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Lula da Silva could mount historic comeback in Brazil

Thomas Milz Sao Paulo
September 30, 2022

Ex-union leader, ex-president, ex-convict: Lula da Silva could well win the first round of Brazil's presidential electfons on Sunday. Still, allegations of violence and forgery by the Bolsonaro camp remain a concern.

Lula da Silva in a red sweatshirt, with white hair and beard, holds a microphone in his left hand. His right arm is raised, his right hand in a fist.
Lula da Silva is hoping for a third term as president of BrazilImage: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Brazil's former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could make the running as early as the first ballot on Sunday: According to a poll released Monday, the 76-year-old is currently at 52%, while support for incumbent Jair Messias Bolsonaro is lagging at 34%. Other polls also have "Lula," as he is known, at over 50%, with Bolsonaro trailing far behind.

The former union leader could thus become the first Brazilian president to be granted a third term in office. In government for two terms from 2003, Lula left office in 2010 with approval ratings of over 80%. Between April 2018 and November 2019, the founder of the PT Workers' Party also spent a total of 580 days behind bars on charges of corruption and money laundering.

Lula's absence enabled Bolsonaro to clinch the presidency in late 2018. Lula's convictions were, however, nullified in early 2021 over procedural errors, and the former president's political rights were restored.

Jair Bolsonaro wearing a green and yellow sash over his right shoulder smiles in a crowd of people.
President Jair Bolsonaro Image: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Since then, Lula has held a maximum 20% lead over Bolsonaro in the polls. In August, the latter was temporarily able to cut Lula's lead to around 10% by raising state social benefits and reducing fuel prices. The incumbent president's wife, Michelle, has also joined in campaigning. The first lady has principally focused on Bolsonaro's evangelical base, two-thirds of whom voted for him in 2018. According to Datafolha, however, Bolsonaro's lead among evangelicals is currently a mere 18%.

'Third Way' candidates disappoint

The polarized election campaign between the left-wing Lula camp and the far-right Bolsonaro has prevented a centrist candidate from emerging as a real alternative. That alternative, dubbed the "Third Way" and initially comprising half a dozen candidates, is now entering the home straight with only two serious contenders: Ciro Gomes, who is in the social-democratic camp, and center-right candidate Simone Tebet. Both are likely to achieve around 5% on Sunday.

Red towels with white writing, bearing the image of Lula da Silva with grey hair and beard.
Lula da Silva's presidency campaign towels sport the motto: 'Vaccines & Steak & Beer'Image: Bruno Lupion/DW

The current election campaign thus resembles the polarization of 2018, when Bolsonaro's victory over PT candidate Fernando Haddad was seen as a quid pro quo for the PT, mired at the time in corruption scandals.

Now the tide has turned: As a result of his disastrous pandemic policies and constant attacks on democratic institutions, Bolsonaro's approval ratings have slumped. Voters seem prepared to ignore the fact that Lula has yet to present a clear electoral agenda. After all, the former president has promised to make Brazil "happy" again.

Bolsonaro predicts own landslide victory

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro continues to expect a clear victory in the first round. "It's what the vast majority of the Brazilian people are feeling," Bolsonaro said in mid-September. Anything other than a victory on Sunday would be inconceivable,he said, given the enthusiasm with which he has been met on the campaign trail. Back in 2018, when he won the presidential election, Bolsonaro claimed the electronic ballots had been tampered with, robbing him of a landslide victory in the first round.

A crowd of people gather outside wearing mostly red, carrying banners and waving.
PT supporters attend a Lula da Silva rally in Sao PauloImage: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Despite presenting no evidence, he has not grown tired of repeating the allegations. Bolsonaro's conspiracy theory enjoys widespread support among his supporters. On Wednesday, his party, the Partido Liberal (PL), published a letter yet again casting doubt on the security of the ballot. Bolsonaro has repeatedly threatened not to recognize the election results. In doing so, he would be following the "script" of his idol Donald Trump, who to this day refuses to acknowledge his own electoral defeat in November 2020.

Riots in the event of Bolsonaro's defeat?

Observers fear riots in Brazil similar to those at the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021. At the time, Bolsonaro initially expressed empathy for the rioters. He claimed the American elections had been manipulated, just like the Brazilian elections in 2018. Another cause for concern is that a large number of gun enthusiasts make up the hard core of Bolsonaro's support. Thanks to Bolsonaro's liberalization of gun laws, around 1 million citizens are now entitled to carry a gun. When he took office, there were only 120,000.

A number of violent incidents have occurred in recent weeks. In July, a Bolsonaro supporter shot and killed a PT party member in Foz do Iguacu in southern Brazil. At least two other cases relating to the killing of Lula voters by Bolsonaro supporters have been categorized as politically motivated violence. There have also been numerous acts of aggression between supporters of both camps. The Lula camp is concerned that PT voters may stay away from the polls on Sunday, fearing things may turn ugly.

Women in yellow t-shirts stretch their arms up while giving the victory sign.
Bolsonaro fans celebrate Brazilian Independence Day on September 7 in BrasiliaImage: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also expressed concern in a statement released Thursday. "Online and offline hate speech and harassment and serious political violence have made many Brazilians afraid to express political opinions and exercise their political rights," said HRW Americas Director Juanita Goebertus. She demanded the authorities take all necessary measures to ensure Brazilians can vote in safety.

Some 156 million Brazilians are being called upon to cast their votes. Besides the president, governors, congress and state parliament deputies are all standing for office. Runoff elections are scheduled for October 30.

This article was originally written in German.