- Camila Bailey
It’s Time to Tune into Brazil’s 2022 Presidential Elections!
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
In this Briefing, our contributor Camila Bailey has sought to explain the unfolding political situation for observers, electoral participants and activists ahead of the 2022 Brazilian Presidential elections.
The Brazilian presidential elections may still be a year away, but campaigning is already in full swing and recent events indicate the coming cycle will be anything but standard.
The pandemic has brought difficulties for incumbent governments across the world who are seeking reelection, and current President Jair Bolsonaro differs only in his approach. Bolsonaro, who claims he is not vaccinated against Covid-19 and refuses to wear a mask, has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus despite Brazil’s approximately 600,000 recorded Covid-19 deaths in a country of 214 million. This is the second highest death toll worldwide (1). Bolsonaro continues to dissuade Brazilians from social distancing and has even joined anti-lockdown protests. As a result, he is currently facing the lowest popularity ratings he has seen since coming into office. One recent survey from PoderData showed President Bolsonaro with a 58% disapproval rating with those polled considering him “bad” or “terrible (2).”
Nevertheless, with a long year ahead before the election, Bolsonaro is using every moment he can to preempt his (seemingly unlikely) victory. On September 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, he called for pro-government rallies and his supporters delivered. 400,000 marchers gathered in Brasília, with a second mass gathering of roughly 125,000 held in São Paulo that afternoon. Smaller demonstrations favorable to the current administration have been and are still being held in other towns and cities (3).
On October 2, exactly a year away from election day, people took to the streets in Brazilian capitals across the country to protest against the incumbent government (1). Marchers called for the impeachment of Bolsonaro and criticized his administration’s botched response to the pandemic, as well as the country’s rising inflation and astronomical fuel costs. However, turnout for the pro-government rallies supporting Bolsonaro the month prior mobilized greater numbers than the oppositional movements, which were organized by leftist organizations and some unions tied to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula)’s Workers Party (1).
The two rallying movements represent the two major presumed contenders for the 2022 elections: President Jair Bolsonaro, running this time as an independent; and likely Workers’ Party candidate, former president Lula, a two-term president from 2003 to 2010. Lula is currently leading in the polls despite the fact that he has yet to formally announce his candidacy. Current reports from Datafolha show Lula potentially winning 46% of the votes in the first round, followed by Bolsonaro with 26%. In a simulated runoff, Lula would win 56% of votes versus 31% for Bolsonaro. Furthermore, according to Datafolha, the September 7 rallies held by Bolsonaro to seek support did not modify the electoral outlook (4).
Adding to the anti-Bolsonaro campaign are the 130 petitions for his impeachment that have been piling up since the start of his administration in 2019. The main obstacle standing in the way of these petitions moving forward in the courts is the current President of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil, Arthur Lira. With Bolsonaro’s backing, Mr. Lira was elected as president of the lower house early this year. Mr. Lira has, perhaps unsurprisingly, shown reluctance to begin the impeachment process, arguing that it would destabilize the country politically and economically if the President were challenged in such a way. Around the same time, the Democrats’ (DEM) Rodrigo Pacheco, another Bolsonaro ally, was elected Senate speaker, granting Bolsonaro yet more political protection (5).
Even having dropped his party affiliation with the former PSL (now Brazil Union party), Bolsonaro is able to hold the support in the Senate and Chamber with the help of Lira and Pacheco. Furthermore, the endless perks he can promise members are highly attractive - they come most often in the form of government funded projects that please their constituents and keep them safely in their seats.
An investigation conducted by O Estado de S. Paulo found that Bolsonaro’s government set aside about 20 billion reais ($3.9 billion) for these kinds of favors, also referred to as “pork projects” (6). With his purchased loyalty from Senate and Chambers members, and with Lira and Pacheco in place, Bolsonaro is thought to have enough allies in Congress to block any potential impeachment vote (7).
