Bolsonaro or Lula? Violence Sparked By Clash of Agendas
Since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, Brazil has had relatively peaceful elections. However, the final round of this year’s upcoming election has seen a hyper-partisan environment emerge in the battle between the country’s two most polarising politicians - incumbent far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. There has been a return of violent protest, characterised by divergent opinions on key issues ranging from climate change, political extremism, and the wellbeing of democracy.
This has included a series of violent attacks, with a Bolsonaro supporter fatally stabbing a supporter of Lula and several reports regarding Lula supporters beating up Bolsonaro supporters during public rallies. These events have triggered concerns of a hostile environment threatening political participation and democracy. A recent Quaest survey for the University of São Paulo stated that 1 in 5 Brazilian voters would consider the use of violence justified to some extent if the opponent was to win, with little variation between Bolsonaro and Lula supporters. The UN has since recognised this as a serious concern and urged authorities and candidates to conduct themselves and the election peacefully.
On October 30th, Brazil will enter a second round run-off election to determine who will be president. This comes after a much tighter first round than most pre-election estimates predicted, which saw each candidate fail to secure 50% of the vote. The first round, held in early October, saw Lula secure only 48.4%, with Bolsonaro close behind on 43.2%. Experts have attributed the failure in polling to the overrepresentation of poor voters in many surveys and an underestimation of the number of far-right supporters who were reluctant to share their intentions.
This article explores the profiles of each presidential candidate - in particular, President Bolsonaro and his legacy in office - their political tactics and agendas, and posits what lay ahead for a post-election Brazil.
Candidate Profile: (Incumbent) President Jair Bolsonaro
Since his first presidential election in 2018, Bolsonaro has demonstrated a keen understanding of the populist political playbook. His recent Trumpian claim that if he should lose this year’s election it would only be due to election fraud, is only the latest example of his capacity for spreading mistrust and division to his electoral advantage. Indeed, in his first presidential race, Bolsonaro drew on the widespread public disenchantment with the political system that resulted from the Petrobas scandal.
This scandal saw the indictment of many business leaders and high-level politicians, many of whom were members of the ruling Workers’ Party. They alleged to have received millions of dollars in kickbacks from Brazil’s majority-state-owned oil company, Petrobras, including former President Lula, who was charged with corruption and money laundering in 2017. In response, Bolsonaro cast himself as an outsider and an anti-establishment candidate and successfully contested the 2018 presidential election. His adoption of a Trumpian persona rooted in an anti-political correctness stance appealed to many, seeing him win the second round of the 2018 election by 55%.
The Bolsonaro Presidency: 2018 - 2022
A central promise of Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign was to tackle crime and corruption and boost the country’s economic growth - a recurrent theme in his current re-election campaign. To deliver on this commitment, Bolsonaro emphasised the need for economic liberalisation, pursuing pro-business, open market reforms, and the privatisation of state companies, while also advancing a socially conservative agenda. The latter saw him reinforce his position against abortion rights, LQBTQI+ rights, the decriminalisation of recreational drugs, and the restrictions on freedom of speech and religion.
However, such an agenda also courted Bolsonaro global infamy, with his misogynistic, racist, and homophobic statements leading to increased social divisions, civil unrest, and discrimination and violence. His position on the international stage was also compounded by the lack of an effective health policy in his government’s response to the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, which spread across the country, causing nearly 700,000 deaths - and giving Brazil the second-highest total death toll in the world. In particular, Bolsonaro was criticised for failing to treat the virus seriously. Like then-U.S. President Donald Trump, he routinely downplayed the impact of the virus, endorsed false cures, mocked mask-wearing and social distancing, and refused to lock down parts of the economy to control the public health crisis.
While Bolsonaro did have a policy win with the reformation of Brazil’s pension scheme, which saw the minimum retirement age for men and women increase from 56 and 53 to 65 and 62, respectively, this paled in comparison with his policy failures. A salient example is his government’s failure to protect the Amazon Rainforest, which is home to many of Brazil’s Indigenous communities and over 3 million species of flora and fauna. Throughout Bolsonaro’s presidency, the Amazon has suffered increased environmental devastation. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, around 1,455sq km of the rainforest was cleared in September of 2022 alone - one of the highest deforestation rates in recent times. This destruction has been linked to the reduction of funding granted to Brazil’s environmental protection agencies and Bolsonaro’s unofficial support for deforestation, the latter repeatedly demonstrated by his ignorance towards illegal logging and the burning of the forest.
However, Bolsonaro’s destructive approach to the Amazon is not only limited to its material resources but also its denizens. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Bolsonaro’s continued disrespect for the interests of the Indigenous communities living within the Amazon has seen his government responsible for the most significant setbacks in the demarcation of Indigenous lands in favour of “an integrationist vision that focuses on ‘civilising’ the Indigenous Peoples”. Recognising the relationship between the environment and the wellbeing of Brazil’s Indigenous communities, the executive secretary of the Climate Observatory group, Marcio Astrini, stated that “anyone who cares about the future of the rainforest, the lives of Indigenous peoples and the possibility of having a liveable planet should vote to remove Bolsonaro.” Removing Bolsonaro means reinstatement of former President Lula.
Candidate Profile: (Former) President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
In comparison, the approach to government by former President Lula during his tenure from 2003 - 2011 won him much popularity. During this time, Brazil experienced an economic boom that helped lift millions of its citizens out of poverty. This popularity was soured, however, with the previously mentioned Petrobas scandal. Fortunately for Lula, a Supreme Court judge dismissed the charges against him in March 2021, allowing him to run for public office again. In July 2022, the former president became the official candidate for the Workers Party, casting himself as a champion of social and economic justice. He campaigned on an agenda that was the polar opposite of Bolsonaro, promising to prioritise reversing the country’s low economic growth, worsening hunger crisis, and inequality. To achieve this he will increase direct cash transfers, introduce debt forgiveness programs and expand social housing. His progressive agenda also includes eliminating the cap on public spending, increasing taxes for the wealthy, and addressing the need for conservation efforts in the Amazon.
The post-election political landscape
With regard to these clashing agendas, a recent survey sought to uncover the nation’s top concerns. The most pressing issues include the economy, corruption, social issues, public health, as well as crime and education. Both candidates' treatment of these concerns will determine how the election unfolds. Despite Lula being the predicted winner in the final round of elections, the world awaits the counting of the votes to see whether the polling predictions will prove to be true. The pressure on Brazil’s election between two of its most polarising figures has been cast as one that concerns climate action, Indigenous politics, and the existential contest of democracy vs authoritarianism.
No matter the result, the current tensions and divisions this election and the candidates have prompted will remain prevalent in Brazil post-election. The right-wing movement pioneered by Bolsonaro will not disappear, regardless of who is elected into power on October 30th this year.
Evangelia Wichmann is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts in International relations/politics and French at the University of Melbourne as well as a Diploma in Chinese Studies. Fluent in German, French, and Italian, Evangelia hopes to work in developing countries in humanitarian aid next year before continuing to study international relations and how to best address female rights and climate change within foreign aid.