Skip to main content
analysis

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reviews the honor guard during Soldier's Day celebrations at the Army Headquarters in Brasilia, on Aug. 25.EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro finds himself in the unusual situation of being the incumbent but not the front runner for the October election, a fraught race that is expected to put his conservative agenda and far-right rhetoric to the test.

Since kicking off his candidacy for re-election on July 24, Mr. Bolsonaro has been trying to appeal to voters beyond his loyal base, from ramping up his running showdown with the country’s Supreme Court to seeding the idea of electoral fraud.

Earlier this year, he accused two Supreme Court judges of taking sides in the coming election by favouring his opponent, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, through rulings against his policies and investigations into his administraton. Mr. Bolsonaro also granted a pardon to an ally convicted by the Supreme Court for threatening its judges – and did not rule out freeing other allies. He also used the army to question the legitimacy of the electoral process, criticizing the security of ballot boxes.

Mr. Lula da Silva is banking on his successor’s failure to rein in inflation amid growing economic difficulties and the threats he poses to the country’s democracy. But Mr. Bolsonaro is hoping the rising popularity of right-wing politics around the world in recent years will work in his favour.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the former dictator of the Philippines, recently triumphed in that country’s election to become president. In France, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen lost out this year to President Emmanuel Macron but increased her base of support. In the United States, Trumpism is still going strong, even while Joe Biden runs the White House.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro officially launches re-election bid, says army on his side

History has shown that international politics have little or no influence on the Brazilian electoral process, although historian Murilo Cleto points out that “the war in Ukraine collaborates negatively with Bolsonaro’s chances, since it accentuates the degradation of the economic scenario in Brazil – which was already not favourable.”

The Brazilian economy will be a key element in this year’s election, says Mr. Cleto, and Russia’s war against Ukraine is putting pressure on the country’s already high inflation and interest rates, creating more challenges for Brazil’s economic recovery after it was hit hard by the pandemic.

According to Mr. Cleto, this election is like a “plebiscite on people’s living conditions.” If the economy doesn’t improve, Mr. Bolsonaro could lose, especially with Mr. Lula da Silva always reminding voters that Brazil’s economy was booming when he was president.

Carlos Pereira, a professor at the Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, agrees. He explains that although incumbents usually get re-elected in a democracy, “there is a dominant tripod of beliefs – social inclusion, macroeconomic balance and democracy – and the Bolsonaro government has neglected these three pillars, as poverty and inequality have increased, there is inflationary and fiscal decontrol, and the Bolsonaro government has, throughout its mandate, confronted both Congress and the Supreme Court.”

Analysts fear the President may refuse to concede if he is defeated in the election. “It is an illusion to think that Bolsonaro acts within the institutional frameworks of democracy,” said David Magalhães, a professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. He notes that there are “enough signs of interference in the electoral process” – including an open campaign to discredit it.

Brazil's incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who is running for re-election, greets supporters as he arrives at a gym to attend a podcast program in Sao Caetano do Sul, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, on Aug. 26.Marcelo Chello/The Associated Press

Mr. Cleto agrees, adding that “in essence, what Bolsonaro wants is to use the presidency to demoralize the institutions and the electoral process in search of a favourable outcome in any scenario. If he wins, he will remain untouchable for another four years, promoting, from above, this institutional corrosion. If he loses, the contestation of the result may, at best for him, motivate a coup d’état.”

Mr. Bolsonaro has suggested he would dispute any loss unless changes are made in election procedures. During a television interview on Aug. 22, he repeated unsubstantiated claims of past voter fraud before saying he would accept the outcome “as long as the vote is clean and transparent.”

He has also told his tens of millions of supporters to prepare for a fight. “If need be,” he said in a recent speech, “we will go to war.”

But not everyone agrees that democracy is at stake in Brazil. Prof. Pereira believes a scenario closer to that of the U.S. will play out: Mr. Biden won, Donald Trump and his supporters didn’t accept the defeat, but democracy survived.

Bolsonaro helped spread disinformation on Brazil’s voting system: police report

Bolsonaro tilts toward closer Brazil-U.S. ties at unlikely meeting with Biden

“The American experience has shown that when democracy is consolidated, it is those who rebel against it who lose,” said Prof. Pereira, adding that “Brazilian democracy is well consolidated and in equilibrium. The alternative to democracy generates worse returns for the main political actors and economic agents.”

Of course, he also believes Mr. Bolsonaro may try to “stage a coup if he perceives that his defeat is imminent.” However, “the most important thing is to realize that political institutions are prepared to react if necessary and that they recognize the winner as legitimate regardless of who it will be.”

But are the institutions in Brazil strong enough to resist attacks by Mr. Bolsonaro, given that the far right is still going strong in Brazil and throughout the world. If it weren’t for the pandemic, explains Prof. Magalhães, “Trump would most likely have been elected. Viktor Orbán had an extraordinary victory in Hungary. Even though she was defeated, Marine Le Pen considerably expanded her electorate in relation to the 2017 elections, and Vox in Spain and the AfD in Germany are showing signs of growth.”

However, Mr. Cleto has a more optimistic perspective. He believes that “the far right has been occupying a huge space in public debate and in spaces of power all over the world, but … now the context is slightly unfavourable, considering the defeats in democracies that are considered a symbol.

A Bolsonaro defeat could damage the far right’s chances in Latin America, but for now, Brazil’s political future is uncertain. The fact remains that extremists today occupy much of the public debate and, faced with the possibility of defeat, more than a few are capable of threatening democracy.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.