Battle for Brazil’s future is not yet over — merely in ‘extra time’
In any other election, winning by five percentage points and more than 6 million votes would mark a fairly convincing victory (in fact, this is the first time since Brazil changed its constitution to allow a second term, that an incumbent has lost a first round), but in the 2022 Brazilian election and the battle for the country’s future between former president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva and president Jair Bolsonaro, nothing could be further from the case. Lula may have won, but Bolsonaro did not lose.
The country is now set for a tense second-round run-off, the disinformation machine will be turned up to the max, political violence will intensify, and the threat of a potential coup remains very real.
So then what just happened in the first round of Brazil’s election? With 99.99% of the votes counted, Lula came first with 48.43% of the vote (57.257.473 votes), short of the 50% needed for a first-round victory, while Bolsonaro finished second with 43.10% (51.071.106 votes); centre-right Simone Tebet finished third with 4.16% and the centre-left egotist Ciro Gomes in a humiliating fourth place with 3.04%.
I would prefer not to say this in public, but the fact is these results were within the margin of golpismo (coup plotting), that is to say, they are close enough to provide ammunition to Bolsonaro’s repeated attacks on the electoral system. They also showed those members of the military, big capital and other power brokers in Brazil who had been debating whether to drop their support for a loser and perhaps even opening up backroom channels to Lula and the PT, that Bolsonaro is still a player in the game. If Lula’s margin of victory over Bolsonaro had been higher, Bolsonaro would not have had the support to attempt or pull off a potential coup. We will see in the coming days what the military, police and others have to say about the election.
Simply put, the polls were once again significantly off and underestimated Bolsonaro to a startling degree, even if they did get Lula’s level of support right for the most part. When I arrived in Brazil last week the mood among Lula supporters was optimistic, the leading polling firms had him with a 10-point lead over Bolsonaro; the question was if he would win an outright victory or not. This matched the energy on the streets in downtown São Paulo on election day, as I walked around old center to Avenida Paulista, I saw thousands of smiling faces clad in the red of the Workers Party or wearing Lula merch, and barely anybody wearing the yellow and green national football shirt that has become the Bolsonarista outfit of choice, even in the barrios nobres (posh neighbourhoods) and shopping malls.
Now, Workers Party (PT) supporters seem shellshocked; the top trending topics on Twitter during the election count last night were “calm down” and “Rivotril (valium)”. This is because Bolsonaro’s support proved far stronger than polling suggested, which was most evident in the Southeast where Datafolha had Lula with a lead of 43% over Bolsonaro’s 35% but ended up handily going for Bolsonaro, particularly in the country’s most populous state, São Paulo, and to a lesser degree in Rio de Janeiro. Part of the problem with polling agencies is that as much as everyone likes to say “don’t trust the polls”, they still shape collective expectations and there are no consequences for when the pollsters get it wrong.
In São Paulo for instance, leading poll firm Datafolha on Friday had Lula on 50% and Bolsonaro on early 36%, Ipec had it at 48%-39%: the final result was Bolsonaro 47.71% to Lula’s 40.89%, even if at least Lula managed to win the actual city of São Paulo. This was also the case in the São Paulo Governor’s race where the PT’s 2018 candidate Fernando Haddad was leading by 9% over the hard right Tarcisio de Freitas — in the end, Tarcisio finished with 42%, beating Haddad by 7%, it will now go to a second round where Haddad stands a slim chance of victory. Bolsonaro performed better in 27 states than what the other major polling firm Ipec predicted, despite running a rather low-energy campaign that seemed more Jeb Bush than Donald Trump.
In effect, this is the same electoral map as in 2018 except with significantly more votes for the PT which managed to swing one major state — Minas Gerais, traditionally the bellwether state in Brazilian elections. The Southeast, South, Center West, North went for Bolsonaro, and the Northeast went overwhelmingly for the PT. Bolsonaro, despite his horrendous record in office, the hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, environmental crimes, general incompetence and open attacks on democracy, remains popular. Over 50 million Brazilians, for reasons which will become apparent over the coming days as more data comes in, opted for him. There was no electoral repudiation of the unmitigated disaster of the Bolsonaro government.
