In any other election, winning by five percentage points and more than 6 million votes would be a fairly convincing victory, but in this case the news has been received as almost a defeat for the left. Lula may have won, but Bolsonaro did not lose. Despite the disaster of the Bolsonaro presidency—700,000 Covid deaths, untold damage to the environment, the dismantling of state capacity, the handing over of public goods to private interests, endless corruption scandals, and attacks on the very idea of society—the election made clear that Bolsonarismo is still powerful. With Bolsonaro threatening not to recognize the results, this was more than just an election. In many respects, it was a referendum on Brazilian democracy.
The country is now set for a tense second-round runoff. Bolsonaro’s disinformation machine will be turned up to the max; political violence is likely to increase; and the threat of a coup remains. It was for this reason that viewing parties, including the one I attended, turned into nerve-wracking somber celebrations of political anxiety. Top-trending topics on Twitter in Brazil last night were “calm down” and “Rivotril” (valium).
What exactly happened in the first round of Brazil’s election? With 99.99 percent of the votes counted, Lula finished first, with 48.43 percent of the vote (57,257,473 votes), short of the 50 percent needed for a first-round victory. Bolsonaro trailed, with 43.10 percent (51,071,106 votes). Center-right neoliberal Simone Tebet finished third, with 4.16 percent. And Ciro Gomes, who opportunistically oscillated between ideological postures in an attempt to occupy the middle ground, finished in a humiliating fourth place, with 3.04 percent.
The fact is that the election results were within the margin of golpismo (coup plotting), by which I mean close enough to provide ammunition to Bolsonaro’s repeated Trumpesque attacks on Brazil’s electoral system, and sufficient to demonstrate to his faltering supporters in the military, police, business, and politics that Bolsonaro still stands a chance of victory. Despite his Jeb Bush–like low-energy campaign, he could still win. The media had been full of stories in the days before the election about backroom channels being opened up between Bolsonaro cabinet ministers and Lula.
In what is by now a predictable pattern, the polls were off by a significant margin, severely underestimating Bolsonaro’s support levels. When I arrived in São Paulo only a few days ago, the mood among Lula supporters oscillated between cautious optimism and downright triumphalism. The leading polling firms placed Lula 10 points ahead of Bolsonaro, and the only remaining question was if he would win an outright victory. Over ice-cold liters of beer and journalist WhatsApp groups, there was talk that Lula possibly had a first-round victory in the bag. As political analyst Alex Hochuli points out, the biggest losers in this election were the pollsters.
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This is because support for Bolsonaro, and indeed for the far right in general, proved significantly stronger than almost all polling indicated, in an election with high turnout. This was most evident in the southeast, Brazil’s most populous and richest region: In the country’s most populous state, São Paulo, the leading polling firm Datafolha’s final poll before the election had Lula in the lead, with 50 percent, and Bolsonaro far behind, with only 36 percent; another major polling agency, IPEC, had it at 48 percent to 39 percent. In the end, Bolsonaro handily won São Paulo, with 48 percent to Lula’s 41 percent. In the governor’s race, the PT’s 2018 candidate, Fernando Haddad, was leading by nine points over the extreme Tarcisio de Freitas, and the final result was a seven-point victory for Tarcisio; the race now goes to a second round.
One of the issues facing polling in Brazil is the fact that the country has not had a census for a decade and models are based on outdated data. Current data fails to capture demographic changes in the segments of society that have contributed to redrawing electoral maps.
Lula managed to win the satellite cities of the great industrial megapolis in which he began his political career. The working-class neighborhoods of Brazil’s largest city, as well as more than a few of its more respectable middle-class neighborhoods, swung to Lula, after supporting Bolsonaro in 2018.
On the national level, this is more or less the same electoral map as in 2018, albeit with significantly more votes for the PT, with one exception—Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second-most-populous state and traditionally a bellwether in Brazilian elections, went for Lula. The southeast, south, center west, and north went for Bolsonaro, and the northeast went overwhelmingly for the PT.
Bolsonaro’s continued electoral strength stems from the success of Brazil’s right in evolving and shaping politics over the past decade. His far-right movement is powered by the growth of evangelical Christianity, the shift of the economy back to agricultural exports, and of course the wild universe of right-wing social media.
There were also terrifying down-ballot results: A grotesque array of far-right candidates were elected to Congress and the Senate, as well as a few governorships. Congress is now dominated by Bolsonaro’s latest party, the Liberal Party (LP)—“liberalism” in Brazil generally denotes right-wing free-market politics—which now holds 99 seats, up from 33 seats in 2018.
Among those elected to the legislature are former minister of health Gen. Eduardo Pazuello, widely regarded as responsible for the country’s disastrous response to Covid; former minister of the environment Ricardo Salles, who waged war against the environment in the Amazon; former minister of human rights and women Damares Alves, who, as you might have guessed, did her best to undermine the rights of both humans and women; and former minister of justice and ex-judge Sergio Moro, who perhaps more than anyone else has done his best to destroy Brazil’s Constitution and justice system.
This does not, of course, mean that Bolsonaro will win. Lula remains the favorite, and, as he pointed out in his speech last night, he has never won an election in the first round. We are now, in his words, going into extra time to secure final victory. But I can only wonder how anyone can govern with this Congress.
Bolsonarismo remains strong, and voters have rewarded those responsible for its crimes. The day before the election, I stood with a friend on a corner of Rua Augusta—a street once notorious for its nightlife but that is now a tamer, gentrified array of bars and restaurants—outside a pet shop, waiting for Lula to march by with Haddad and his running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, in the final campaign event.
In a scene only possible in the chaotic metropolis that is São Paulo, an older man who worked at the pet shop cracked jokes about how Lula would steal his job, while a homeless man shouted at the military police stationed on the road about the sign warning pedestrians to be careful with their phones because of the high risk of mugging in this area. When my friend asked the pet-shop worker whom he was voting for, he replied with something along the lines of, “Screw it, I’ll just choose the worst possible option,” while his younger female colleagues all declared their enthusiastic support for Lula. As the crowd grew closer and I spotted Lula in the distance, my friend attempted to convince the man that if he didn’t vote for Lula, he might not ever get the chance to vote again. Later, I wondered if perhaps that wasn’t precisely the outcome he was hoping for.