Though he only placed second in Sunday’s presidential election, it was a good result for Brazil’s incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. His great antagonist, former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, fell just short of the majority that would have handed him outright victory on the night. Instead the two men will face each other in a run-off round on October 30th. This gives the far-right leader more time to overcome a rejection rating that remains stubbornly above 50 per cent.
He will attempt to do so with some momentum as he not only outperformed expectations and polls, coming in just five points behind Lula with 43.2 per cent, but also enters the next phase of campaigning on the back of an undeniable conservative wave that saw candidates linked to him dominate races further down the card. Lula though remains the favourite. In all previous races every candidate who has won the first round has gone on to take the presidency. But the second round is likely to be far more competitive than many predicted and as a consequence more bitter in what is an already deeply polarised society.
But even if he does win the run-off, Sunday will have serious implications for an eventual Lula presidency. Brazil’s traditional conservative majority is now under the leadership of the hard right, confirming that Bolsonaro’s shock win in 2018 was not a one-off event but marked the arrival of a far more intolerant hard right as a major new force in Brazilian politics.
As evidence of this, an eventual Lula presidency would be faced with the most conservative congress since the return of democracy in the 1980s, with its leadership passing to radicals aligned with president Bolsonaro. Competence or integrity have little to do with this new conservative wave. Sitting in the new congress will be Eduardo Pazuello, the army general who oversaw the government’s disastrous response to the Covid pandemic. Beside him will be Ricardo Salles who as environment minister oversaw a huge spike in deforestation in the Amazon before having to resign when US authorities said he was facilitating the export of timber illegally logged from the rainforest.
In part the rise of this new hard-right reflects the implosion of the traditional centre-right, sunk by its own incompetence and corruption, which has allowed harder-edged ideologues to replace it. But it also reflects ongoing political polarisation in part caused by the Workers Party’s refusal to properly account for the corruption that came to stain its 13 years in power. It remains a powerful rally cry on the right, even after the multiple revelations about wrong-doing by president Bolsonaro’s administration, not to mention his family.
Longer term, Brazil’s left is facing an even deeper generational problem. This campaign has shown how at the national level it is now almost wholly dependent on Lula to remain a leading protagonist, and he is already 76 and in his sixth presidential campaign.
In the coming years his Workers Party risks paying the price for failing to prepare a younger generation for national leadership. Fernando Haddad, who was the party’s candidate in 2018 and widely viewed as Lula’s heir though himself already 59, performed poorly in his bid to become governor of São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous and richest state. Having been the front-runner all through the campaign, he trailed in six points behind the bolsonarista candidate, former infrastructure minister Tarcísio de Freitas, who is not even from São Paulo but is now the favourite to win the run-off between them. In Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, the second and third most populous states respectively, the Workers Party is increasingly an also-ran, a factor that probably explains why Lula underperformed expectations in these vote-rich areas on Sunday.
When the left has thrown up dynamic new figures in state and municipal elections they tend to be from the more progressive — when not radical — end of the political spectrum. In what remains a naturally conservative society these emerging leaders will have greater difficulty in building the coalitions necessary to win the presidency than Lula’s generation, whose early radicalism was tempered by a string of defeats in the 1980s and 1990s which pushed it towards the centre. A victory for Lula in four weeks time would only provide temporary respite from an increasingly challenging political environment for Brazil’s left.