Regardless of the outcome, Brazil’s election will reveal the deep divisions running through the country.
The world is abuzz with discussions about the backward slide of democracies following highly contested elections in Chile and Honduras, a sham process in Venezuela, and this year's US-led Summit for Democracy. But even as new and established leaders emphasize the importance of recommitting to, reforming and defending democracies and democratic institutions, extreme polarization, stark political fissures in government, and widespread disinformation perpetrated by the leadership continue to rock democracies across Latin America.
Looking to major presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial elections in 2022, Brazil has an opportunity to show whether the democratic norms, institutions, and work done by civil society and the judiciary to educate about and counter disinformation over the past two years can keep at bay the all too familiar challenges to democracy that might see history repeating itself there. These familiar challenges include exacerbated political and economic downturns, controversial candidates, and increasingly complex narratives spurred by an intent to deceive.
Brazilians have gone through a lot since 2018 - yet when examining trends, not much seems to have changed. The set of years wherein the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged Brazil and resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 people have only aggravated the political, economic, and social issues that we saw affecting the last electoral process.
Political cynicism exacerbated by extreme polarization and contention remain prevalent. Economic stagnation, unemployment, and poverty rates are on the rise. And distrust, combined with massive digital engagement rates, continue to open spaces for disinformation and misinformation to thrive.
With 2022 trends in many ways mirroring those that affected voting in the past, Brazil is likely to again see Jair Bolsonaro and the Workers' Party (PT) - this time with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva back in the game - disputing the presidency in the final round.
According to a poll held by Poder360 and highlighted in a recent Americas Quarterly analysis, most Brazilian voters would cast ballots for either current President Bolsonaro or former President Lula were the election to take place today. In a country where cult-of-personality politics still thrive and polarization is stark, chances are high that these two will be the finalists in 2022.
Even as centrists and business professionals express the desire for a more moderate reality, the new contender with the highest probability of shaking up results is still the more conservative Sergio Moro, who has gained in the polls (according to a November 2021 survey done by Modalmais and Futura Inteligencia) and who will work to position himself as a less controversial choice for the right in Brazil. Already, the judge seems to be centering his narrative around right-wing talking points that include traditional family values, anti-corruption, and security, all key issues salient for more conservative Brazilians and the large base of Evangelicals in the country.
The aforementioned poll referenced in Americas Quarterly shows that contenders closer to the center of the political spectrum, despite having done a lot to advance Brazil's fight against COVID-19, barely touch the 8 percent threshold of votes in most recent polls. São Paulo Governor João Doria of the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party and Ciro Gomes of the center-left Democratic Labor Party are in the running, yet pretty unlikely to scale up popular backing between now and October.
Just as was the case in 2018, misleading or false narratives and disinformation will shape the democratic race in the coming year. The conversation will likely center around four major narratives, three of which were already a factor in 2018. The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab and Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center identified narratives advancing concepts of "anti-Workers' Party," "electoral fraud," and "anti-media" content ahead of the 2018 vote in Brazil. Those three narratives, and now a prominent one against the judiciary in Brazil, will be evident in the electoral conversation in 2022. Much will also be framed around a lesser of two evils narrative, as has been the case before.
Bolsonaro has consistently used disinformation disseminated through social media and messaging apps as a tool to manipulate the conversation in Brazil, going so far as to make statements that normalize "fake news" as a "part of life." With over 10 million followers on Facebook, he certainly has a platform to continue spreading his disinformation and will likely do just that in 2022.
If, as noted above, he advances to round two of voting against Lula, Bolsonaro will undoubtedly capitalize on the anti-PT narrative and double down on demonizing Lula and the far-left in Brazil. With his approval ratings declining among the business community, Bolsonaro is also sure to advance an already-present narrative painting the left as communists who will do nothing to grow Brazil's economy. As he has frequently done since entering office, he will also likely attack the media and paint them as leftists with bias.
In a concerning newer narrative, Bolsonaro is likely to continue to use Brazil's history of corruption to defame the independent judiciary and to pit them as the enemy of the state. Various legal investigations are underway into the use of disinformation by supporters of the current president against judges on the Brazilian court. Bolsonaro has and will continue to aim to discredit both the judicial bodies and the judges in an effort to delegitimize the investigations' findings.
During the 2018 elections and over the past two years, Bolsonaro and his inner circle have also pushed, without evidence, the narrative of electoral fraud. He and his sons, who also hold political office, have often claimed Brazil's voting machines are rigged, and for many months, Bolsonaro insisted he would "not allow" an election without paper ballots. This narrative is also likely to resurface in the incumbent's political discourse in 2022. A serious potential exists that Brazil could experience a January 6-like insurrection - fueled by Bolsonaro's insistence in claiming electoral fraud despite widespread evidence against it. The president himself has claimed only God could remove him from power, and that tone and message will be a tool for the president to question outcomes in 2022.
The opposition, with Lula, will likely capitalize on Bolsonaro's failures in guiding Brazil through the pandemic to reiterate how Bolsonaro spread disinformation about COVID-19 and treatments, threatened indigenous and minorities in Brazil, showed prejudice against women and the LGBTQ community, and amplified anti-democratic discourses in the country. Given a choice between Bolsonaro or Lula, the pro-business faction in Brazil, which right now is critical and mistrustful of Bolsonaro, could still choose to re-elect the standing president. Lula, in planning to advance to a second round of voting, will likely aim to create a more market-friendly narrative for himself, one that builds on the country's economic successes under his tenure in the early 2000s.
Brazil is a young democracy by many standards, but its institutions have held strong, and its democratic actors and civil society contribute to stronger democratic principles every day. Yet it is hard to deny that political and economic stagnation exacerbated by the pandemic, controversial candidates, and an overall lack of institutional trust - all factors that plagued the 2018 election - remain in Brazil today. Over the past two years, anti-democratic discourse fueled by disinformation have chipped away visibly at Brazilians' levels of trust in the democratic process. 2022 will be the Brazilian electorate's opportunity to show that while trends and narratives might be on repeat in the electoral race, democracy can prevail and different outcomes can win out - against all odds, the upcoming election will be a chance for Brazil to show that history does not always have to repeat itself.