As usual, Brazil finds itself between a rock and a hard place, faced with the unenviable choice between two traditional populists in the upcoming election. But fortunately, most Brazilians lean toward democracy and open elections as opposed to the absence of means of political expression. The democratic system, with the 1988 Constitution, has held up until now, in spite of multiple and manifest deficiencies. And it should continue to do so. But there is also a lot of frustration as Brazilians want economic opportunity, jobs, education, health care, security, not to mention wanting to be heard periodically. These basics are lacking and many people feel that their best opportunity starts at the international airport, but if they can’t leave, they easily fall prey to populist promises and the traditional expectation that the state should provide.
The first round of the general election takes place in just two months and the official campaign begins in August with the allocation of free TV time and the use of government resources handed to the parties for campaigning. This year’s election is unprecedented in that it pits two presidents against each other. Moreover, the apparent ideological difference between the two candidates is stark. On the one hand, former President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva (2002-2010) comes from the left with his origins in the Brazilian labor unions. Jair Bolsonaro 2018-present) seeks reelection from the right and emphasizes his military background and his support of the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
On the surface, Brazil election might illustrate a traditional clash between socialism and capitalism, central planning versus the free market, and state-owned enterprise as contrasted to private initiative. This superficial perspective hides the complexity and the reality. Since at least the 1930’s Brazil’s government has played a preponderant role in organizing the economy and taking responsibility for development, as well as anticipating social demands by supplying, at least in theory, the social services typical of social democratic European nations. Government driven organization slowed the development of civil society and created expectations that the best opportunities would be in the government and in state owned or national enterprises. The idea is to be on the side of whoever controls the state apparatus.
Any contrast, between Lula and Bolsonaro along right/left or capitalist/socialist lines, is misleading as both come out of the context of dependency upon the state. Bolsonaro joined the military seeking a career. When he was essentially retired, or thrown out, he leveraged his experience to become a congressman and as a back bencher did little except use his office to help family and friends while advocating for military pensions and benefits. In a somewhat similar fashion, Lula came out of poverty in Brazil’s northeast and became a laborer in Sao Paulo. Having natural charisma, Lula worked with his hands long enough to lose a finger and then became entrenched in the union movement, also supported by government funding. One could argue that neither has held a real job over the last 30 to 40 years. In spite of this each was elected with over 50 million votes, showing the volatility of the electorate and each candidate’s popularity and populist appeal.
Opinion polls show Lula leading the race. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, is desperately seeking to gain inroads on Lula’s support by spending on the poor, favoring certain interest groups like truckers, evangelicals and the military. Bolsonaro’s 2018 program, based on being an outsider, a moral crusader, an enemy of corrupt governance and an advocate of privatization is basically in shambles. In practice, the President has yielded to the venality of the political class, now feeding pork to politicians in return for their support. At the same time, he uses the tried and true sloganeering against communism.
Lula, in turn, has no program that he wants to express openly and hopes that voters might remember the so-called good times of his previous administrations that benefited tremendously from a much more favorable environment with China’s demand for Brazilian commodities. This has changed and perhaps more people remember, as is typical, the corruption scandals of his party’s administration rather than the good things that happened such as landing the Olympics (2016) and World Cup (2014). It remains to be proven that Lula can actually revive his popularity which at one point was unparalleled.
Bolsonaro’s reelection effort thrives on creating instability and the illusion that a strong “moral and Christian” leader is needed to deliver results. So, he threatens to close the Supreme Court or reject the results of the election due to supposedly corruptible and ineffective electronic voting devices. He taking pages from the Trump playbook, and if he loses the vote, he could then attempt some sort of January 6 type maneuver. A coup or putsch or even semi-legal contesting may happen but won’t result in success. Brazil’s electoral system will prevail in the end. Brazilian civil society has gradually matured and its current complexity requires rule of the law and institutional stability. In the end, the populace supports this process.
If Lula is elected, he too will be kept in check in terms of any more radical statist measures or attempts at consolidating power independent of Congress and the courts.
True, the polarization makes it difficult for Brazil to find success but, in the end, progress will be made in solving and reconciling. It may not be in the next four years or even in the next 10 but as sure as God is Brazilian (Deus é Brasileiro), the country will improve because the people, the complexity and wealth of resources demands that it do so.