What to know about the Bolsonaro-Lula showdown in Brazil

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The second round of Brazil’s presidential election on October 30 will pit two larger-than-life figures representing opposite ends of the political spectrum against each other: incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who led the country from 2003 to 2010. Lula outshot Bolsonaro in the first round of voting, 48% to 43%, but short of the outright victory some had predicted. The outcome of the second round will have profound implications for Latin America’s largest and most populous nation.

1. Why is this election so compelling?

Lula, a leftist and former labor leader, is revered by those who credit him with implementing social policies that lifted millions out of poverty during his two terms, and reviled by others who view him as a symbol of corruption. He was convicted of money laundering and corruption in 2017 and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison, barring him from running in the elections that brought Bolsonaro to power four years ago and tarnished his image with million Brazilians. A 76-year-old cancer survivor, he was freed in 2019 after a change in appeals laws, and the nation’s top court overturned his conviction on procedural grounds in 2021, paving the way for him to make a political comeback. Bolsonaro, 67, is a former army captain who was stabbed during the election campaign in 2018 and has been hospitalized several times following the attack. His supporters see him as a guardian of traditional family values ​​and an anti-corruption crusader, important campaign topics in a generally conservative nation. Opponents of the president have called him a far-right authoritarian and accuse him of promoting sexism, racism and homophobia.

2. How did Bolsonaro exceed expectations?

Bolsonaro came out stronger than leading pollsters had expected in the first round on October 2. In some cases, their polls underestimated his support by almost 10 percentage points. Part of his late push appears to stem from supporters dropping less competitive candidates — there were 10 others in the running at one point — and turning to Bolsonaro. Its performance may also have been boosted by its candidates in local elections and congress, which exceeded expectations in the country’s largest states, such as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. The improving economy and renewed government social spending also helped the incumbent.

The next administration will have to respond to growing public outrage over the soaring cost of living and rising poverty and hunger in the wake of the pandemic, even as it tries to convince investors that it is determined to pursue sound budgetary policies. Bolsonaro has promised that, if re-elected, he would privatize state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA and the national postal service, cut corporate taxes in a bid to spur investment, pass gun-friendly laws and make harder for women to have abortions. Lula said he would change rules that limit government spending, reform the tax system so the rich pay more and the poor pay less, ensure Brazil becomes self-sufficient in oil and fuel, and protect the Amazon rainforest. The vote is also a key test for Brazilian institutions, as Bolsonaro appears to be laying the groundwork to challenge a result he dislikes by questioning the integrity of the election.

4. How is Bolsonaro questioning the integrity of the election?

He said only God could remove him from office and has for most of his four years in government sought to undermine institutions that impose checks and balances on his powers. He has repeatedly questioned the reliability of the country’s electronic voting system, even claiming without evidence that the 2018 election was rigged against him because he failed to win in the first round. It fueled fears he could mimic then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 US election result. At the end of July, Brazilian bank and business executives, lawyers, economists and other professionals signed a letter defending the country’s electoral system and warning that attacks on it posed an “tremendous danger” to the democracy. The letter did not mention Bolsonaro by name. The president has denied he would consider staging a coup if he loses the election and recently pledged to accept the election result in a bid to win over moderate voters. After exceeding expectations in the first round of voting, Bolsonaro toned down his criticism of the electronic system.

5. What do the polls show now?

Polls still suggest Lula is the favorite, but Bolsonaro is gaining ground and closing the gap. The left-wing challenger saw his advantage over the incumbent shrink to 5.6 percentage points in a Quaest poll released on Wednesday, from nearly 8 points two weeks ago. An Ipespe poll released the day before showed the candidates were statistically tied, although the two polls moved within the margin of error.

6. What is the appeal of Lula?

It evokes memories of a golden period for Brazil, when government policies funded by a commodity boom succeeded in eradicating hunger, reducing poverty and strengthening the ranks of the middle class – good times that he pledged to revive. He also enjoys the support of those who accuse Bolsonaro of botching the handling of the pandemic and undermining democratic institutions and civil rights.

7. What has Bolsonaro done to improve his position?

He has spent heavily to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 and, more recently, to temper the rising cost of living for vulnerable Brazilians. Its popularity hit an all-time high during the pandemic as the government distributed 600 reals ($111) in cash to the poor. With double-digit inflation at the start of this year, Bolsonaro spearheaded legislation to temporarily increase subsidies for around 18 million families and led efforts to cut taxes on fuel. It also distributes temporary cash assistance to truck and taxi drivers to protect them against rising fuel prices.

8. How is the Brazilian economy doing?

The state of the economy is, by far, the main concern of Brazilian voters, and it has shown signs of improvement in recent months. Growth beat expectations in the second quarter and the unemployment rate fell in August for the sixth consecutive month, reaching 8.9%, the lowest level since 2015. Economists see Brazil ending the year with an expansion of 2.7% of gross domestic product and a slowdown in inflation to 5.6%, which is a much better prospect than at the start of 2022.

–With help from Martha Beck.

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