Brazil Barrels Into Presidential Runoff As The Far-Right Flexes Its Staying Power

SAO PAULO – Despite a stronger-than-expected showing in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election Sunday, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro will enter the race’s runoff stage as an underdog against leftist candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Da Silva, a former president who led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, won 6 million more votes than Bolsonaro ― the best performance for a Brazilian challenger since the country’s return to democracy four decades ago. And although supporters of da Silva and his leftist Workers’ Party were dismayed that he fell short of an outright win this weekend, he has a clearer and easier path to victory in the head-to-head matchup slated for Oct. 30.

Results from other races across the country, however, suggested that the right-wing, nationalistic movement Bolsonaro embodies will likely remain a significant force in Brazilian politics, and left the country reckoning with a lesson the United States learned after former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020: Beating a far-right figurehead won’t be enough to vanquish the far-right in its entirety.

“There’s this magical feeling that if we just lose Bolsonaro, we will have peace and opposition between the center-left and center-right,” said Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian political analyst. “I’m sorry. That’s over.”

Up and down the ballot, candidates who aligned themselves with Bolsonaro or earned his endorsement triumphed in gubernatorial, congressional and Senate races, paving the way for the extreme right to exercise the sort of power that has traditionally been shared between centrist factions from both sides of the Brazilian political spectrum.

“Bolonsarism comes out much stronger than expected,” said Guilherme Casarões, a Brazilian politics expert at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “The movement’s grassroots strength and national resilience ensured pro-Bolsonaro candidates a smooth victory, and sometimes a massive one. From state assemblies to the Senate, Brazil is poised to have more conservative legislatures than even in 2018.”

The Partido Liberal, of which Bolsonaro is a member, won 99 seats in Brazil’s Congress, the largest share of any party. Its candidates won eight of the 27 seats up for grabs in the Brazilian senate.

Allies of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro prevailed in key downballot races during Sunday’s election, suggesting that his far-right movement will live on even if he loses a presidential runoff race on Oct. 30.

Many of the direct architects of Bolsonarismo prevailed on the tickets of other conservative parties: Damares Alves, who served as a minister in Bolsonaro’s Cabinet, won a seat in Congress after using her time in the government to roll back rights for the LGBTQ community. Ricardo Salles, who as Bolsonaro’s minister of the environment helped implement policies that led to record levels of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest, won a congressional race in São Paulo. Eduardo Pazuello, a retired Army general who oversaw Bolsonaro’s cavalier and denialist approach to the COVID-19 pandemic as Brazil’s minister of health, handily won a race for congress in Rio de Janeiro.

Bolsonaro’s coattails extended to governor’s races and made it likely that his allies would run two of Brazil’s most-populous states next year. In Rio, Gov. Claudio Castro sailed to a second term without needing a runoff contest. Tarcisio de Freitas, who had Bolsonaro’s backing in the race for São Paulo governor, outperformed polls and will head into a runoff election as the favorite.

Some prominent pro-Bolsonaro candidates suffered notable defeats, and conservatives were expected to do well in congressional elections. Still, the results made Brazil the latest indication that the far-right movements that have put democracies at risk worldwide are not merely a temporary convulsion. They are instead an expression of what a sizable number of Brazilians, Americans and voters in other countries desire.

“These races tell us that there is a big part of the population that… really does like the Bolsonarista brand of conservatism,” said Brian Winter, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “It’s not just that these were binary choices. These were voters who were brought a whole menu of options, pointed to the most Bolsonaro-aligned candidates, and said, ‘That’s what I want.’”

Brazil’s political system is not easily or directly analogous to the two-party dominance of the United States. It has more than 30 official parties, nearly all of which are less ideologically coherent and far weaker institutionally than their American counterparts. Their constituencies and coalition partners often vary from one region to the next. Bolsonaro was politically homeless for much of his presidency and has never had a party that could coalesce around him and bend to his will the way Republicans have with Trump.

But as in the U.S., the emergence of the far-right as a virulent and powerful political force has come mainly at the expense of a center-right establishment that has steadily lost its appeal to voters over the last two decades.

The PSDB, the largest of Brazil’s traditional center-right parties, has not won a presidential contest since 1998. Its support has evaporated even more over the eight years since it was last competitive at the national level. The center-right was damaged by its links to the massive corruption scandal that engulfed Brazil over the last decade, as well as its own political maneuvering: In 2016, its parties led an opportunistic effort to impeach leftist President Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s Workers’ Party successor, and backed Michel Temer, her centrist replacement.

