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How the Brazilian election could destabilize a divided country

A loss by President Jair Bolsonaro could cause chaos. But experts say a coup is unlikely.

Current president of Brazil and candidate for reelection Jair Bolsonaro (center) greets supporters during a campaign rally on September 7, 2022, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Wagner Meier/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Update, October 3, 9:50 am: Because no candidate received 50 percent of the vote, Brazil’s elections are heading to a runoff. According to the Associated Press, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had 48.4 percent of the vote and President Jair Bolsonaro had 43.2 percent. Bolsonaro outperformed polls and will face off against da Silva in an October 30 election. The original story, first published October 1, is below.

The first round of Brazil’s presidential election is set to take place on Sunday, with current far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and the center-left former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, or Lula as he’s commonly known, as the frontrunners of 11 candidates. The campaign has mimicked the 2020 US election in some crucial ways, with Bolsonaro claiming that the election is rigged and that the only way his opposition can keep him out of power is by stealing the election.

Lula has a clear lead in the polls with Bolsonaro trailing by 14 percentage points according to a Datafolha poll released Thursday. Bolsonaro, though, has repeatedly pushed bogus election fraud claims, much like former president Donald Trump did in the lead-up to the 2020 election. Though there’s no evidence for Bolsonaro’s claims of election fraud, it may not matter to some of his most die-hard followers. Bolsonaro’s base of supporters believes he shouldn’t accept the results of the election if he doesn’t win, Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, Brazil, wrote in Foreign Affairs.

Despite his own low approval ratings, Bolsonaro himself is a strong supporter of Trump and has parroted many of his tactics in trying to retain his grip on power, including casting doubt on the voting process and instructing his base to “go to war” if Lula “steals” the election.

Those election-denial tactics and the high levels of distrust that most Brazilians have in the honesty of the elections — not to mention Bolsonaro’s fondness for Brazil’s recent history as a military dictatorship — have raised concerns about a disruption in the peaceful transfer of power in the case of Lula’s likely victory. While experts say Bolsonaro likely doesn’t have the political or military support necessary for a successful military coup, the more likely scenario is that he attempts to capitalize on regional outbreaks of violence to try and delegitimize the result of the election if it doesn’t go in his favor.

Still, Brazilian and international institutions have focused over the past year on shoring up Brazil’s resilience to a coup or other disruption in the democratic process. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been working with Brazil’s armed forces to ensure their loyalty to the constitution, rather than Bolsonaro, and CIA chief William Burns warned Bolsonaro last year to stop casting doubt on the election system.

All signs point to a Bolsonaro defeat

Bolsonaro has never been a particularly popular president, according to Patricio Navia, a professor of liberal studies at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. At the time of Bolsonaro’s 2018 victory, the country was struggling after the presidency of Dilma Rousseff, a former left-wing revolutionary during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964 through 1985 who was Lula’s chosen successor after his first stint in office. Rousseff was impeached in 2016 for her role in multiple corruption scandals. Brazil had slid into a recession under Rousseff and Michel Temer, who finished Rousseff’s term after she was removed from office, and got caught up in a corruption scandal of his own.

“Bolsonaro just emerged when a lot of people were discontent,” Navia explained. “He was a rebound person.” When Bolsonaro first ran for the presidency in 2018, Brazilians just wanted an alternative — any alternative — to the dominant Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain under the military dictatorship and a member of Brazil’s fast-growing evangelical Christian community, had a long but largely fruitless career in Brazil’s congress, the Associated Press reported. During his 27 years in the legislature, Bolsonaro made 642 legislative filings, including proposed bills and amendments as well as requests for information, but the legislature passed only two of his bills, according to an analysis by the AP. Many of those proposals were aimed against progressive causes like LGBTQ and reproductive rights and affirmative action, instead promoting nationalistic and military ideologies.

Although Bolsonaro struck a chord by promising to control surging crime and touting his outsider status, his calamitous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic caused inhumane suffering and contributed to Brazil’s high death toll. Bolsonaro repeatedly downplayed the severity of the disease in a bid to achieve herd immunity and avoid lockdowns. He slowed vaccine distribution, encouraged mass, maskless gatherings, touted unproven treatments like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, and undermined the health care system and any efforts to impose restrictions like social distancing. All of this had political consequences.

“Regardless of whether Lula was the candidate, Bolsonaro would have struggled to win reelection,” Navia said, adding that no Latin American country has kept its incumbent leader in post-2020 elections. “He truly messed up on the pandemic. Brazilians did suffer a lot.”

And though the Brazilian economy is improving and Bolsonaro has approved assistance for the poorest Brazilians to the tune of $7.7 billion, salaries aren’t keeping up with inflation. In August, Felipe Nunes, founder of pollster Quaest, told the Financial Times that though, “It is a fact that a country that is doing well economically tends to reelect its presidents,” it’s not clear that the gains are significant enough, or reaching enough people, to make a difference.

That’s a space where challenger Lula has a strong record, Navia told Vox. During his first stint as president, from 2003 to 2010, Lula introduced or strengthened three key social welfare programs designed to fight hunger and poverty. Under those programs, severe poverty dropped by 12 percent from 2003 to 2008. The best-known program, a cash transfer initiative called Bolsa Familia, reached about 11 million families.

