Brazil’s high-stakes election goes down to the wire

As one of Brazil’s most bitterly fought election campaigns draws to a close, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and his challenger, veteran leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, agree on one thing: the future of one of the world’s largest democracies is at stake.

Lula, who was president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010, leads a broad coalition of the centre and left that has united behind the idea that a second term for Bolsonaro would do irreversible damage to the country’s institutions and spur a slide towards strongman rule.

For Bolsonaro and his conservative supporters in agribusiness, the evangelical churches and the army and police, a Lula victory would set Brazil on the path towards the style of socialism in Cuba or Venezuela and erode traditional values.

The result of Sunday’s vote hangs on a knife’s edge after a campaign marred by mudslinging and political violence. Polls suggest Lula has a narrow lead, but such surveys had underestimated Bolsonaro’s support in a first-round vote earlier this month.

“This is about democracy, values, human rights and respect for the constitution. What is at stake is the survival of Brazilian democracy and the rule of the law,” said Hussein Kalout, a senior official in the administration of Michel Temer, who preceded Bolsonaro in office.

After criticising Bolsonaro soon after the 2018 election, Kalout was threatened by supporters of the populist leader, forcing him to move abroad with his family.

“In the past we disagreed but it was possible to live together. We can’t let Brazil become a binary state that either agrees with Bolsonaro’s political violence or goes into exile,” he said.

Supporters of Bolsonaro dismiss concerns about democratic erosion as fear-mongering. They say that the president’s hardline rhetoric is not matched by his actions.

They believe only Bolsonaro can prevent the return of Lula’s Workers’ party (PT), which they say decimated the nation through corruption and economic mismanagement during its 14 years in power between 2003 and 2016.

“It would be the biggest embarrassment of my life if I saw a convicted prisoner become president,” said Geraldo Affonso Ferreira, chair of the advisory board of ESH Capital, referring to the almost two years Lula spent in prison for graft before his convictions were annulled.

“The fact is everyone is sick and tired of the PT and these people that put the country in jeopardy. Anything but the PT is the view of the business community.”

Economic concerns dominated the early phases of the race, with rising prices of food and gasoline weighing on the 30 per cent of the population that lives on less than $100 per month.

More recently, the Bolsonaro administration has succeeded in bringing down some consumer costs via a series of tax cuts, while unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since 2015. He has also trumpeted a 50 per cent increase in a social welfare payment to the nation’s poorest, bringing it to $R600 per month.

His government’s free market, pro-business bent has won the broad support of the influential finance community as well as the booming agribusiness sector that dominates the country’s vast interior. Many in these sectors view Lula’s state-centred economic vision with suspicion.

“Agribiz continues to grow and have a greater voice. [But] Lula comes from industry and is distanced from the reality of the people in the countryside. They feel he doesn’t represent them,” said the chief executive of an agricultural technology group, who asked not to be named because “we have a civil war in this election.”

The campaign has been arguably the most unedifying in modern Brazilian history, with both sides resorting to disinformation and low blows. Over the past month, Lula’s team has sought to link Bolsonaro to paedophilia and cannibalism, while proxies for the president tried to paint the leftwing leader as a Satanist, forcing Lula to clarify that he “does not have a pact nor has ever conversed with the devil”.

Critics of the government lay the blame for this downward spiral on Bolsonaro, who utilised digital fake news in his victorious 2018 race.

The president is also regularly criticised for his authoritarian rhetoric, notably his support for the 1964-1985 military dictatorship and his praise for that regime’s torturers. He has also put thousands of army officers into jobs across the government and its various ministries.

Ilona Szabó, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute think-tank, said Bolsonaro presents a threat not only to democracy but also the future of the Amazon rainforest. The region is considered a crucial buffer against climate change but has been riven by a surge in deforestation in recent years.

“What is at stake is the future of Brazil for the next generation of Brazilians and the planet’s climate stability,” said Szabó, who, like Kalout, now lives abroad because of threats she received from supporters of the president.

Since his inauguration in 2019, Bolsonaro has slashed funding for Brazil’s environmental protection agencies while pledging to open the Amazon to commercial activity.

Lula has countered with a vow to end illegal deforestation and create a special ministry for native peoples, who have suffered a rise in violence and land invasions.

“I worry that if Bolsonaro wins, we will lose everything. I ask God to help us,” said Maria Wanda Jiahui, an indigenous Brazilian who lives in southern Amazonas state.

Whoever wins the election will face governing a deeply divided nation. He will also have to deal with a highly fractured Congress, which, while leaning broadly to the right, is guided more by horse-trading and pork barrel politics than ideological beliefs.

The personal stakes for both candidates are also considerable. For Lula, who just turned 77, this is likely his last chance at running for office and reconstructing his legacy, which was tarnished by his imprisonment in 2018.

Bolsonaro could face the threat of prosecution if he is removed from office. Opposition figures and some scientists claim the president’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. His government has also been embroiled in a series of simmering corruption scandals that could explode into public view if he leaves the presidency.

“For Lula, winning would mean a comeback, a return from his political ostracisation,” said Claudio Couto, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. “If Bolsonaro wins, he gains some space to protect himself. For him, it is a matter of survival.”

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