Brazil’s Election Goes Beyond A Battle Between Left And Right. Democracy Is Also On The Ballot

Seen from afar, the dynamics playing out in the Brazilian election are a clear example of the broader crisis of liberal democracy, with right-wing authoritarians in ascent globally.
BRASILIA, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 20: A woman walks by flags of presidential candidates Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro at Feira dos Importados on September 20, 2022 in Brasilia, Brazil. Brazilians will go to... BRASILIA, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 20: A woman walks by flags of presidential candidates Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro at Feira dos Importados on September 20, 2022 in Brasilia, Brazil. Brazilians will go to polls on October 02 in a polarized presidential election. (Photo by Gustavo Minas/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. It was originally published at The Conversation.

Two very different Brazils could emerge after voters go the polls to elect a president on Oct. 2, 2022.

In one scenario, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, will manage to stay in power – by either winning the vote or illegally ignoring it – and continue to push the country down an authoritarian road.

Alternately, the country will begin the process of rebuilding its democratic institutions, which have been undermined during Bolsonaro’s four years in power. That project will be the task of a broad center-left coalition led by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers Party.

As experts on Brazilian politics and modern Latin American history, we have studied Brazil from the ground up. Seen from afar, the dynamics playing out in the Brazilian election are a clear example of the broader crisis of liberal democracy, with right-wing authoritarians in ascent globally. But the high-stakes choice confronting Brazilians in this election has also been shaped by complicated social and political experiences unique to Brazil.

Whatever happened to the ‘pink tide’?

In the first decade of the 21st century, Brazil led a regionwide “pink tide” in which Latin America, governed largely by leftist presidents, experienced unprecedented levels of inclusive growth through democratic politics. Lula’s economic and welfare policies, for example, brought 30 million people out of poverty and provided lower-income, mostly nonwhite Brazilians with new opportunities for upward mobility.

After 2012, however, as Brazil’s economy slowed, traditional elites mobilized in order to resist this progressive path. Their efforts gained ground with an explosive corruption scandal, called “Lava Jato,” or “Car Wash.” Though politicians across the spectrum were implicated, the operation targeted the Workers Party in particular and generated widespread anger toward the party.

Subsequent anti-left sentiment, led by privileged groups and deftly managed through social media campaigns, grew to include voters across the economic and political spectrum. This provided a perfect opening for Bolsonaro, a former military captain and undistinguished congressman, to seize right-wing momentum. Building on the deepened polarization generated by the illegitimate impeachment of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro rebranded himself as an outsider poised to overturn a corrupt political establishment.

Bolsonaro, much like Donald Trump in the U.S. two years earlier, won 2018 elections by combining masterful spectacle with derogatory language. Bolsonaro’s campaign rhetoric was explicitly sexist, anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ. His victory was also tied to the fact that Lula, the front-runner then as now, was arrested on trumped-up charges and prevented from competing.

Repositioning Lula

The overturning of Lula’s corruption conviction in 2021 repositioned him as the most viable opposition candidate for the presidency, and he has consistently led Bolsonaro in the polls.

And while Lula is running as a leftist, he is perhaps more accurately seen in this election as the best chance to steer the country back to democratic norms.

As president, Bolsonaro has flaunted his authoritarian bent. He has praised Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, cultivated nostalgia for military rule – while filling his cabinet with retired and active-duty generals – and disparaged human rights, especially of minorities. Throughout his term in office, Bolsonaro has actively promoted the destruction of the Amazon forest and portrayed indigenous peoples and environmental groups as working against the interests of the nation.

He has also consistently attacked the country’s democratic institutions, particularly Brazil’s Supreme Court.

At the same time, Bolsonaro has made serious policy missteps that have dented his popularity, such as his egregious mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis and the rolling back of popular economic and social policies that improved the lives of ordinary Brazilians.

Around a third of Brazilians continue to support Bolsonaro’s bid for reelection. But the erosion in his polling numbers has opened the path for some moderate conservatives to join ranks with Lula to try to prevent Bolsonaro’s reelection.

Nostalgia for dictatorship … and traditional values

Despite party labels, this election is more complex than a conventional left-right optic would suggest.

Both sides of the political spectrum have become deeply embedded in Brazilian society in crosscutting ways that span religion, race, gender and sexuality, and class.

For example, some lower-income voters who benefited from Lula’s policies support Bolsonaro today, often out of outrage over past corruption scandals and the current economic precarity they themselves face. Meanwhile, nostalgia for a military dictatorship that most citizens never experienced influences some voters, particularly conservative ones.

