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Brazil’s election: a return to the left or growing divisions?

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

In this briefing, Freya Moorhouse discusses the regional and international implications of the 2022 Brazilian presidential election. This article was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).

The second round of the Brazilian elections came to a close at the end of October after a polarising contest between right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro and left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The election was destined to be divisive with Lula, who previously served two terms as President between 2003 and 2010, returning to politics after being imprisoned and later freed on charges of money laundering and corruption in the Operation Car Wash scandal. There has also been concerns about the heightened hostility which flared up during the election campaign period, leading to uneasy speculations as to whether Bolsonaro and his supporters would accept the election result. These worries seem justified given the protests and roadblocks in the election´s aftermath that are reminiscent of the tensions leading up to the US Capitol Riots after Trump’s loss, which foreshadow a turbulent future for Brazilian democracy.

The election

The presidential election turned out to be far narrower than expected with Lula and Bolsonaro delivering a tight race in the second round that only narrowly resulted in a victory for Lula and the People’s Party. Lula had a clearer lead in the first round at 48.4% of the vote share compared to Bolsonaro’s 43.2% that still left him short of a 50% majority. Although the left-wing candidate was expected to gain support from the central candidate Simone Tebet who endorsed Lula after lacking support to reach the final round, Bolsonaro managed to close the gap in the second round with Lula narrowly winning with 50.9% of the vote share. The less than 2% difference in vote share demonstrates how politically divided the nation is with the People’s Party appealing to both women and poorer Brazilians whilst richer voters were significantly more likely to vote for Bolsonaro. The regional split in votes was also significant with the northeastern districts favouring Lula’s party due to the higher levels of poverty in states like Maranhão and Piaui. There are also distinct religious alignments of Catholic voters with the People’s Party and evangelical voters with Bolsonaro on the basis of his traditional values.

Divisive issues

Brazil has been struck in recent years with economic issues that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and disproportionately hurt the most disadvantaged groups in society. The election has been fought largely over the nation’s financial problems of inflation, high poverty rates and minimal growth. Therefore many voters felt more confident in Lula’s ability to solve after the incompetence of Bolsonaro’s government that has been blamed for poor management of the pandemic and the economy. The environment has also been a contentious issue as a result of the 52.9% rise in rainforest deforestation in the last 3 years under Bolsonaro’s administration as well as increased illegal mining on indigenous land. Considering the importance of the Amazon as one of the world’s largest carbon ‘sinks’, many have been critical of Bolsonaro’s erosion of environmental protections from diminishing Brazil’s environment ministry to condemning fines for illegal logging. Alternatively, Lula has repeatedly stated he would aim to limit deforestation. However, it is questionable if his administration will be able to get any proposals through a congress that is dense with Bolsonaro’s allies, and if he would sacrifice higher economic development for sustainability.

Bolsonaro’s support is rooted in his commitment combating violence and crime in a nation with one of the highest crime rates in the world and 157 cases of femicide just in the state of São Paulo last year. Under his government that was elected on a law and order focused campaign and Bolsonaro’s military ties, murder rates have dropped (although still remain above 40,000 per year) and there has been stronger legislation passed that is designed to tackle organised crime. However, there have been many opponents to Bolsonaro’s re-emphasis on traditional values that have been accused of signalling a step backwards on the path to gender equality after he made controversial comments, including towards congresswoman Maria do Rosário telling her ‘ugly’ appearance meant she ‘did not deserve to be raped'. In the 2018 elections, the #EleNão protests that occurred across Brazil aimed to discourage support for the far-right politician, although others argued that his policies on loosening gun laws would help women combat gender-based violence better. Therefore, the divisive background and policies of both candidates meant this election would inevitably highlight friction in Brazilian society on inequality, violence, and climate.

International outlook and impact on Latin America

The future for Brazil in international relations seems promising. Under Bolsonaro’s government, some have criticised his approach to diplomacy as isolating Brazil from the global stage. The former President’s absence at the Mercosur summit this summer is symbolic of a lack of cooperation with regional neighbours. Yet with like-minded left-wing leaders increasing in Latin America since the 2019 Argentinian elections saw Alberto Fernández come to power, there could be a brighter future for Mercosur, especially with Lula’s promise to finally secure a Mercosur-EU trade deal that has been two decades in the making.

Relations with the US and China

Brazil’s election could also mark a change in the dynamic between the US and China. Both nations are major trade partners for the emerging nation with Chinese trade to Latin America from 2000 to 2008 growing annually at a staggering average rate of 31%. Increasing Chinese economic relations with Brazil through direct investment, loans and COVID-19 vaccines have deeply concerned Washington; this may explain Biden openly expressing support for Bolsonaro despite a lack of political alignment as the US recognises the creeping challenge to Western hegemonic influence in Latin America.

Lula may change the balance of power between US and Chinese influence in Latin America. The new President is not too dissimilar to Biden with both politicians committing themselves to combating inequality for ordinary citizens and being fairly economically centrist after defeating right-wing candidates in their elections. Furthermore, there is hope that Lula can reverse the democratic-backsliding that many have criticised Bolsonaro’s government for, which distancing the nation from autocratic China and towards the US could signify. In this regard, his amiable relationship with the US in his first and second terms from 2003 to 2010 will likely be helpful. However, the strengthening of bilateral connections between China and Brazil in Lula’s previous terms could mean that a win for Lula was also a win for China; Lula felt disappointed in the performance of the BRICS nations and may seek a path towards the Global South rather than the West.

Considering the geopolitical position of Brazil as well as it being a major regional power politically and economically, both the US and China will likely attempt to strengthen their relations with the nation. Brazil has an opportunity, although a strained one, to take advantage of this competition and Lula could use his new administration to shift diplomatic relations to benefit Brazil.

Despite being victorious in this polarising election, Lula ‘s party is faced with a variety of challenges that it will struggle to tackle if it fails to unify the party regionally and demographically. In his post-victory speech, Lula emphasised the need for ‘unity’ in Brazil, which his new government must achieve for the country to successfully navigate its economic and political challenges to develop it growing influence and potential as a rising power.

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