption. Da Silva himself was jailed for 580 days, though the Supreme Court later annulled his convictions on the grounds the judge was biased and colluded with prosecutors.
De Aragão said that each candidate “visibly loses his edge” when faced with their huge mistakes that were “dark points in Brazil’s history.”
Bolsonaro’s momentum has apparently stalled in the home stretch, according to Dharma’s de Souza. De Souza attributed that to local newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reporting that Bolsonaro’s economic team is evaluating changing the way minimum wage increases are calculated, and to an allied politician having a shootout with police, wounding two of them.
The candidates will square off in their final debate Friday, less than 36 hours before polls open. It will be broadcast on television behemoth Globo, reaching tens of millions of Brazilians.
“This is anybody’s race, with Lula still the favorite, but by a small margin,” Winter said. “People are going to be hanging on for dear life on Sunday watching these results come in.” ___ Bridi reported from Brasilia.