Brazil’s Democracy Tested as Ugly Election Heads Toward Resolution Sunday

Activists in Brazil

Davidson College professor Britta Crandall weighs in on Sunday’s highly anticipated run-off election in Brazil.

This Sunday, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect their next president in a run-off between incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, who has already served two terms as president.

Britta Crandall, visiting assistant professor of Latin American Studies, says Americans might see a lot of themselves in the Brazilian election, where a small percentage of undecided voters in a highly polarized nation will decide between two candidates who are waging a war of insults.

Bolsonaro’s blithe disregard for political norms and brash demeanor have earned him a reputation as the Tropical Trump. Throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro has repeatedly sought to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections. Lula, meanwhile, is attempting to shrug off a massive corruption scandal that put him in prison for a year and a half after his presidency.

One more similarity: So far, the polls have proven less than accurate. That means that no one really knows what will happen on Sunday–or afterward.

What are the issues in this election?

The economy is the primary issue right now. And that’s not a surprise. Inflation has been a challenge recently, but it’s particularly fearsome here because they fought hyperinflation for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s. The older generation remembers the difficulties of that time very clearly. 

Bolsonaro has done something interesting over the past couple of months. He has really increased the amount of money the government provides low-income citizens. 

Brazil has a very effective and very popular form of wealth redistribution. If low-income parents keep their kids in schools and keep them current on vaccinations, the government gives them money. It’s very simple. And Bolsonaro has significantly increased the amount the government provides very recently. There are rules that prohibit changes to this program close to an election but he has disregarded them. 

It’s possible that this last-minute change might secure more support from people who would normally be attracted to a more liberal, left-wing politician like Lula.

But overall, this is not an issues-driven election. It’s two politicians–and political parties– attacking each other.

Bolsonaro has tried to undermine the legitimacy of the election. What happens if Lula wins?

We don’t know for sure. But one thing is certain: If Lula wins, he's going to have a hell of a time governing. It's going be a really difficult stretch of time. Bolsonaro’s party did really well in the down-ballot elections, so there’s a lot of entrenched opposition to anything Lula wants to do.

The scarier question is, what happens if Bolsonaro challenges the election? Will there be a coup? Will the military get involved? Will there be a January 6-style uprising, with citizens storming the capital? 

I don’t think that will happen because Congress meets in Brasilia, which is in the middle of nowhere. Bolsonaro supporters don't really live there. But there probably will be some degree of violence. There's been an uptick in violence just in the campaign prior to this. I don't think there would be some unified attack, but there could be spatters of protests throughout the country.

Bolsonaro’s tactics look very familiar. How much has President Trump’s falsehoods about the election influenced Bolsonaro?

It’s the exact same playbook. Something like over 60 percent of Bolsonaro supporters don't believe the election will be fair. And this is directly in response to his laying the groundwork over the past six months of sowing doubt in the legitimacy and fairness of the electoral process.

What's really interesting is that I do see a strong parallel between the ongoing relevance of Donald Trump and Bolsonaro playing by that and using that model. If Trump had faded into obscurity, I don’t think Bolsonaro would be acting like this. Ultimately, the message of Trump’s experience for Bolsonaro is to try to stay relevant. It’s easier to do that if you contest the elections.

Is Brazil doing anything different to prepare for this election?

The Supreme Court has worked aggressively to squelch anti-democratic, false messages. Brazil as a whole could certainly serve as a model for the United States in its battle against fake news, which includes robust fact-checking organizations led by major tech companies. 

Separately, we have an interesting example of the United States government actively working behind the scenes to bolster democracy in Brazil. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has worked with the Brazilian armed forces to ensure their loyalty to the constitution as opposed to one specific president, and the CIA has warned Bolsonaro to stop casting doubt on the electoral process. So contrary to the Cold War, external pressures are undoubtedly in favor of the democratic process, as opposed to a coup.