The theme of “return” has dominated the presidential election campaign in Brazil. Many think the country is either going to see the comeback of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, marking a second pink tide of progressive South American governments and the return of the Workers’ Party (PT), removed from power after President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016.
Or it is going to face a government takeover by forces associated with the military dictatorship (1964-1985) – right-wing defenders of family, tradition and property and apologists for political violence and torture of political opponents.
There may be an element of truth to this interpretation, but sometimes turning to the past to make sense of the present can make it more difficult to discern the major differences between them. Indeed, if Lula were to win the presidential race, Brazil would not go back to the 2000s; nor is a military takeover led by his opponent, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, that likely.
The vote: The poor vs the poorer
While many saw the results of the October 2 elections as a clear victory for Lula and the Brazilian left, a closer look reveals a different reality. Lula obtained 57 million or 48 percent of the valid votes – less than what many polls predicted – which sent him to a run-off with Bolsonaro.
The incumbent president obtained 51 million votes, two million more than in the first round of the 2018 presidential election. This is despite the fact that his government failed in its economic policies, the management of the pandemic, the fight against corruption, and the climate change agenda, especially with regard to curbing Amazon deforestation.
In the parliamentary and governor elections, which also took place on October 2, the right-wing parties and, in particular, the far right, performed much better than forecasts showed. They won more representatives in the two houses of parliament than PT and its allies.
Among those elected to parliament were former Judge Sergio Moro, who led the anti-corruption probe that saw Lula jailed; Damares Alves, the loudest proponent of the “gender ideology” conspiracy theory, which claims family values are under threat; and former health minister Eduardo Pazuello, who mismanaged the pandemic response. They were all ministers in Bolsonaro’s government.
The elections did not see a massive migration of the votes from the poor to Lula and his party, as was expected in light of the pro-poor policies in his first two terms (2003-2010). In that period, the country experienced extraordinary economic growth combined with successful income distribution measures, which generated massive support among impoverished Brazilians for Lula in his bid for re-election in 2006. He ended his second term with an 80 percent popularity rating and a GDP growth of 7.5 percent.
Part of the reason why Lula was unable to rally all of his former electorate may be that financial aid programmes for disadvantaged families introduced by Bolsonaro to address the economic downturn during the pandemic were extended.
According to Giuseppe Cocco, political science professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, another reason may be that the effect of anti-Bolsonarism was to some extent mitigated by anti-Lulism – the negative sentiment triggered by corruption cases against Lula and the PT that contributed to bringing Bolsonaro to power in the first place.
Furthermore, Cocco’s research shows that the incumbent attracted more votes than Lula from the “precariat” – Brazilians who are above the poverty line but, nevertheless, face constant economic insecurity. These are people who are microentrepreneurs, who have gig jobs, small businesses or are self-employed. They struggle economically and seek the stability that the far-right promises.
The right-wing tendencies of this layer of Brazilian society became apparent ahead of the 2018 election when a truck drivers’ strike took place. The protest started over rising fuel prices but ended with calls by some participants for the army to intervene and “solve the problems” of the state. Bolsonaro backed the strike, which boosted his popularity ahead of the vote.
Lula, on the other hand, draws support from the poorest strata, those who are on the threshold of subsistence. They have been the beneficiaries of his signature social programme, the Bolsa Familia, which distributed conditional cash transfers.
The line between the two groups is blurred, but the tension between them over income and economic opportunity seems to provide a better explanation of the electoral results than a more simplistic analysis that paints Lula as the candidate of the poor and Bolsonaro – as the choice of the elites and the well-off.
A Brazilian Biden
The campaign rhetoric Lula adopted was also quite different from previous elections. Unlike in the past, when he openly clashed with the elites, this time around, the PT candidate presented himself as the candidate of the system, as a “Brazilian Biden”, so to speak, putting an end to a Trumpist interlude.
He gathered an extraordinarily broad front, which included almost the entire left opposition, but also the main representatives of economic power from various sectors, social democrats, conservative liberals, the leftist environmentalist Marina Silva, former officials, such as the social-democratic liberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and others.
His campaign was also not dominated by street mobilisation or sharp factionalism. On the contrary, there were explicit guidelines to supporters not to confront the voters of the other candidate, and even to deemphasise the PT’s traditional colour red at campaign events.
Although his coalition had prepared a leftist political programme, Lula ignored it in the debates, sidestepped it in speeches to voters and the media, and stressed on several occasions that he would not take divisive positions, especially when it comes to his plans for the economy. Throughout the campaign, he built an image as the promoter of peace, indicating the need to resolve the conflicts that are multiplying in and between different social segments.
Bolsonaro and the Bolsonarist forces, on the other hand, fully occupied the anti-systemic political space. The incumbent spent the election campaign making verbal attacks against the corporate media – especially against the biggest TV network, Globo – the Brazilian Supreme Court and universities.
In a country that has traditionally seen intimidation, blackmail and the murder of electoral opponents in urban peripheries and in the hinterland, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric put Brazil at risk of widespread politically motivated violence. A number of murders were attributed to feuds between sympathisers of the two candidates, while a video of a Bolsonaro supporter licking the barrel of a shotgun went viral.
Diminished appetite for a coup
Despite Bolsonaro’s incitement and heightened fears of violence, it is unlikely that a victory for Lula in the run-off would be challenged by the military. Even the prospect of an invasion of the Congress building in Brasilia – like the one that happened in January 2021 in the US – seems less likely.
The army’s top generals have given clear signals that whoever wins at the polls will assume the presidency. Furthermore, foreign powers, such as the Biden administration, have indicated that they would not support anti-democratic ventures.
Bolsonaro has been ambiguous about accepting the results. However, the fact that right-wing parties and far-right politicians won the majority of seats in parliament has diminished the appetite for coup talk.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the struggle for safeguarding minority rights, improving public services, expanding social programmes, protecting the environment, and embracing a security paradigm that is not guided by state violence against underserved populations will remain difficult. A victory for Bolsonaro, which is quite unlikely, would consolidate the far-right takeover of the state, leading to more policies aimed at dismantling public services, destroying the environment, and systematically sabotaging minority protections and academic institutions.
A win for Lula, which seems more likely, would also pose great challenges. Given the dominance of the right in parliament, it would be difficult to push through progressive policies. Social movements, collectives and activists would have to focus on the defence of the government, which would take away energy and resources from ongoing struggles, as happened during the 2016 impeachment process against Dilma. The PT and its supporters would face a radicalised and armed opposition on the ground committed to defending “true Christianity”, “family values” and traditional gender roles. In this context, a Lula victory would not mean a return to the “happy Brazil” of the 2000s, as his campaign suggested.
The way out of the deep crisis that Brazil has plunged into in the last decade could be a Brazilian New Deal that pushes through much-needed structural changes in labour law and market, supports the creative role of minorities and embraces the centrality of the global environmental agenda, something that Lula seems far from being able to lead, as corruption scandals and worn-off populist rhetoric have broken his spell.
But his election could at least provide an opportunity to seek reconciliation and rebuild bridges between polarised segments of society. His return could set the ground for the construction of much-needed political alternatives.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.