He left office two years later with approval ratings in the single digits, his brief period as president having succeeded only in further discrediting the Brazilian center.

Anti-Workers’ Party sentiment dominated the 2018 election, but voters also broadly rejected centrist candidates. So the center-right threw its hat in with Bolsonaro, partly to keep the left from returning to power and partly out of a belief that it could constrain the right-winger’s obvious authoritarian tendencies.

Instead, Bolsonarismo has swamped them. Conservative candidates who broke with Bolsonaro after supporting him in 2018 were primarily battered at the polls: Luis Henrique Mandetta, Bolsonaro’s first health minister who criticized the president’s handling of the COVID pandemic and was subsequently fired, lost a Senate race by 35 points. Joice Hasselmann, a congresswoman who also split with Bolsonaro during the pandemic, received 14,000 votes – 1 million fewer than four years ago.

The PSDB lost 19 congressional seats and relinquished control of the governorship of São Paulo, its traditional stronghold, for the first time in 27 years. The Tucanos, as members of the PSDB are popularly known, are now “at risk of extinction,” Traumann wrote in his newsletter Monday morning.

“The center in Brazil did not hold,” Winter said. “The center is almost gone.”

That will have a substantial impact on Brazilian politics. If he triumphs in the runoff, Bolsonaro could enter a second term with far more allies in Congress than he had during his first term, allowing him to advance key conservative priorities – like expanded gun rights, new restrictions on LGBTQ rights or further opening of Indigenous lands to exploitation – and consolidate his authoritarian assault on Brazil’s democracy.

Da Silva is a shrewd political operator who navigated a conservative-minded congress during his time in office. Many of Brazil’s centrist parties (including Bolsonaro’s current party) traditionally make convenient allies with whoever wins the presidency to maintain power and influence. But should he win, da Silva will almost certainly face a sizable right-wing opposition bloc that would seek to scuttle his most ambitious plans – and even his basic ability to govern.

Former leftist leader Lula da Silva, who won the first round of Brazil's presidential election on Sunday, has attempted to build a broad front of opposition to Bolsonaro in an effort to win a runoff race later this month.
Former leftist leader Lula da Silva, who won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday, has attempted to build a broad front of opposition to Bolsonaro in an effort to win a runoff race later this month.

NELSON ALMEIDA via Getty Images

The leftist kicked off his presidential campaign by naming Geraldo Alckmin, a prominent former governor from the PSDB, as his running mate. Since Sunday, da Silva and his allies have attempted to broaden their coalition further, reaching out to centrist parties and their leaders to secure a majority of votes in the second round.

“The choice now is not ideological,” da Silva told reporters Monday after Workers’ Party leaders huddled in São Paulo to discuss their second round strategy. “Now we are going to talk to all the political forces that have votes, that have representative strength, that have political meaning in this country so that we can build a democratic bloc against those who are not democrats.”

The threat Bolsonaro poses to Brazil’s democracy, and the fear that the close first-round result may only embolden him to contest any election defeat, has helped that strategy. Da Silva has secured the backing of the candidates who finished a distant third and fourth in the presidential vote. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a titan of the Brazilian center-right, endorsed his longtime rival on Wednesday, saying that he would “vote for a history of democracy and social inclusion.”

But there remains a strong base of anti-Workers’ Party sentiment in Brazil that stems from its links to political corruption, the economic collapse that occurred during Rousseff’s presidency, and generalized conservative angst over the party’s continued strength as a political institution. Some who shroud their opposition to the left in anti-corruption terms, meanwhile, support or are at least willing to tolerate the backlash to decades of efforts to expand rights for Brazil’s most marginalized populations that fueled Bolsonaro’s rise and the country’s hard right turn.

“[The right] has roots in a reaction to 50 years of social change in the West, where women, LGBTQ people, Black people and others have really, for the first time, fought for their rights,” said James Green, a professor of Brazilian history at Brown University. “Lots and lots of people don’t like that.”

Some supposedly centrist leaders, including the governors of Brazil’s two most populous states, have again chosen to back Bolsonaro and his movement. Bolsonaro’s threats to democracy, and Lula’s effort to build a broad front to thwart them, have further sorted the center-right, consolidating its right side into a bloc that has prioritized another defeat of the left even if it means ignoring the fire that has engulfed the world’s fourth-largest democracy.

That may not be enough to keep da Silva from victory. But it will help ensure that Bolsonaro’s version of politics persists, even if his presidency does not.

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