Despite rising dissatisfaction with President Bolsonaro, Lula supporters should expect a long and uncertain campaign trail. Bolsonaro still harbours the support of about a quarter of the electorate. While his current polling and political situation is far from ideal, his political support is relatively stable and his approval rating remains higher than past Brazilian presidents that faced impeachment (2).
Using similar rhetoric to that of former President of the United States Donald Trump in the run up to the 2020 US federal elections, Bolsonaro is sowing the seeds of civil unrest. For years, Bolsonaro has criticized the alleged vulnerability of the Brazilian election system, with such bombast only increasing in recent months. His Independence Day rallies were centered on calls to change the electoral system and many remain concerned the marches were held in preparation of an eventual self-coup, in which Bolsonaro could close Brazil’s democratic institutions and seize dictatorial power (3).
In the case of the United States, allegations of voter fraud put the peaceful transition of power at risk for the presidential elections, and threaten to do the same for those in the future. For a young democracy like Brazil, the consequences could be dire (8).
As a former army captain, Bolsonaro has maintained a close relationship with the armed forces throughout his presidency, even filling senior government roles with army leaders. However, at the height of his shift in popularity earlier this year, Bolsonaro abruptly dismissed his defense minister, General Fernando Azevedo e Silva. Shortly after the announcement, all three leaders of the Brazilian armed forces resigned. No reasons were given for the sudden departures but experts speculate the president sought support from the armed forces and was met with resistance from experienced military leaders unwilling to assist in his political projects (9).
Nevertheless, Bolsonaro still holds significant support within the rank and file of the state-based military police forces (9). This support should not be discounted, especially as Bolsonaro has frequently made remarks praising Brazil’s military regime and the military dictatorship of the 1960s to the 1980s (10). Even without the backing of top military leaders, Bolsonaro has created a strong network of political and military allies that would be willing to stand behind him on his aggressive campaign against claims of voter fraud.
Election fraud was a serious problem in Brazil before electronic voting was introduced in the 1990s (11). Before that happened, there were other moments in which some groups, like the military, contested election results. But there has been no such threat since Brazils’ transition to constitutional democracy in 1988 (9). Brazil’s electronic voting system has also been lauded for its exceptional ability to eliminate fraud and accelerate the process of producing final results in one of the largest countries in the world. Last year’s municipal elections counted the votes of more than 147 million constituents spread across 5,567 municipalities using over 400,000 voting machines (12).
Despite there being virtually no risk of election fraud, Bolsonaro still has a year of campaigning to continue to foment doubt and suspicion about the voting process. The immensely successful September 7 rallies were held when Bolsonaro’s approval ratings were at their lowest due to his poor handling of the pandemic. Polling closer to the election date may change, especially as Brazil’s economy shows signs of growth and recovery from Covid-19 (13).
As previously noted, Bolsonaro’s approach to leadership has been frequently compared to former President Donald Trump’s, and the similarities are clearly noteworthy (10). The two presidents have both downplayed the severity of the pandemic and enacted policies that threaten minority groups and policies which prioritize economic development over environmental preservation. Additionally, they have also used violent rhetoric to mobilize their base while simultaneously attacking the country’s political establishment. Their most alarming similarity, however, lies in their unwillingness to accept defeat. In regards to the upcoming election, Bolsonaro has said, “I have three alternatives for my future: being arrested, killed or victory,” later rescinding the first as a viable option (14).
Donald Trump caused, and arguably continues to cause, extensive damage on the United States’ democratic institutions. While direct comparisons between country-specific governance are complicated and sometimes unhelpful, if Bolsonaro continues on his current path - encouraging distrust of the Brazilian government by voters, building a strong base with military allies and the heads of (federal) states ready to follow him into the inferno - Brazil’s nascent democracy could face collapse.