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This is in part due to the fact that Brazil’s new right has achieved a cultural revolution of sorts and captured part of the common sense for significant parts of the country. It is also in line with the major changes in the country’s society such as the increasing dominance of big agriculture in the economy and the rapid growth of evangelical Christianity. It is also because there were likely millions of coy Bolsonaristas, too ashamed to admit they would vote for him in public, who cast their ballots in private. In addition, many of the third-party voters who had previously thought of voting for Tebet or Ciro Gomes decided “screw the PT” and voted for Bolsonaro on the day.
It is also perhaps due to the power of patronage, as Bolsonaro handed over billions to “physiological” rent-seeking interests that dominate Congress to stay in power and avoid impeachment. It is, for this reason, I would be weary of labelling this election as another case of the media and pollsters underestimating an “outsider” candidate, for the simple fact Bolsonaro is the President who commands the powers of the state, not an outsider.
The outsider narrative adopted by Bolsonaro possesses some obvious similarities to how Zuma acted — as if he was just a weak man who did nothing when he was president — indeed Bolsonaro has his own crew of Wenzenists (what did he do?). It was also a narrative reproduced in the final television debate on Globo (the country’s largest media network) by the fact it seemed structured around grilling Lula rather than the actual president. The farcical debate will be remembered for the presence of a fraudulent orthodox priest deployed by his criminal party boss, currently under house arrest, to offer softball questions to help Bolsonaro. This fake priest won over 80,000 votes.
If this wasn’t bad enough the down-ballot results were even worse: lunatics, criminals and generally anti-social candidates were elected in large numbers across the country. As some pointed out, these included former Minister of Health General Eduardo Pazuello — the most voted for Federal Congressman in Rio de Janeiro — widely regarded as responsible for the country’s disastrous response to Covid and attacks on the country’s public health system; a Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, elected as a Federal Congressman, who tried his damn best to destroy the Amazon; the truly deranged former Minister of Human Rights and Women, Damares Alves, elected as Senator for the Federal District (Brasília); and the former Minister of Justice ex-Judge Sergio Moro, who perhaps more than anyone else has done his best to destroy Brazil’s constitution and justice system, was elected as Senator for Parana (his wife was also elected as a Federal Congresswoman in São Paulo).
This does not of course mean that Bolsonaro will win a second round, Lula remains the favourite; it also demonstrates that only he had any chance of beating Bolsonaro in a national election. However, it means the second round will be a gruelling battle over the next 28 days, as a visibly tired Lula said last night to journalists and deflated supporters gathered outside his campaign headquarters round the corner from me in downtown São Paulo: “We are going to win these elections — this for us is simply extra time.”
Bolsonaro, also looking rather tired, gave a brief speech attacking polling firms for their ideological agenda. Some of his supporters, deeply embedded in their bubbles of disinformation, according to some friends, were also rather downbeat as they too expected a first-round victory against the “lying media”. Although, I suspect they will be more energised in the next week or so than the left.
If anyone, such as myself, was hoping this election would mark a firm defeat for Bolsonarismo and a vindication of democracy and progress, they will find themselves rather depressed. The far right is here to stay, it is popular, it controls much of the country and it is a solidified electoral bloc with a clear ideological vision — to dismantle what remains of Brazil’s diminishing state capacity by handing over the country to the police mafias, evangelical capos, big agro and all sorts of other dodgy private interests that form the Bolsonarista support base. Even if Lula wins, the task of actually governing as complex and tricky a country as Brazil has been made close to impossible with such an array of degenerates, lunatics and malcontents in public office.
For my PT friends, it feels like a national tragedy, the country they had hoped they would return to remains dead. Lula promised to make Brazil happy again, but happiness is yet to arrive. The new Brazil is one with a permanent and powerful far-right political movement, this emerged from the prolonged death of the old respectable centre-right which now exists only in a zombie form and on the pages of the major newspapers. As Lula pointed out, the next 28 days will be akin to nerve-wracking extra-time and perhaps even a penalty shootout rather than a resounding victory. DM