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Brazil’s Election Ushers in a New Era, or Does It?

While the November 8 midterm elections loom over the United States, another key election in Latin America took place on Sunday. In Brazil – a deeply polarized country – voters elected Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva into his third term as president over the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro.

Credit: Flickr

The election, heralded as the most important election in recent Brazilian history, also proved to be the closest as Mr. da Silva’s winning margin was minimal, winning just 50.90 percent of the vote. Mr. Bolsonaro came in with 40.10 percent of the vote.

On the Left

The election featured two polarizing candidates on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum. On the left, Mr. da Silva, who served as president from 2003 to 2010, is back in political contention. While in office, Mr. da Silva was a popular leader, dramatically improving Brazil’s economy and boosting Brazil’s position on the international stage.

Mr. da Silva’s time in office wasn’t without difficulty as the former president found himself charged with corruption for his Worker’s Party’s involvement in a scandal. He spent 19 years in prison before the Supreme Court ruled that the case was tried in the wrong jurisdiction and determining the bias of the judge presiding over the case. His release from prison allowed him to run for president this year, setting up the showdown with his ideologically opposite opponent.  

On the Right

On the right, the incumbent, Mr. Bolsonaro, hoped to secure this second term in office. A right-wing populist, Mr. Bolsonaro used the corruption scandal to his advantage, which helped propel his candidacy for president in 2018. No stranger to public life – a former army captain and after serving in Brazil’s congress for three decades – Mr. Bolsonaro won the presidency in 2018

Deemed the Trump of the Tropics, his presidency – despite deep devotion from Christian evangelicals and the military – was largely marred by his skepticism surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the use of masks, social distancing, and the administration of vaccines. The deforestation of the Amazon under President Bolsonaro surged, as Vox points out.

The Electoral System is Rigged

Perhaps the most prominent issue of this election was the health of Brazil’s democracy, especially after Mr. Bolsonaro’s repeated assertions that the election would be rigged. For months, Mr. Bolsonaro said he would not accept a loss, claiming that Brazil’s electronic voting system is “rife with fraud.” Last year, Mr. Bolsonaro rallied his supporters when he famously stated there were only three outcomes to the election: he wins, he is killed, or he is arrested. “Tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested.”

Misinformation ran rampant throughout Brazil, as the incumbent continued to push these rumors, with no evidence. Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters lost faith in Brazil’s electoral system, sowing even more of a possibility of discord in the world’s fourth largest democracy. The health of Brazil’s democracy was, indeed, in danger.

The Silence Said It All

Particularly distressing is the fact that Mr. Bolsonaro did not say anything publicly or admit defeat for the first few days after the election. Bolsonaro supporters set up road blockades across several states in Brazil, protesting the election. Mr. Bolsonaro’s antics are particularly troubling as they are reminiscent of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s antics after current President Joe Biden’s electoral win in 2020. Many feared a January 6-type insurrection or political violence could occur also in Brazil.

Importantly, Mr. Bolsonaro’s allies reacted differently. Former and current government ministers, right-wing lawmakers, and prominent conversative pundits – all staunch allies of Mr. Bolsonaro – accepted that Mr. da Silva is the rightful winner of the election. Over the several days following the electoral loss, several of his ministers and a Supreme Court justice encouraged him to concede. By Monday night, political life continued as Brazilian officials declared Mr. da Silva the new president, slated to take office in January. His chief of staff even began the transition of power process on Tuesday.  

Yet, despite traffic impediments and official concern about Brazil descending into a vortex of political violence, the chaos was more understated than anticipated. The threat of an insurrection or anything on the same level as the events on January 6 seem to be much lower. Mr. Bolsonaro at last agreed to a transition of power two days after the election. Mr. Bolsonaro agreed to the transition of power in a two-minute speech. Yet, suspiciously absent from this speech, though, was any acknowledgement of two key facts: that he lost the election, and that the election was free and fair.

That the Bolsonaro administration decided to begin transferring power to Mr. da Silva was “welcome news for Brazil’s democracy.” While Mr. da Silva may now begin his transition to be Brazil’s next president, Brazil will remain polarized between the left and the right. Mr. Bolsonaro and his right-wing ilk will still figure prominently in Brazilian politics. A prominent leftist is back in power.

For now, Brazil’s democratic institutions appear to be intact. However, the health of Brazil’s democracy in the future – or even over just the next few weeks – remains to be seen.

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