Donald Trump faced multiple impeachments during his term, is currently facing legal cases and has been held widely responsible for the scandal of the Capitol attack, and yet is still discussed as a popular GOP candidate for the 2024 U.S. presidential elections. The story seems to mirror Bolsonaro’s path. With supporters still willing to take to the streets to demonstrate their loyalty, legal threats over violence and aggressive protest are not enough to dispel committed Bolsonaristas. The Brazilian President, an experienced politician, knows how to campaign and has demonstrated he is willing to use whatever means necessary to get ahead. As the country continues to struggle in the ongoing battle against Covid-19, it will have to focus any remaining efforts it has on the fight against Bolsonaro’s dismantling of Brazilian democracy.
1 Brasil: Protestan por estrategia de Bolsonaro ante pandemia, Associated Press, published on (3 October, 2021), Link: (https://apnews.com/article/8d4dfbfb8d0af7c3d2cab13e17faa13f).
2 Rejeição ao trabalho de Bolsonaro vai ao recorde de 58%, mostra PoderData, Sophia Lopes, Poder 360, published on (30 September 2021), Link: (https://www.poder360.com.br/poderdata/rejeicao-ao-trabalho-de-bolsonaro-vai-ao-recorde-de-58-mostra-poderdata/).
3 Bolsonaro supporters clash with police before major rally in Brasília, Tom Phillips, The Guardian, published on (7 September, 2021), Link: (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/07/bolsonaro-supporters-clash-with-police-before-major-rally-in-brasilia ).
4 Lula retains solid lead over Bolsonaro for 2022 Brazil race, poll shows, Reuters, published on (17 September, 2021), Link: (https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/lula-retains-solid-lead-over-bolsonaro-2022-brazil-race-poll-shows-2021-09-17/).
5 Brazil Congress elects Bolsonaro allies as new leader, Al Jazeera, published on (2 February, 2021), Link: (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/2/brazil-congress-elects-bolsonaro-allies-as-new-leaders).
6 Jair Bolsonaro is facing a political reckoning in Brazil. How far will it go?, Jen Kerby, Vox, publish on (4 June, 2021), Link: (https://www.vox.com/2021/6/4/22456981/brazil-jair-bolsonaro-impeachment-protests-coronavirus).
7 Covid hearings fall for Bolsonaro ally’s trap, Gustavo Ribeiro, The Brazil Report, published on (29 September, 2021), Link: (https://brazilian.report/opinion/2021/09/29/covid-hearings-luciano-hang/).
8 Bolsonaro Is Getting Desperate, and It’s Clear What He Wants, Vanessa Barbara, The New York Times, published on (15 September, 2021), Link: (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/15/opinion/bolsonaro-brazil-independence-day.html).
9 Brazil’s Armed Forces Chiefs Resign Abruptly Amid Cabinet Shake-Up, Ernesto Londoño and Letícia Casado, The New York Times, published on (30 March, 2021), Link: (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/30/world/americas/brazil-bolsonaro-military-resignations.html).
10 For Trump, Brazil’s President Is Like Looking in the Mirror, Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, published on (19 March, 2019), Link: (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/19/us/politics/bolsonaro-trump.html).
11 Yes, a January 6 could happen in Brazil, Silvio Cascione, GZero Media, published on (6 August, 2021), Link: (https://www.gzeromedia.com/viewpoint/yes-a-january-6-could-happen-in-brazil).
12 Election victory, death or prison: Bolsonaro names his three alternatives for 2022, Reuters, The Guardian, published on (29 August, 2021), Link: (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/29/election-victory-death-or-prison-bolsonaros-names-his-three-alternatives-for-2022).
13 Brazil: Sustaining a Strong Recovery, International Monetary Fund, published on (23 September, 2021), Link: (https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2021/09/22/na092221-brazil-sustaining-a-strong-recovery).
14 Bolsonaro sees three options for future: Prison, death or victory, Al Jazeera, published on (29 August, 2021), Link: (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/29/bolsonaro-sees-three-options-for-future-prison-death-or-victory).