Bolsonaro is still in the game. Heading into the first round of voting in Brazil’s presidential election last Sunday, the most optimistic supporters of leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva believed that the former president would defeat the far-right incumbent outright, avoiding a runoff. Lula needed to clear 50 percent support to end Bolsonaro’s presidency. But it was not to be. Lula finished with about 48 percent of the vote, which was within the margin of error of most polls released near the end of the campaign. Bolsonaro’s 43 percent, however, far exceeded what his presumed ceiling was. Now Brazilians will return to the polls on October 30 to decide the next president—and determine what kind of country Brazil will be going forward. The world’s fourth-largest democracy would be unrecognizable after another four years of Bolsonaro, whose administration has been characterized by a reckless, shallow, and venal style of anti-politics. Even if Lula prevails, which is still more likely than not, this result in the first round is a very bad sign.
Placing Lula and Bolsonaro head to head is a study in contrasts. One is a lifelong democrat committed to union organizing, party-building, and mass politics, while the other is a former army captain who left the military in disgrace before serving as a reactionary gadfly in Congress for decades until meeting his moment unexpectedly in 2018.
During this current campaign—and in years past—Lula’s harshest critics have asserted that his overriding objective has always been to remain in power indefinitely. But his political career indicates clearly that Lula is in fact the democrat he claims to be. He ran for president three times before prevailing in 2002, accepting defeat each time and campaigning all the more vigorously across the country to build popular support. He left office after two terms, as mandated by law, passing the torch to his former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, who prevailed in the 2010 election.
When Lula was pressured from within the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), or P.T., to run for president again in 2014, he insisted he could not elbow Dilma out of the way. He consistently defended her right to seek reelection, which every chief executive has been able to do since a constitutional amendment in 1997. Rousseff won reelection that year in a tight race against then-Senator Aécio Neves. Again, Lula demonstrated a willingness to set aside his personal political power for the sake of shoring up his party and the political system.
At his lowest point, when he was being hounded by a rabid press and government investigations driven by political animus, Lula refused to skirt the Brazilian justice system. He didn’t seek asylum in a friendly foreign embassy, for example, as many of his close allies urged him to do. He didn’t flee the country. Instead, he complied with the police when it was time to turn himself in and served his time as mandated by law, even as he insisted that the charges against him were baseless.
Bolsonaro, by contrast, spent the last three decades railing against Brazil’s democratic institutions, called for the death of his adversaries on the left, faulted the murderous dictatorship that governed the country for 21 years for insufficient brutality, and threatened journalists (with particular animosity toward women). And he has not improved with time. Since taking office, he has stocked law enforcement agencies with cronies and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose this year’s election, suggesting repeatedly that his country is incapable of carrying out a free and fair election, even though Brazil is a global leader in efficient vote tallying.
While in England for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, Bolsonaro insisted, “There is no way I won’t win in the first round [of voting].” No poll had shown him anywhere close to such a feat, heading into the first round of voting on Sunday. But with this rhetoric, Bolsonaro is priming his most ardent followers to see the results of the election as illegitimate unless he pulls off what would be a spectacular upset. After all, a Lula victory remains more likely than not. Bolsonaro outperformed expectations, but he is still desperate to hold onto power—and desperation is dangerous.
In the weeks ahead, Lula has already said he will double down on campaigning, traveling to more places and talking to more people. He urged his supporters to discuss the stakes of the election with their friends and relatives. There will also be debates between the two candidates, which will expose even more clearly the differences between them. In the last debate before Brazilians went to the polls, Bolsonaro went on a tear, calling Lula names and denying any shortcomings during his own time in office. Bolsonaro benefited from having several candidates on stage. It isn’t clear how he’ll hold up face to face with Lula, who has effectively deployed both humor and indignant rage in past debates, for an extended period of time.
Given Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic tendencies, the broad front Lula has assembled this year argued that it would be in the country’s best interest for the campaign to have ended on Sunday. Extending the race would empower Bolsonaro rather than affording time and space for the compromise and negotiation between adversaries that usually happens between the first and second round of voting. Traditionally, as political choices funnel down to the top two finishers, the leaders spend the days after the first round of voting courting former opponents. This is already taking place, with Lula and Bolsonaro both garnering the support of felled politicians looking to remain relevant and influence the front-runners. This time, however, this process is occurring in a context unsettled by the president’s stated disinclination to accept the final results. What is the point of all these transactions if Bolsonaro will upend the political system if he loses in four weeks?
This is the scenario Brazilians now face: a harrowing, high-stakes battle in a nation already on the brink. Something will have to give in the next four weeks before Brazilians make their way back to the polls. There will be an election on October 30, and one of the candidates represents a clear threat to the constitutional order. This is a test of democracy. It’s a test that Brazilians must pass.