Campaign posters in Brazil. (AP)

Campaign posters in Brazil. (AP)

Explainer: Brazil's 2022 General Election

By Chase Harrison

Ahead of the October 2 first round, learn about the faceoff between Bolsonaro and Lula, as well as congressional contests.

Brazil has a mega election on the horizon. Brazilians will head to the polls October 2 to elect a president, 27 out of 81 senators, all 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies, and all 27 governors and state legislatures. For the presidential and gubernatorial races, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, runoffs take place October 30.

Atop voters’ ballots is a presidential race that features two political heavyweights: current President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010). For the past year, the two have engaged in a highly polarized and aggressive campaign, each portraying the other as an existential threat to Brazilian democracy. Tensions are running high in the country, as evidenced by instances of electoral violence between supporters and screaming matches between high-level surrogates.

Whoever wins the election will inherit a Brazil faced with a challenging economic situation. A combination of stimulus spending during the Covid pandemic and economic shocks from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up inflation and contributed to rising consumer prices. This has hurt lower- and middle-class Brazilians who are struggling to afford food and fuel. Still, GDP growth has been slightly better than expected, growing 1.2 percent in Q2 of 2022, higher than the forecasted 0.9 percent.

Voting is compulsory in Brazil. In the 2018 first-round vote, turnout was close to 80 percent.

Ahead of the vote, AS/COA Online provides an overview of the presidential candidates and the legislative scenario.

Jair Bolsonaro, Liberal Party

Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 after spending 27 years in Congress as a deputy for state of Rio de Janeiro. Considered far right, Bolsonaro centered his successful 2018 presidential campaign on his outsider status, social conservatism, a promise of law and order, and his crusade against the Workers Party (PT), to which then-jailed Lula and impeached President Dilma Rousseff belong. A coalition of voters that included evangelical Christians, police and military supporters, businessmen, rural landowners, and the middle class swept the retired military officer into office. Bolsonaro also likely benefitted from misinformation campaigns spread through social networks such as WhatsApp.

In office, Bolsonaro has slashed taxes and tariffs, strengthened the military and gun ownership laws, and weakened federal agencies such as Ibama, Brazil’s environmental law enforcement body—all while maintaining his bellicose rhetoric and persona. He’s also filled his administration with members of the military, who hold double as many posts as they did under the previous administration.

His term has been marked by the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. Bolsonaro, one of the few world leaders who is unvaccinated, downplayed the threat of the virus and said contagion could benefit Brazilians by moving them toward herd immunity. About 685,000 Brazilians have perished from the disease, the fourth highest toll in the world. Over the course of the pandemic, Bolsonaro feuded publicly with four different health ministers and recommended unproven remedies for the disease. The president was especially skeptical of the vaccines, which arrived late in the country, though 80 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated as of September 18, 2022.

So far, Bolsonaro has done little to update his platform moving into the 2022 election. Outspoken on social media, he’s rallied his base around conservative issues while focusing on demonizing two entities: Lula and Brazil’s electoral institutions.

Bolsonaro has tagged his main opponent as a criminal and a thief by highlighting the time Lula spent in jail for corruption. Bolsonaro also portrays Lula as a communist and claims that his election would lead Brazil to follow in Venezuela’s footsteps.

Despite his rivalry with Lula, the president has recently taken a page out of the former leader’s book in the form of cash transfers. In December 2021, Bolsonaro’s Auxilio Brasil program was approved by Congress. Replacing Lula’s signature Bolsa Familia program, it provides cash stipends to poor families. In August, Bolsonaro pushed a measure through Congress to increase payments to the 18 million recipients in the Auxilio Brasil program from about $76 a month to $114 a month through the end of 2022. He also passed measures to double the value of gas vouchers and to provide a monthly stipend to taxi drivers and truckers. Both Lula and Bolsonaro have vowed to continue the Auxilio Brasil program at elevated levels if elected.