Although much of the Brazilian electorate is under 30, “there are two things that you need to keep in mind,” Navia told Vox. “First, the older people vote more than younger people, so turnout is much higher among those who do remember Lula and have good memories of Lula. And second, people have parents. So, younger voters might not remember Lula but their parents will tell them, ‘We had plenty of food when Lula was president, I had a job, we bought televisions, we bought a cellphone. We were better off when Lula was president.’”

Like his successor Rousseff, Lula has his own history of corruption. An investigation found a wide-ranging kickback scheme throughout the Brazilian government, and though Lula has always maintained his innocence, he was convicted of corruption and began a 12-year prison sentence in 2018. His convictions were thrown out last year, when the Supreme Court ruled that the judges in his case were biased.

It’s unclear just how much Lula’s conviction will be a political liability. “I’m not going to say that Lula was not involved in illegal campaign finance practices,” Navia told Vox. “He probably was. The campaign finance system in Brazil, it kind of forces people to find ways to bypass it. No Brazilian politician is a good candidate for an anti-corruption initiative, so it’s hard to single Lula out as more corrupt than the average Brazilian politician.”

For the average Brazilian, that’s probably not much of a deterrent, Navia said. “Since they are all going to be corrupt, I’d rather take as my president a guy who was corrupt but who did things for me.”

The conditions for a military coup just aren’t there

That doesn’t mean that Bolsonaro isn’t trying to paint Lula as a communist and corrupt, all while undermining the political system. While the former attack doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction, the latter does. According to a recent Gallup poll, 67 percent of Brazilians surveyed said they don’t have confidence in the honesty of the election process.

That widespread election mistrust is where Bolsonaro and his supporters might be able to cause some chaos. This likely won’t happen with the military’s help, despite Bolsonaro’s nostalgia for Brazil’s dictatorship, his campaign to have the military conduct a parallel vote count, and his efforts to tie himself to the military in voters’ minds.

Although Bolsonaro stacked his cabinet with retired and active-duty military officers and touted his own military record, experts say that doesn’t have much of a bearing on whether the military would actually support him should he try to stage a coup. “I don’t know whether that’s either necessary or sufficient,” Naunihal Singh, the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, told Vox. Bolsonaro can contest the results of the election, but the military leaders associated with Bolsonaro aren’t necessarily tied to the active forces, and they aren’t clearly making plans or signaling an intention to stage a coup.

“My understanding is that even pro-Bolsonaro officers aren’t eager for a coup,” Singh said. “There have been very few coup attempts in Latin America recently, and the countries which have had them are the countries that other countries don’t want to be associated with — like Venezuela.” Singh added that “the Brazilian military tends to be highly interconnected with the elite,” as well as highly professionalized.

Singh’s research looks at the dynamics of military coups, and finds that three different factors play a role in determining a nation’s vulnerability to a coup. “One of them is whether there’s been a successful coup recently,” he told Vox. While Brazil’s democracy is young and certainly has its struggles, it has been consistent since the end of the military dictatorship. Furthermore, as Navia said, “the last time the military was in power was in 1985, but that was the time of the Cold War, so the US supported a military government in Brazil in order to prevent a communist revolution.” Now, because the Cold War specter of communism is gone, “nobody is going to support a military coup.”

Other conditions that could lead to a military coup, Singh told Vox, aren’t alarmingly present in Brazil. Poverty, for example, often lays fertile ground for successful military coups, and while there is poverty in Brazil, the country has seen significant economic progress overall in recent decades. And despite Bolsonaro’s best efforts, Brazil still qualifies as a democracy with relatively stable (if sometimes problematic and ineffectual) institutions, making it difficult for a military coup to successfully dismantle them.

English teacher Luiz Eduardo da Silva, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, said he was more concerned about violence from Bolsonaro’s supporters. “I think [Bolsonaro] won’t have the political support not to leave office,” he told Vox via WhatsApp. However, he said, he was concerned about what Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters might do should their candidate lose. “They’ve become violent,” he told Vox. “The followers are the biggest issue.” What’s more, if violence does break out in Brazilian cities, “the police here is as violent as his followers. If [the followers] try something, they’ll probably face violent backlash.”

Such chaos could present an opportunity for Bolsonaro to encourage an insurrection similar to a “Brazilian January 6,” some analysts fear. But while Bolsonaro does have some armed supporters in the federal police, in addition to his virulent civilian supporters, they’re more likely to cause scattered regional flare-ups than a march on Brasilia, the national capital, Navia said. That’s because Brasilia, Brazil’s capitol, unlike Washington, DC, “is in the middle of nowhere. And most of Bolsonaro’s supporters are not in Brasilia and they’re not going to be able to get there,” he told Vox.

Even if Bolsonaro’s tactics can’t keep him in power, they may be able to keep him relevant, much as Trump’s attempt to remain in office has. Should he face criminal investigation, as he did last year over his handling over the Covid-19 pandemic, the mistrust he’s already sown in the government and Brazil’s democratic institutions could justify claims that any criticism or inquiry is politically motivated. “It doesn’t guarantee immunity, but it provides you with an extra layer of protection,” Stuenkel told Time magazine. “Bolsonaro’s interpretation is that there is an actual incentive not to concede and that in many ways he’d be better off if he contested the result.”

Still, Brazil’s democratic institutions — the courts and the legislature, as well as business leaders and celebrities — have mobilized in support of Brazilian democracy and the rule of law. Despite disinformation, polarization, and extremism, Brazilian institutions and individuals have demonstrated a willingness to strengthen their democratic system against further erosion; on Sunday, the world will see if those efforts have paid off.

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