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All Eyes on Lula: Brazil, and Election Legitimacy

In this briefing, Bluebird writer Tasneem Begum Mustapha reflects on the January election riots in Brazil and their implications for Brazil’s political and economic future. This briefing was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).


On the 2nd of October 2022, Brazil held a general election for the country’s 39th president. The two front-running candidates, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro of the Liberal Party and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Worker’s party led the votes as expected, but still failed to achieve an outright majority. A runoff election to decide between the two candidates took place on the 30th of October 2022. Lula eventually defeated Bolsonaro in the runoff elections with a slim 1.8% margin, with Lula getting 50.90% of the votes to Bolsonaro’s 49.10%.

Bolsonaro contested the election results, claiming that the election was marred by electoral fraud after contesting the legitimacy of Brazil’s electronic voting systems throughout his presidency between 2019 and 2022. Brazil has relied on a digital machine to tally its votes since 1996 – voters must simply press a button selecting their candidate of choice, and their votes will be automatically counted by the machine. It took only three hours for the election results to be tallied and announced.

Bolsonaro has long advocated for a return to paper ballots, and even attempted to introduce paper ballots back into the system in 2020 until it was ruled as “unconstitutional” by the Brazilian congress. His claims have been referred to as “electoral denialism” by the President of Brazil’s state court, Edson Fachin. This denialism has taken root amongst his supporters, culminating in their storming of the Brazilian congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace on the 8th of January 2023 to contest Lula’s signing in as president.

The rioters broke into staff offices, vandalised historical artworks as well as the buildings they stormed while uploading photographs of themselves on social media. Five hand grenades were also found on the building premises by police in the aftermath of the event.

Almost 1500 rioters were arrested for their involvement in the storming, and the security personnel of the three buildings were also condemned for their alleged complicity in allowing the rioters to enter the premises. Photographs have captured police officers chatting with rioters, and they were reported to have adopted a relaxed defence strategy despite intelligence reports that government buildings were being targeted by anti-democracy groups. An investigation is due to be held on the storming of the capital, but Lula attributes the incident to Bolsonaro’s persistent attacks of the electoral system’s legitimacy throughout his presidency. Bolsonaro takes no responsibility for the incident, but Brazil's Justice Minister Flávio Dino says he bears “political responsibility” for his role in the culmination of the attempted coup d’état.

"Words have power and those words turned into hate, which turned into destruction," said Dino.

The incident parallels the insurrection in Washington, DC by Former President Donald Trump’s supporters challenging President Joe Biden’s victory on the 6th of January 2021. Both instances of election denialism call into the question the legitimacy of an election that did not turn out the way both President’s supporters predicted. This parallel points to global trends of weakening democracies and post-truth political climates, brought about by right-wing echo chambers on social media and right-wing news networks.

Economic Stakes

Despite the event not having any major immediate impacts such as the loss of lives or physical injuries, the storming of the capital poses much larger long-term impacts on Brazil’s economy, environment, and its politics. Immediately after the storming, confidence in stocks plummeted as faith in Lula’s ability to act on his economic promises began to waver.

Investors are not entirely surprised by the political tension in Brazil, but this year’s events have done little to assuage their waning confidence in Brazilian stocks and equities. They expect the currency and USD stocks to bear most of the economic ramifications due to the instability that they now associate with Brazil. However, Lula’s condemnation of election denialism has garnered the support from many democratic state actors, such as the United States. This gives Lula a political vantage point to turn market confidence around as many investors still believe that international conditions might be more significant than domestic issues. Economic actors also view positively Lula’s plans to move Brazil towards greater fiscal responsibility, including a set of measures to bring the country’s budget balance into a 1.4% deficit. If Lula’s government can roll out these measures efficiently, economists believe that it will be able to cushion the economic impacts of Brazil’s current political unrest.

Politically, Lula faces the challenge of neutralising the domestic extreme flanks of the left and right (petismo and antipetismo) to stabilise or mitigate the economic and far-reaching political impacts of Brazil’s current political climate – starting with issues of election legitimacy. His failure to do so presents a threat to two largest international stakes: Brazil’s positive involvement in global climate issues as well as her re-entrance into the global stage after their diplomatic isolation under Bolsonaro.

Climate Change Implications

Bolsonaro was notably “anti-globalist and anti-environmentalist” during his presidency. Within his first year as president, he withdrew from the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Climate Change Convention (COP25), abolished the climate change sector within the Environment Ministry, and oversaw the surge of the Amazon’s deforestation rates up to 88% between 2018 and 2019. Lula, in contrast, has promised a pro-environmentalist agenda for his policies, starting with Brazil’s membership at the COP27 (2023). His previous terms as president resulted in an emphasis on environmental conservation agendas, but they progressively weakened over his two terms as he prioritised large infrastructural projects over conservation efforts. This time, however, the environmental stakes of Lula’s policies cannot be separated from their political stakes. Bolsonaro’s climate denialism has placed Brazil in a diplomatically isolated position and garnered vast amounts of media attention. Hence, Lula must find a way to act on his promise and realign Brazil with the global climate movement to heal those rifts and reposition Brazil as an ally of rainforest conservation efforts.