Bolsonaro has also sought to undermine trust in electoral institutions. The president is a long-time critic of Brazil’s electoral system, especially its use of electronic voting. Brazil’s voting system is considered extremely secure, as evidenced by a simulated hack performed in May that the system defended itself against.

Still, Bolsonaro has taken steps to attempt to fix what he says are shortcomings in the system. In 2021, the president promoted a reform that would require electronic ballot boxes to produce paper receipts so that audits could be performed. The measure was defeated in Congress, though Bolsonaro claimed legislators were being influenced and blackmailed by members of the judicial system. In July, he presented his claims of electoral vulnerability to the diplomatic corps.

Now, Bolsonaro is focused on promoting the view that the military should be involved in ensuring the election is transparent and fair. On September 12, Brazil’s electoral court decided the military could conduct its own count of votes in October election.

Even still, Bolsonaro said he will not accept results if he doesn’t belief they are “auditable,” leading to worries that he will contest the election in the style of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who Bolsonaro considers an ally and role model. Bolsonaro encouraged his supporters to gather in major rallies over the country’s winter as a show of support and power, including during the country’s bicentennial celebrations in September.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Workers Party

Lula, the current frontrunner, is running his sixth presidential campaign with a pledge to return Brazil to the spirit of his prior presidency, which lasted from 2003 to 2010. During that period, Lula became one of the most popular leaders in the world as he rode the wave of a commodity boom to fund social programs. Several of those programs—like the Bolsa Familia and the Fome Zero (“Zero Hunger”)—used cash transfers and other policy tools to help lift thousands of Brazilians out of extreme poverty and malnutrition. Lula, a former union leader, fashioned himself as the champion of Brazil’s working class while helping the country achieve a stabler macroeconomic standing. His approval rating upon leaving office was 83 percent.

Since then, some of Lula’s achievements have been overshadowed by scandal and economic destabilization. The validity of many of signature reforms was called into question when the mensalão scandal revealed that monthly payments were being made by members of the PT to legislators to guarantee their support for Lula’s agenda in Congress. Then, in 2014, Brazil’s economy sharply contracted, shrinking some of the social gains made under his administration. During this time, Lula’s hand-picked presidential successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached amid growing anti-PT sentiment. Meanwhile, the massive Car Wash corruption probe ensnared several top party officials.

As part of operation Car Wash, police raided Lula’s home in March 2016. After a May 2017 closed-court hearing by prosecutor Sergio Moro, Lula was found guilty of accepting bribes, obstructing justice, and laundering money. In July 2017, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, ending his chance to run for president in the 2018 election.

In 2019, Brazil’s Supreme Court freed Lula from house arrest after declaring that he had not received due process. Meanwhile, it was revealed that Moro, who was by then serving as Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, had colluded with prosecutors in the Car Wash probe to steer its outcome, weakening its credibility.

The Lula running in 2022 is not a carbon copy of the one who governed Brazil in the 2000s. For one, he’s made outreach to more moderate voters in Brazil, seeking to create a “Big Tent” coalition of voters. In a nod to centrist voters, he named Geraldo Alckmin, former Governor of São Paulo and runner-up in the 2006 Brazilian election, as his running mate. Eight other former presidential candidates who once ran against Lula have now endorsed him.

Lula is also pursuing Brazil’s powerful evangelical voters, who make up roughly 30 percent of the electorate. His rhetoric in this campaign cycle is more religious—saying Bolsonaro was “possessed by the devil” and tweeting that he was “manipulating the faith of evangelical voters.”

Lula may be courting voters across the political map, but his platform retains his signature leftist tilt and focus on the poorest Brazilians. He’s discussed growing social programs, expanding public banks’ financing of infrastructure projects, and making Brazil’s spending cap more permanently flexible.

He has discussed buying back oil refineries to reverse the partial privatization of state energy firm Petrobras. And, he has plans to crack down on illegal activity in the Amazon, standing in contrast to Bolsonaro who’s been criticized for enabling intense deforestation during his time in office. During Lula’s presidency, he was criticized by environmentalists, including his own Environmental Minister Marina Silva, for not being strong enough on protecting the world’s largest rainforest. Silva has now endorsed Lula, claiming this election represents a choice between “democracy and barbarism.”

