Staff writer Carolina Claudino discusses attempts to subvert democracy in this year’s presidential election in Brazil and asks if these same forces will undermine returning President Lula da Silva
October 30 marked a drastic change in Brazilian politics. The re-election of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva represents a seismic shift from the anti-democratic practices of Jair Bolsonaro. Yet the last round was still very competitive, with Lula winning 50.9% of votes and Bolsonaro 49.1%, a difference of only around 2 million votes in a country of over 200 million. The election result provoked an unsettling wave of protests, violence and doubt amongst right-wing supporters of Bolsonaro.
In the weeks preceding the election, a series of events took place, giving a glimpse of what would follow once Bolsonaro failed to win re-election. From the first round of elections from August 16 to October 2, the Agencia Publica (Public Agency), registered 148 cases of electoral violence directed at voters, candidates and journalists – an average of 3 cases every day. 25 cases involved guns and at least 6 people were assassinated, along with 9 further attempted murders. 36% of the acts of violence were perpetrated by Bolsonaro supporters, compared to only 8% by Lula supporters.
A few days before the second round, Roberto Jefferson, former congressman as well as Bolsonaro’s ally, attacked Federal Police with grenades and a rifle. He fired over 20 shots when resisting arrest in “the name of freedom, democracy and family values”. Not long after that, far-right congresswomen Carla Zambelli drew a gun and threatened to shoot a Lula supporter. She took to Twitter with a racist rant saying “they used a black man to come after me”. On the contrary, footage appears to show her pursuing her “assailant” after tripping over. Not only that, but it is illegal in Brazil to bear weapons 24 hours before and after the election, a law which she ignored by her own admission, saying “I was and will continue to deliberately ignore the resolution”.
This situation escalated when the Federal Highway Police began operations in the northeast of the country. This was allegedly an attempt to delay left-wing voters en route to the polls. The states in the northeast region of the country are historically left-wing and were bound to have a large impact on the results. These operations ran against the demand of many electoral staff, and both national and international watchdogs, that voters should have easy access to polling stations. The chief of the Supreme Electoral Court, Alexandre de Moraes, stated the chief of the highway police should stop these operations. While Moraes claims that no voters were stopped from voting, it’s clear that many citizens face huge obstacles in their attempts to cast a ballot.
Bolsonaro supporters argue that the operations were related to illegal vote-buying and the collective transportation of voters by Lula’s Workers’ Party, but there is little proof of that. Moreover, the Brazilian press reported that Bolsonaro himself asked the Minister of Justice to order these interventions. And the operations went further than just checking buses: in the city of Cuité, they targeted motorcycle drivers who were not wearing helmets or had expired documentation. Charles Cristiano, Mayor of Cuité, told the Washington Post about his suspicions: “Coincidentally, on Election Day, a blitz on the main access to the city? We are trying to get around it, calling people to come and vote, but unfortunately, many people are not voting. I think it will increase the number of abstentions.”
These conditions show several attempts to undermine the national electoral system. Ilona Szabó, president of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank, described it perfectly. “Since his election, Bolsonaro has tried to subvert Brazil’s democratic institutions… What we are seeing today — hundreds of federal road police operations impeding citizens from casting their vote — is yet further proof of his efforts to undermine the democratic process.”
Yet despite these subversive attempts, Bolsonaro lost the election. Lula’s win wasn’t unexpected, but it was definitely impactful. For the first time since the beginning of Brazilian democracy, a president was not re-elected for a second term.
Bolsonaro intially reacted to the result with radio silence, refusing to even admit that he had been defeated for two days after the election. Many feared that he would follow in former US President Donald Trump’s footsteps and refuse to accept the results, a path that he has clear been tempted to wander down. While he affirmed that he would follow all constitutional commands, he has since alluded many times that the election results were fraudulent.
The transition process beginning implies that, ultimately, Jair Bolsonaro has accepted the results. However, the ambiguity of his statement fueled his supporters to rally in protest against the results. The demonstrations were filled with anti-democratic messages such as reports of Nazi salutes and requests for military interventions. Moreover, illegal roadblocks caused by lorry drivers were reported all over the country, closing major highways, lasting multiple days and impacting many sectors of the economy. Such protests are now known to have been financed by businessmen and important public figures – the Federal Court of Justice has announced that 43 people are being investigated for the financing of anti-democratic acts.
Since October 30, Bolsonaro has barely worked in governmental affairs, averaging around 5 hours per week, despite still being the sitting president. Many reports indicate that he has been completely absent from usual political life. However, all sections of government have publicly recognised Lula’s win, which indicates a general approval of the results by parliament and the parties. This is not to say that such a transition will be simple. Notably, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party is still the largest in Senate.
For the international community, Lula’s re-election has been met with optimism. He is seen as someone engaged with environmental and social issues, which resulted in an appreciation of the Brazilian currency the day after the election and the return of international support in the protection of the Amazon rainforest from countries like Norway. In his speech at COP27, Lula pledged to fight against climate change and to protect the Amazon. “Brazil is back” he declared.
However, inside the country, Lula’s return has been greeted with a lot more pessimism. His unspecified economic policies, the lack of information on who will be in charge in each department and the announcement of investment in several social policies has created instability in the financial market.
Despite facing backlash, Lula seems determined to follow through with his regime of social policies. He is willing to surpass the federal budget to restore ‘Bolsa Familia’, a form of economic aid directed at low-income families. He has claimed that the long-term benefits of going over-budget will outweigh the short-term negative impact on the stock market, suggesting that the pursuit of social justice is more important than pleasing the financial world.
This is particularly contentious considering the struggling state of the Brazilian economy after the Covid-19 pandemic – many argue that there are simply no funds left for such policies. Yet on the other hand, the Brazilian population finds itself in an especially fragile situation. The country has recently re-entered the UN’s hunger map and has a high rate of extreme poverty.
While Lula’s policy proposals sounds promising, it is hard to understand how he will enact these ideas in such a divided government. Agribusiness generates nearly 30% of Brazil’s GDP, and these producers have a powerful influence on Brazilian politics. In recent years they have been a key strategic ally of Bolsonaro and the anti-regulation “ruralista” right. His subsequent neglect of environmental matters resulted in an all-time high rate of deforestation in Brazil and benefitted the agricultural elite by allowing them to expand farmland. Not only did they destroy parts of the world’s biggest and most important rainforest, but his environmental policies put local indigenous populations at great risk too. This unholy alliance gave Bolsonaro the political and financial support of the country’s most significant economic bloc.
Lula has announced that Marina Silva is one of the contenders to head up the Ministry of the Environment. She was an important figure in the reduction of deforestation and protection of the environment in Lula’s previous government, which was in power from 2003 to 2008, and her engagement can be taken as a positive sign. However, since Lula’s win in October, we have already seen deforestation levels rising. Reports claim that forest fires have increased by 1,200% in Amazonian states where Bolsonaro won.
Bolsonaro may be out of power, but there have never been so many people sharing his ideology in power before. 99 congressmen and 13 senators from Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party were elected, making them the largest party, while Lula has fewer members in both houses (79 and 9 respectively). Their rivalry, and the political polarisation between the parties, challenges the harmonious, stable and effective government that Lula wants to achieve.
Considering the lack of funds for the social policies he desires, the power of agribusiness interests, the scepticism of the financial market and the polarisation within the government; the future president is bound to have a hard time advancing his own agenda.