In a Brazilian election, black swan events are the rule rather than the exception. Many Brazilians believe the election four years ago was decided when a man stabbed Jair Bolsonaro during a campaign event in Minas Gerais. In 2022, things may have come full circle: The black swan events of the final days of the campaign look set to ensure a Lula da Silva rather than Bolsonaro victory.
What exactly happened? That would be the events of last Sunday, when Roberto Jefferson, one of Brazil’s longest-serving political gangsters and staunchest Bolsonaro allies, decided to unleash a hail of rifle fire and grenades at the group of Federal Police officers outside his house in the interior of Rio de Janeiro state.
Jefferson, who was under house arrest for threatening the Supreme Court, released a video in which he called Supreme Court Justice Cármen Lucia “a used-up prostitute” and implored the virtuous citizens of Brazil to take a stand against judicial tyranny and for family values.
Amid suspicions that Jefferson kept an arsenal of military-grade weapons at his domicile—where more than 7,000 bullets were later found—and was planning attacks in the run-up to the election, the Supreme Court ordered that he be arrested and returned to an actual prison cell.
A small group of Federal Police Officers made the trek out to Jefferson’s house and were greeted on arrival by over 50 shots of assault-rifle fire and three grenades for good measure, leaving two police officers injured—it should be noted that the Federal Police did not fire back. A longer-than-eight-hour standoff ensured, ending only when Jefferson’s comrade in absurdity and ally in his notoriously crooked Labor Party of Brazil (PTB), a fraudulent Orthodox priest known as Padre Kelmon, arrived at the scene and convinced Jefferson to hand himself over to the police.
Jefferson is, in his own words, “a close personal friend” of Bolsonaro, with a decades-long relationship. He is also allegedly one of the informal coordinators of the president’s reelection campaign. In fact, Jefferson has been at the heart of every major corruption scandal in Brazilian politics since 1985, and he has the criminal convictions to prove it. He is also an opera singer, a former talk show host, a snitch, an anti-Semite who professes blood libel, a gun nut, and a Harley-riding biker.
As much as Bolsonaro has tried to deny it, he and Jefferson have a long history: The Brazilian president had been a former member of Jefferson’s party, and Jefferson previously employed two of Bolsonaro’s sons and his ex-wife. Since 2019, Jefferson reemerged from the political wilderness as one of the most visible leaders of the extreme wing of Bolsonarismo, threatening violence against the Workers’ Party and the Supreme Court on multiple occasions in videos featuring a Brazilian flag in the background and Jefferson clutching selections from his exotic firearm collection. Unable to run for office because of his previous convictions, Jefferson deployed Padre Kelmon as the PTB’s presidential candidate purely to aid Bolsonaro during the electoral debates.
Now, thanks to Jefferson’s divine intervention, the violent excesses of Bolsonarismo are at the center of discussion, in the form of firearm-touting fanatics who call for a violent coup and are ready to shoot it out with the forces of law and order Bolsonaro claims to stand for. Even before Jefferson’s actions, Bolsonaro was already being forced to play defense, following reports that his finance minister, Paulo Guedes, was not going to raise the minimum wage to keep up with inflation, along with stories about how members of the Bolsonaro cabinet were busy partying while the Amazonian city of Manaus ran out of oxygen during the height of Covid.
If Jefferson’s antics were not enough, another scandal involving Bolsonaro’s candidate for governor of São Paulo, former minister for infrastructure Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, has also exploded during the final days of the campaign. According to a report published by The Intercept Brasil, Tarcísio’s security team killed an unarmed man during an election event in a favela, then forced a cameraman to delete the footage and tried to spin the whole thing as a tough-on-crime candidate being threatened by gangsters—aligned with the Workers’ Party, of course—during a routine campaign event. The Workers’ Party’s 2018 presidential candidate, Fernando Haddad, is now tied with the sitting president in the polls, and stands a real chance of winning what would be a historic victory in Brazil’s most populous and wealthy state.
