Tension in South America’s biggest country is once again on a knife-edge ahead of Brazil’s Oct. 2 presidential election, with the political cage match between maverick populist President Jair Bolsonaro and former president and leftist icon Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva drawing comparisons to the bitter partisan divisions and chaotic aftermath of the 2020 presidential campaign in the United States.
Mr. Bolsonaro, often dubbed the “Trump of the tropics,” has consistently trailed in polls to Mr. da Silva.
Brazil is the top U.S. trade partner in South America and the second most powerful economy in the Western Hemisphere.
The result of the election could mark either a major gain for or a sharp rebuke of a trend across South America in which leftist candidates have returned to power after a period of right-wing successes.
Concerns about violence are growing whatever the outcome.
The acrid tone of the contest was laid bare in a fiery television debate two weeks ago when Mr. da Silva, whose career was derailed by scandals after he became a darling of the global left when he was president from 2003 through 2010, said Mr. Bolsonaro’s brand of unapologetic pro-market, right-wing populism has “destroyed” Brazil.
Mr. Bolsonaro countered that Mr. da Silva was a “thief” who turned Brazil into a “kleptocracy” by running what he called the most corrupt government in the country’s history.
Mr. Bolsonaro repeatedly referred to Mr. da Silva as an “ex-convict,” drawing attention to the 19 months the former president spent in prison in 2018 and 2019 for corruption and money laundering tied to sprawling scandals during his time in office.
Mr. da Silva’s early-2000s economic growth and anti-poverty initiatives were popular, and the 76-year-old former president remains powerful. The Brazilian Supreme Federal Court threw out his conviction last year, and he has ridden a front-runner wave by saying it was his socialist programs that lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty.
Da Silva supporters rarely mention that an unexpected fossil fuel boom after the 2007 discovery of the massive Tupi oil field off Brazil’s coast paid for the programs.
Mr. da Silva and Mr. Bolsonaro are widely projected to finish first and second in the first round of voting on Oct. 2. Brazilians also will choose state governors and a new National Congress. Neither presidential candidate is expected to gain the 50% threshold needed for election. A poll last week gave Mr. da Silva a 51% to 39% lead in an expected head-to-head runoff election on Oct. 30.
International media coverage of the election has focused on comparisons between Mr. Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, given the current Brazilian president’s track record of embracing controversy and spouting right-wing statements about gay and women’s rights, climate change and gun control.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has cultivated a devoted political base that includes Brazil’s large evangelical Christian community and has railed against the political establishment that long dominated Brasilia. He has championed economic development in the country’s vast Amazonian interior by rolling back environmental regulations and other obstacles. He revels in symbols of Brazilian patriotism and military prowess and used Independence Day celebrations Wednesday to urge supporters to rally in the streets.
Mr. Bolsonaro made global headlines last year by refusing to be vaccinated for COVID-19. He downplayed the severity of the coronavirus and resisted lockdowns while critics slammed his government’s response to the pandemic.
His unapologetic conservatism and flair for galvanizing supporters on the stump have made him a darling of populist U.S. conservatives. A recent PBS documentary featured an interview with longtime Trump adviser and former White House aide Steve Bannon, who referred to the 67-year-old Mr. Bolsonaro as “Trump to the 10th power.”
Despite a sharp downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in inflation, the latest economic numbers offer some positive signs for the incumbent. Brazil’s gross domestic product exceeded analysts’ expectations by rising 1.2% in the second quarter of the year, the fourth straight quarter of growth. Joblessness, while still high at 9.1%, is moving in the right direction for Mr. Bolsonaro and is at its lowest point in nearly seven years.
The Brazilian president’s staunchly pro-gun policies have drawn another kind of attention. The Associated Press reported that Mr. Bolsonaro has loosened restrictions to enable his supporters to stock up on firearms and munitions ahead of the elections.
The news agency also noted that Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Brazilian army captain, asked supporters at the launch of his candidacy in July to swear they would give their lives for freedom. He repeatedly characterized the presidential race as a battle of good versus evil.
Mr. Bolsonaro has cast doubt on the use of electronic balloting, which has been used in Brazilian elections since 2000. He has reportedly suggested that the armed forces set up a parallel system to count votes.
Mr. da Silva, meanwhile, has appeared eager to politically capitalize on concerns that Mr. Bolsonaro may refuse to leave office if he loses the election. The former president has called on his supporters to take to the streets for the campaign. “We cannot give in to this bully,” Mr. da Silva said in late July. He said he has “never had any problems with any military commander or with any of the armed forces.”
“We will win by having courage,” he told a convention of the Brazilian Socialist Party, according to Reuters. “We have to go to the streets to show that the Brazilian people really want democracy.”
The latest polls show Mr. da Silva with a lead of roughly 13 percentage points over Mr. Bolsonaro. Some caution that traditional polls tend to underestimate the president’s electoral support, as they have done with Mr. Trump in the U.S. Some Brazilian officials, as well as regional analysts, say an election crisis may be inevitable if the lead holds.
Edson Fachin, Brazilian Federal Supreme Court justice and Superior Electoral Court president, raised that specter in July by saying Brazil could be heading down the slippery path that produced the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters determined to block the official election certification.
“We may experience an episode even more severe than the Jan. 6 [attack] on the Capitol,” Mr. Fachin said at a virtual event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Although it remains to be seen how the election will play out, concerns are soaring over the potential for serious upheaval.
“If Lula wins, as polls currently suggest he will, there will be an institutional crisis in Brazil in coming months,” said Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. He predicts that Mr. Bolsonaro won’t leave office willingly.
“The only question is what it will look like — and who will ultimately prevail,” Mr. Winter wrote for the magazine recently. He said Mr. Bolsonaro may attempt to “follow in Trump’s footsteps, and try to reverse the election result in the courts.”
With Brazil’s more centralized vote-counting system likely to limit the scope of court challenges, Mr. Bolsonaro might attempt to claim fraud “in the court of public opinion” and hope that the “‘people’ and/or the armed forces will support his claim to stay in power,” Mr. Winter wrote.
“But it’s one thing to contest, say, a 2-point loss — and quite another if the margin is 5 or greater, as polls currently suggest,” he added. “That’s why many believe that Bolsonaro will try to force a ‘Brazilian January 6’ before the election.”