Another inheritance of Bolsonaro’s anti-environmentalist approach is that traditionally weaker branches of government, such as the state government of São Paulo, have aligned themselves with international stances on the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and environmental issues, giving them a greater level of visibility and power. Lula must strengthen his coalitional relations within the government and balance out the distribution of power in favour of the presidency to fulfil his political goals. By strengthening his legitimacy as Brazil’s elected president, Lula will reinforce his ability to reconcile these branches of government into a collective force working towards his agendas.

Lula’s failure to do so could result in a greater struggle to re-establish Brazil as a member of the international community. Bolsonaro’s anti-globalist approach, including supporting Trumpian theories on election fraud, downplaying the significance of Covid-19, and engaging in frequent critiques of China – an important economic and political ally for Brazil – has left Brazil diplomatically isolated. With a united government, Lula stands to benefit from policies that involve international stakeholders. Since Bolsonaro’s actions have impacted Brazil’s ties to US, China, France, and Europe, Lula’s “emphasis on multilateralism and a more cooperative international posture” could potentially neutralise these tensions and usher Brazil back onto the global stage.

Long-term implications

The main issue here is that the riots on January 8th is symptomatic of a more polarised political climate globally. Unhappiness with a lack of results from democratic candidates is not an entirely new prospect in Brazil, but the fact that this frustration is being expressed with denialism and violence is a cause for concern.

A report from Brazil’s military in 2022 found no concrete evidence of fraud as per Bolsonaro’s claims, but it did mention flaws in Brazil’s electoral systems that have been identified before. The Ministry of Defence claimed that there is a hypothetical security threat in the programs of the voting machines but could not definitively say so as they do not have access to the system’s code. The consensus amongst political analysts is that the report undermines claims of electoral illegitimacy from Bolsonaro. However, politically the military’s inability to rule out election fraud entirely was fixated on by Bolsonaro’s supporters and eventually culminated in the events of January 8th. It might thus be insightful to consider what Bolsonaro’s ideology perpetuates – an anti-establishment movement that challenges the fundamental tenets of democracy.

Simply put, Bolsonaro’s supporters have equated Bolsonaro’s stances with the truth and everything else as a fabrication, which makes it difficult for Brazil to move forward as a unified party on any issue. The counter demonstration held by pro-democracy Brazilians and Lula’s supporters after January 8th signify a deeply divided political climate in Brazil, further supported by the close margin of votes between Lula and Bolsonaro. Although the counter demonstration could be seen as a sign of democratic resilience in the country, the slim voting margins suggest that Lula’s victory may not have been reliant on people’s support of him, but rather on their disapproval of Bolsonaro.

Regardless of one’s opinions on Bolsonaro’s supporters, it is important to explore the causes behind their resistance to democracy. If one such reason is Bolsonaro’s cult of personality, then Lula’s inauguration as president will not be enough to resolve Brazil’s issues. His third stint in office is a chance for him to prove that democracy is a viable and effective form of governance for the people of Brazil.

Bolsonaro’s time as president has resulted in an institutionally weakened economy, reduced funding for social programs, a lack of regard for environmental affairs, and a rise in poverty and malnutrition. Lula announced his intention to rebuild Brazil’s social and economic infrastructure domestically to target these issues, but tangible proposals have yet to be made.

In the foreseeable future, Brazil’s ideologically fractured government will be Lula’s biggest obstacle in the development and implementation of his policies and intentions. With Bolsonaro’s allies still in office and the rise of anti-democracy groups, Lula’s skills as a statesman will be put to the test as he faces the task of negotiating with the anti-democratic camp to prevent a gridlock in congress.

He plans to limit the challenge of Bolsonaro’s people by expanding the size of Brazil’s state with up to 10 ministries – notedly filled with his own supporters and allies – but relying on his own allies will not resolve the issue of a polarised government in the long-run ; he will still need to be pragmatic in the face of greater scrutiny. Any form of incompetence, or “fiscal imprudence” shown by Lula’s camp will face backlash from Bolsonaro’s supporters – but this backlash will not just be against Lula, but against democracy as well. As delicate a task as pragmatism may be, Lula will also have to be quick in his efforts to pass his environmental policies before the permanent consequences of heightened deforestation roots take global effect.

Additionally, Lula will also have to re-establish the power of federal government over state governments that were able to exercise greater autonomy through their disagreement with Bolsonaro during the pandemic. It is clear to see then that Lula must reconcile not only ideological conflicts within the congress, but also the redistribution of power within the democratic party itself.

While the actions of Bolsonaro’s supporters have given Lula a political advantage and focus in the short-term, we cannot underestimate the magnitude of the task that lies ahead of him in uniting Brazil in the long-term. Lula must find a common ground for Brazilians across the political spectrum before he can see the success of his proposals. Simply put, Lula’s biggest challenge in his third stint as president will be the political fragmentation within his own government. His intentions to reverse Bolsonaro’s impact on deforestation, declining quality of life and a weakened economy relies on his ability to negotiate with Bolsonaro’s camp if he hopes to make these promises a reality. Such a task will demand a high level of pragmatism and statesmanship from Lula – all within a span of only three years.

Against the clock, against a divided nation, all eyes are on Lula, Brazil, and their fight for democracy.

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