Brazilians are also experiencing a period of social change marked by the advance of LGBTQ and women’s rights. While embraced by many, some Brazilians feel uncomfortable with new roles for women and with the queer identities increasingly prevalent among the younger generation. Spurred on by evangelical and charismatic Catholic movements, this distress has sparked longing for “traditional” values in family and community life, and has seen some Brazilians call for a return to dictatorship, claiming that life was more orderly and less violent then.

And after the election?

So where does this leave things going into the Oct. 2 election?

So far, Lula stands far ahead in the polls. Strategically choosing a centrist and past presidential candidate as his running mate, Lula has combined progressive commitments with promises to steer a mainstream economic course. In short, he is appealing both to the left and the center.

In turn, Bolsonaro has studied and weaponized Trump’s playbook, saying that he will accept defeat in the upcoming election only if he himself judges that they were fairly held. Many Brazilians worry that by attacking the results before polling day, Bolsonaro is preparing the way to try to stay in power illegally. There is also concern over how the Brazilian military might react should Bolsonaro refuse to accept the election results.

More than just the future of Brazil is at stake in these elections. The current return of the left across Latin America has renewed hopes that gains in cutting poverty, which took off 20 years ago, will resume. So far this year, leftists Gabriel Boric and Gustavo Petro have won elections in Chile and Colombia, respectively. Brazil now seems likely to join this group, swinging the region’s ideological pendulum to the left in an apparent revival of the “pink tide.”

But a Lula victory would do more than tip the left-right balance in Latin America. What links Lula, Boric and Petro is their commitment to progressive agendas and their willingness to negotiate in democratic contexts. Were Lula to win and take office in Brazil, the policies of these leaders could complement those of President Joe Biden in a hemisphere-wide effort to strengthen democracy.

The alternative – a Bolsonaro win, or worse, a coup – would dash these hopes.

Jeffrey W. Rubin is an Associate Professor of History at Boston University and Rafael R. Ioris is a Professor of Modern Latin America History at University of Denver.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation
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  1. Lula is going to win the election. And Brazil’s institutions are going to be strong enough to run Bolsonaro out of the presidency when he tries his “election fraud” nonsense. When push comes to shove, nobody is going to be willing to die to keep the loser in power.

  2. High hopes is an understatement

  3. This article is partly balderdash. Seriously, America does not want leftists in power in South America:
    After Morales won the Bolivian election, American interests called the election a fraud. After Morales was declared the loser due to a “rigged” election, Musk tweeted: “We’ll coup who we want to”.

    Recall that then-President Evo Morales won the Bolivian election last year, facing off against far-right forces backed by the American government. In that election, however, US-backed watchdog groups intentionally cast doubt over his victory to try to instill uncertainty in the democratic process and undermine his party’s claim to power, something that should seem familiar to Americans now that Trump is poised to do the same. The elite media consensus that the election was “rigged” was also aided by the propaganda campaign waged by a US Army veteran who created a vast botnet on Twitter that sent out huge numbers of tweets trying to push the narrative that Morales’ opponent won fair and square.

    Bolivia has a lot of lithium. That’s why American wanted a Bolivian leader that was friendly towards American interests.
    And Brazil has oil, nickel and iron ore. Not sure America wants Lula in office. Lula has stuck up for Putin and will embrace China and Russia when he’s president. And his conviction was overturned on procedural grounds, the evidence against Lula was not refuted. Lula was convicted twice in two separate trials. Corruption was rampant under Both Lula and Rousseff. They were either incompetent or corrupt. Dilma was just plain incompetent, not corrupt. Her policy of making Petrobras sell fuel at loss made Petrobras incur over 40 billion in debt, much more when interest is factored in.She nearly killed the company and drove it into bankruptcy. I was a shareholder from 2013 and on.
    I still trade in and out and hold a core position in a separate account that I bought very cheaply after Dilma nearly killed the company.

  4. Corruption isn’t rampant under Bolsonaro?

  5. You tell me where any corruption is obvious. There’s no evidence of it and Petrobras is run on the up now. Granted, Bolsonaro is even dumber than Trump. October 2 won’t be the end of the election. If Lula does not get over 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff election on October 30th. That’s when they will hit Lula with everything under the sun. The wealthy control the media in Brazil.
    Dilma should not have been impeached, the case against her was normal government budgetary procedures. But she should have paid some price for nearly killing Petrobras with open corruption and making them sell fuel at a loss to gain political favor with the population. In the end, it didn’t help her one little bit. She was extremely unpopular. And she had a degree in economics. :rofl:

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