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What Factors Will Decide Who Wins Brazil’s Election?

Photo of Lula Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, pictured Sunday at a polling station, was the top vote-getter in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. He faces current President Jair Bolsonaro in an Oct. 30 runoff. // Photo: Facebook Page of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva emerged Sunday as the top-vote-getter in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, but he did not get the more than 50 percent that would have been necessary to avoid an Oct. 30 runoff against incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. Lula garnered about five percentage points more than Bolsonaro in the first round, a closer-than-expected result, as polls before the election had shown Lula with a double-digit lead. What factors were most responsible for Sunday’s results? How much of a chance does Bolsonaro have against Lula in the runoff? What factors over the coming weeks will have the most influence on the election?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Two things now seem clear about the Brazilian election. First, the pollsters got it wrong—or, more accurately, half wrong. The predicted vote for Lula was on target, within the margin of error. But the count was way off for Bolsonaro, who got 30 percent more votes than expected. Second, unless Lula unexpectedly pulls off a landslide victory in round two, Bolsonarismo will remain a powerful, destructive feature of Brazilian politics for years to come. Many explanations have emerged for the glaring errors in pre-election polling. Some voters may have been uncomfortable admitting their support for Bolsonaro. Perhaps Bolsonaro’s legions were just more committed than Lula’s and cast many more ballots than expected. Maybe the pollsters’ samples were not representative of the voting public. Or maybe it was some combination of all of those. With his five-point victory last Sunday coupled with the predicted voting patterns of other first-round candidates, Lula should be a clear favorite. But Bolsonaro has the momentum. His supporters are more enthused and energized than ever, while Lula’s voters appear stunned and dispirited. Although possibly at the cost of losing some left-wing allies, Lula will almost certainly seek support from more centrist, more moderate voters. He started on that path in round one, principally by selecting a conservative-leaning vice president. Bolsonaro’s strategy is harder to foresee. He won the presidency in 2018 and made himself a contender now by sticking with his vulgarity and extremism, so why should he change now? Both Lula and Bolsonaro may be pressed to set out their policy agendas, which have so far been neglected. Economic recovery is the most crucial issue voters are concerned about, and neither candidate has yet set clear proposals. Whoever is more compelling stands to gain ground. What is crystal clear is how difficult it will be to govern Brazil over the next four years and beyond—with the country now bitterly polarized and its citizens distrustful of their government and most other institutions.”

Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues, associate professor and coordinator of the postgraduate program in international relations at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil: “The result of Brazil’s presidential election was extraordinary for former President Lula, who beat Bolsonaro by a margin of more than six million votes. This, considering that the current president mobilized enormous government resources, with the support of Congress, to change the constitution and approve temporary measures prohibited in an election period to benefit the population in favor of his candidacy. The polls are not wrong about Lula’s voting capacity, since his 48.43 percent is within the margin of error of the methodology. However, candidates Simone Tebet and Ciro Gomes had fewer votes than expected, which reveals an early migration of part of their voters to Bolsonaro already in the first round, something that the polls failed to capture. In addition, there was a strong ultra-right wave in the election of senators and deputies, which benefited the increase of Bolsonaro’s legislative bench and the attraction of votes for his candidacy. Indeed, the contest between Lula and Bolsonaro will be tight. From the political perspective, Tebet’s support for Lula will have a weight to legitimize his broad coalition from the center to the left for the second round. At the institutional level, the actions of the Superior Electoral Court in curbing fake news and the violence of the Bolsonaro supporters—a great achievement of the court in the first round—is another factor that will count in Lula’s favor. Because just like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro uses his digital militias to foment fear and misinformation to try to win the election.”

Gabrielle Trebat, managing director for Brazil and the Southern Cone at McLarty Associates: “President Bolsonaro outperformed polling expectations in the first round, coming in at 43 percent to Lula’s 48 percent; polls previously predicted a spread of some 10 percentage points. Many conservative candidates including Bolsonaro allies also outperformed in Brazil’s congressional and gubernatorial elections. Bolsonaro’s party is now the largest in the lower house and Senate. In the Senate, several of Bolsonaro’s former cabinet officials also won office. The poor performance of centrists in this election points to a continued polarized political climate in Brazil. While the economy is a core concern among voters, and one that Lula is well positioned given his two terms as president, Bolsonaro’s performance underscores the strong anti-PT sentiment, and his conservative position on social issues continues to enjoy broad popular appeal. More recently, Brazil’s improving economic performance, coupled with measures such as the Auxílio Brasil cash-transfer program, also helped to improve Bolsonaro’s popularity. Should Lula win, prospects for his governability are significantly reduced after Sunday night’s win for conservatives in Congress and among governors; this means reduced room for increased fiscal spending and minimal chances of raising revenue through taxes. Bolsonaro can be expected to moderate his tone over the next few weeks and focus on Brazil’s recent positive economic performance to appeal to centrist and low-income voters. Lula’s campaign will have to present proposals in greater detail, especially his economic plan. Though Lula is slightly better positioned to secure a win on Oct. 30, the second round will be much more competitive than anticipated.” 