Momentum in an election is a curious thing. There is no scientific way to measure it, and the polls can at best only partially capture it. It can only be measured by a gut instinct or mood rather than a concrete identifier, but pundits and voters alike know that it exists. A week ago, the momentum was with Bolsonaro: He had performed significantly better than expected in the first round of the election, spent billions on emergency social payments in a naked attempt to buy votes, and the campaign was waged firmly on his terrain of conspiracy and religion-inspired rhetoric.
Now with only two days to go before the election, Bolsonaro has all but admitted defeat. The final polls have steadily shown Lula with a lead of about six points, 53 percent to Bolsonaro’s 47 percent, and there are credible reports that internal polling by the Bolsonaro campaign predicts a loss.
All this was in evidence on Wednesday night. With only four days left until the election, Bolsonaro called an emergency press conference to, in essence, announce his intention to challenge the election results. The president claimed to be the victim of a vast conspiracy to sabotage his campaign by blocking his radio spots from being broadcast on regional radio stations in northeastern Brazil and the key battleground state of Minas Gerais. This marks a departure from the campaign’s previous strategy of attempting to discredit Brazil’s electronic voting system.
Bolsonaro and his cronies claimed to have proof of what his son Senator Flávio Bolsonaro called “the greatest electoral fraud ever seen,” but failed to present any actual evidence of said fraud to Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court. The claims were consequently rejected by its chief justice, Alexandre de Morais. But winning in the legal battle was never the point. The goal instead was to prepare the ground for a challenge to the election results by presenting the judiciary as being in league with Lula and the Workers’ Party. As a result, regardless of what actually happens on Sunday, the election will almost certainly enter into what is being described as a third round. Fearing defeat, Bolsonaro allies, including his other politician son, Eduardo, are calling for the vote to be postponed.
A Lula victory is by no means certain, but Bolsonaro appears to believe he is going to lose. There will almost certainly be a coup attempt, but it remains in question whether that will involve a storming of the capital. Would such an attempt be carried out by fringe fanatics, or have support among the military and the police? So far, it appears that Bolsonaro lacks the support among power brokers to pull off a successful coup, especially now that his ally has gone Rambo on the police.
This has been an exhausting election season. The second round has seen weeks of trench warfare, as the Lula campaign has waded into the mud to fight Bolsonaro on his own terrain. Lula spent weeks trying to convince evangelicals he was not going to close the churches and force their kids to use unisex bathrooms. Bolsonaro had to beg the courts to censor his own interviews, in which he claimed that he would “totally eat an Indian” and “felt a sexual vibe” with adolescent Venezuelan girls. In response, the Workers Party released ads calling the president a pedophile and cannibal.
The electoral court has intervened on an almost daily basis in the campaign, banning ads, including those that consisted of unedited footage of interviews with Bolsonaro, and granting candidates the right to reply to the most egregious accusations. As a result, there are certainly grounds for a reasonable critique of judicial overreach and censorship during this election. At the same time, the scourge of fake news pales in comparison to other forms of open corruption employed by the Bolsonaro campaign.
Bolsonaro has spent billions on buying the support of Congress by means of “the secret budget.” Congress then changed the Constitution to allow the president to curry favor with the public by spending at least $12 billion on emergency social payments. This has met with limited success, as social welfare recipients still favor Lula over Bolsonaro by 61 to 34 percent.
If the polling proves correct for a change, and Lula does indeed triumph on Sunday, it will be in no small part due to the errors of the Bolsonaro campaign, as well as the fateful intervention of Jefferson, rather than the forces of progress routing barbarism. The extreme right is firmly embedded as a major political force in Congress and will remain the dominant force in Brazilian politics going forward, with or without Bolsonaro. A tense few months of electoral challenges will no doubt follow, with possible violence by the most extreme Bolsonaro supporters, and the challenge of governing a divided nation ahead.
That said, a Lula victory would still mark the greatest political comeback of our time. Two years ago, he was in prison, thousands were dying every day, and the opposition was impotent. This election has shown that only Lula was poised to defeat Bolsonaro. A victory could show the world that a fall into the abyss is not inevitable.