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Five Questions about Brazil’s Upcoming Presidential Election

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Presidential elections are always important in democracies. They represent not just the possibility that power will change hands, but also the commitment of a nation and its people to accepting both that possibility—and also the final outcome—as legitimate. In Brazil, citizens will begin to vote on October 2, and the stakes for the largest nation in Latin America could not be higher. To help understand the process of Brazil’s elections and the possible implications of the presidential race, we turned to SIS professor Agustina Giraudy for her insights.

The first round of the presidential elections in Brazil is on October 2. Briefly, how are Brazilian presidential elections structured—how many rounds are there, and how is a winner determined?
This is more than a presidential election. On October 2, Brazilians will also vote to elect governors, members of the national congress, and state legislatures. Voting in Brazil is mandatory for people older than 18, but those who are 16 years old can choose to cast a ballot, too. Brazil has a two-round electoral system for the general presidential election. To be elected president of Brazil, a candidate must get 50 percent of the total valid votes in the first round. If no candidate gets half of the votes, the two contenders with the largest share of votes run again in the second round on October 30. The candidate who gets the majority of the votes is elected as president.
The two frontrunners in the election are well known in Brazil and globally: current president Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known colloquially as “Lula.” Lula was president from 2003-2010 and was imprisoned on corruption charges in 2018, charges which were later nullified when the Supreme Federal Court in Brazil ruled that the judge who oversaw Lula’s trial was biased. Bolsonaro is a former army officer who ran on a platform against graft and has his own troubled history of misogynistic remarks, COVID-19 denialism, and anti-vaccination statements. What is at stake for Brazil in this election?
Several things are at a stake in this election; here, I focus on three only. The fate of Latin America’s largest country’s democratic institutions is at stake in this election. The election will be a test of the independence of electoral agencies and courts and of the autonomy of the judiciary—both of which have so far been able to resist Bolsonaro’s embattlements. The global fight against climate change is at stake, too. Bolsonaro has consistently undermined efforts to protect the Amazon region. During his administration, he dismantled and sabotaged the state agencies responsible for protecting indigenous rain forest dwellers, leading in turn to massive deforestation in the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s victory could certainly accelerate the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. The results of this election are also consequential for the global consolidation of right-wing populism with illiberal traits. The reelection of Bolsonaro will very likely send a signal that antiliberal and antidemocratic rule can be the norm today, rather than the exception. It can also reinforce the fact that the most populated countries in today’s world are ruled by right-wing anti-liberal populists, as seen in Russia, Turkey, and the US, to name a few. His reelection will also embolden Bolsonaro and justify even more his antidemocratic practices.
Your research includes work on democratic backsliding. What are some accepted ways of measuring democratic backsliding or determining if it is occurring in a country?
It is important to note that: democratic backsliding is a process of deterioration that unfolds gradually, it is generally unnoticed, and comes from within the democratic system itself. It is brought about by incumbents, officials, and political parties that access government through elections, i.e., the executive, the legislature, and sometimes the courts. Once in power, they engage in institutional engineering, such as alteration of electoral rules and control over the judiciary, the media, and civil society, to further consolidate their power in office. Scholars in political science have looked at some key indicators that can capture this erosion over time; some include the anti-pluralism of political parties, the lack of autonomy of courts and legislatures, the cooptation of electoral agencies, and control over the media.
In your opinion, is Brazil’s democracy in better or worse shape than it was before Bolsonaro became president?
The overall level of democracy in Brazil has declined. Key indicators, such as the increasing presence and power of anti-pluralist parties, lack of freedom of association, attacks on civil society, and extremely high polarization have been present in Brazil since Bolsonaro took office. For instance, like in the US, where antidemocratic protesters encouraged by President Trump stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro asked supporters to coordinate rallies on September 7, 2021, in support of anti-democratic calls, including the removal of all supreme court judges and the specter of a military coup. Other, less common indicators of democratic backsliding, such as the increasing power of the military over state agencies, and sexist and racist appeals have also been on the rise since Bolsonaro came to power.
It’s easy to draw parallels between the upcoming election in Brazil and the US 2020 presidential election: a well-known, longtime politician who carries baggage because of past claims of influence peddling against an incumbent who ran against entrenched political interests but is vulnerable because of his corrupt, incompetent administration, the extent of which was made clear during the pandemic. Are comparisons with the US 2020 election substantive in deeper ways as well?
It is risky to speak about parallels between the US 2020 election and the upcoming presidential race in Brazil because the results of the elections in Brazil are unknown yet. But we can draw many similarities between the campaigning and political styles of Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro. Both presidents repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity of the presidential election in which they seek their reelection, both stated before the election that they would not accept the results if they lost, and both have portrayed their opponents as incompetent and criminal—certainly when Trump referred to Hillary Clinton—and both suggested that they could resort to fraudulent tactics to secure a victory.
However, there are also important differences that make each case distinct. Chief among them is Bolsonaro’s reliance on the military. Unlike the US in 2020, when the military openly proclaimed against President Trump’s determination to go against the democratic, constitutional process, the military in Brazil has sided with Bolsonaro. During his administration, Bolsonaro deepened his ties to Brazil’s military, appointing retired generals to key posts—including as his running mate. This alliance with the armed forces, along with a tradition of military involvement in Brazilian politics, poses a much more real threat to the democratic constitutional order than the threat experienced by the US democracy in 2020.