But one aspect of Lula’s appeal to voters is simple: he’s not Bolsonaro, whose approval rating stood at 38 percent as of August 28. In the August debate, he claimed Bolsonaro had ruined the country.

The “third way” candidates

Though they constitute the marquee contenders, Bolsonaro and Lula are joined by nine other candidates in the presidential race. Two of them—former Governor and Finance Minister Ciro Gomes (Brazilian Labor Party) and Senator Simone Tebet (Brazilian Democratic Movement)—are polling above 10 percent in aggregated polls. Both are hoping to provide a “third way”—a term for an alternative and more centrist option between Bolsonaro and Lula.

Several candidates who angled to provide that “third way” have already exited the race. That includes former Minister of Justice Moro, who ended his campaign on March 31, and São Paulo Governor João Doria, who dropped out on May 23.

Both Gomes and Tebet are offering more moderate economic programs while critiquing both Lula and Bolsonaro as representatives of Brazil’s polarized politics. At the August 28 debate, Tebet called Bolsonaro out for sexism after he verbally harassed the moderator of that debate, journalist Vera Magalhães. Women voters, among whom Lula has a 17-point advantage per Datafolha, could prove decisive to the election.

Neither Gomes nor Tebet has made much of a dent in polling and a late September surge seems unlikely. Recently, members of Gomes’ own party urged supporters to abandon their candidate in favor of Lula to guarantee a first-round victory, which would make it harder for Bolsonaro to challenge the results.

However, the question persists of who their supporters might back in a Bolsonaro-Lula runoff. Polls suggest that Lula has the advantage with both groups, particularly Gomes voters. An endorsement could prove pivotal in a second round.

Congressional and gubernatorial races

On October 2, Brazilians will also select 27 out of 81 senators and all 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Brazil’s Congress is a powerful actor in the country’s politics—having impeached Rousseff and blocked much of Bolsonaro’s agenda—and its influence is only growing under the powerful Speaker of the House Arthur Lira. In 2020, lawmakers intensified the use of a mechanism known as the “secret budget,” which allows it to transfer funds to members to use for discretionary usage in their district.

Brazil’s Congress features a large number of parties and a wide range of ideological camps, due in part to the relatively low threshold of votes needed to get elected in large multi-member districts like São Paulo and Minas Gerais. Congress is thus best understood through various caucuses of members. Caucuses, who represent interests like agrobusiness or evangelical voters, can and do steer Congress’ agenda. The Centrão, a Lira-helmed centrist group of about half of the 513 congressmen, are currently the most powerful force.

Polling for the large number of Congressional seats is challenging, and seven out of 10 Brazilians said they still didn’t know who they who they planned to support for federal deputy as of September 19, per DataFolha. One factor to keep in mind is that Brazil’s electoral system allows citizens to vote for parties rather than specific candidates for Congress and governor. This can enhance the tailwinds of a strong performance by a presidential candidate. About half of the voters who told DataFolha they had decided their deputy vote said they planned to elect a candidate from the same party as their preferred presidential candidate.

Due to the effect of the “secret budget,” it is likely that the incumbency advantage will be stronger than usual in this election, especially for allies of Bolsonaro and Lira, who received the most discretionary money. Congressional candidates and gubernatorial candidates in Brazil’s 26 states and federal district will be running on the top issues concerning Brazil. Per pollster Genial/Quaest, the economy is the top issue in the election to 39 percent of voters, by far the biggest share. “What people are looking for is for someone who can actually fix the economy," said pollster Felipe Nunes on the Latin America in Focus podcast. Social issues, like hunger, poverty, and inequality, are the principal issues to 21 percent of voters. Health, including the pandemic (14 percent) and corruption (8 percent) are also pivotal for some voters.

The composition of Congress will be important to whoever wins, as will the bodies’ elected leaders, like the Speaker of the House. Their relationship to the president will determine the president’s ability to control Congress’ agenda and the budget.