Abraham F. Lowenthal, founding director of the Inter-American Dialogue and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California:: “Most commentaries on the first round of Brazil’s presidential election stress that Lula failed to win more than 50 percent of the votes in a field of 11 candidates and that Bolsonaro did considerably better than polls predicted but lost to Lula by more than 6.2 million votes. Several comments suggest that Bolsonaro ‘won’ this round and may win the runoff election, and that Lula won almost as many votes as polls predicted but might lose the final round. I find this a strange reading. Achieving 48.4 percent of the vote in a multiparty contest and after being vilified as a corrupt criminal was an impressive accomplishment for Lula, as was beating the incumbent president by more than five percentage points. Anything can happen in a runoff election, but I see no reason to doubt Lula as the favorite. My reading of the results would stress that Bolsonarismo’s substantial base of popular support despite its leader’s unattractive features is an important parameter of Brazilian politics. Also, Lula’s strong following should become the basis for effective governance in coalition with centrist, center-left and center-right politicians. Viable alternatives to Lula and Bolsonaro have yet to emerge. Brazilian polls are not succeeding in fully capturing public opinion, especially on the right. The ability of Brazil’s electoral system to count so rapidly and accurately more than 118.2 million votes is impressive. Yet, the danger that Bolsonaro will try to mobilize military and business support to overturn the final election makes the next month uncertain.”

Rubens Barbosa, former ambassador of Brazil to the United States: “The rightist Bolsonaro wave, both moderate and radical (antidemocratic), was not detected by opinion polls and was the main factor to justify Sunday’s result. This wave was responsible for Bolsonaro’s performance and a sizable number of governors, senators and representatives who were elected. An organized digital movement was also a decisive element in the election results. The strength of this movement in Congress will generate additional governance difficulties if Lula is elected. The runoff result on Oct. 30 is uncertain with a 50-50 chance of Bolsonaro winning. Over the coming weeks, the improvement of the economy and lower levels of inflation and of unemployment may have an important impact, benefiting Bolsonaro. He will emphasize Lula’s leftist position and will try to increase opposition to the support that the Workers’ Party (PT) has given to Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. Polarization is the name of the game for Bolsonaro. If Lula moves to the center in his announcement of people for his future cabinet and makes sound economic fiscal policies--especially if ideological and political decisions are left aside--then resistance to the PT will decline and his chances of winning the election will increase. The extreme right is here to stay. If elected, Bolsonaro will try to strengthen his rightist agenda and may create additional problems to democracy with possible changes in the constitution and Supreme Court. A future PT government would face a tough opposition and will have tremendous difficulties approving economic and social legislation in Congress. The division in Brazilian society will increase, and domestic division similar to that in the United States will emerge in Brazil.”

Helder Fonseca, partner at Diaz Reus & Targ: “The fact mostly responsible for the results is that Brazil is facing a polarized election between the conservative right wing versus the liberal left wing. Although most of Lula’s supporters openly state their preference for the former president, many voters still dislike him more than they dislike Bolsonaro. Both Lula and Bolsonaro want to exploit the degree to which voters dislike their opponent in order to win the support of undecided voters and those who have backed other candidates—and also voters who did not show up to the polls on Sunday.”

Joel Korn, president of WKI Brasil and senior international partner at UPITE Consulting Services: “Brazil’s presidential election reinforced an unprecedented level of polarization and revealed a much stronger conservative stance, particularly within the middle class, in favor of far-right President Bolsonaro than polls and analysts had anticipated. Former President Lula’s narrow victory was only possible because of the support he received in the low-income brackets of the population in the north and, particularly, in the northeast region, the highest in density of voters, where he registered an overwhelming advantage. Conversely, Bolsonaro came well ahead in the most developed midwest, southeast and south regions, which suggests that his rejection rate of more than 50 percent was overstated. Moreover, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party achieved significant growth in the number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies (nearly 20 percent) and in the Senate, thus further enhancing his support in Congress in the event that he is re-elected. The very tight difference between the two top contenders points to a wide open outcome in the second round. Both candidates will be targeting the high contingent of abstentions (20 percent) and pursuing alliances, especially with the parties that supported Simone Tebet and Ciro Gomes, who came in third and fourth in the presidential race. It is uncertain though how they will respond to the potential concessions and, especially, the effectiveness of the alliances in attracting voters for either one. The second round should be seen as a very positive step in the election process, inasmuch it will force the candidates--especially Lula--to be more transparent with their economic, social and environmental programs, thus mitigating uncertainties and discomfort on the part of a relevant contingent of voters on how the new administration will deal with the immense and challenging agenda to restore economic growth and social development within a scenario that imposes fiscal responsibility and a disciplined management of priorities for resource allocation. Finally, both candidates will attempt to align themselves with the ‘center,’ thus lowering concerns about a concentration of power on either side of the spectrum. ”

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