The great unknown about the Brazilian elections is whether a second round of voting will be required. Lula da Silva seems to have a fairly well-established lead over Jair Bolsonaro that hovers between 10 and 14 percentage points, although precisely how much of the total vote the ex-president might win remains unclear. It is no huge leap to move from the 47% in the latest Datafolha poll to the 50% plus one vote needed for an outright victory in the first round. The real question is what effect hammering on about 'making a vote that counts' will have on those in favour of a rather meagre 'third way', which is essentially represented by two candidates, the progressive Ciro Gomes and the moderate Simone Tebet. Faced with neither Gomes nor Tebet having a realistic chance of progressing, some of their supporters might opt to vote 'strategically' and thus save Brazil from the anguish of another four weeks of campaigning in an extremely polarised and at times violent country.
Bolsonaro desperately needs to make a comeback, but most analysts feel he is simply unable to rise above his current level. He seems incapable of forgoing his more radical positions and making inroads into typically weaker voting groups for him, including women and people earning less than twice the minimum salary. The outgoing president has tried to win over the poorest members of society with his 'auxilio Brasil' programme, involving a monthly allowance of 600 reais (€120) for some 30 million Brazilians, but the polls suggest the majority of those people remain firmly behind Lula. "Right from the outset," explained Marcelo Kfoury, an economist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, "the beneficiaries have viewed this as an election ploy—something that will only last for a few months and that won't make any lasting difference to their living standards, unlike Lula's 'Bolsa Família' programme." Further evidence for this view can be deduced from the budget forecast for next year making no funds available to continue paying such a welfare allowance. The next government is going to really struggle to balance the public accounts with social welfare policy.
Meanwhile, Lula has also received the blessing of 'Faria Lima', Brazil's financial market, named after the avenue in Sao Paolo on which many major businesses have their headquarters. Two weeks before the election, Lula’s meeting with former finance minister Henrique Mereilles on the campaign trail caused the Brazilian stock exchange – Bovespa – to rise by 2%. Lula is a far more dependable commodity for the markets than the unpredictable Bolsonaro, even though the Brazilian economy has improved in the first half of 2022, with unemployment dropping from 13.7% to 9.1% and inflation also on the way down.
The overall picture of Bolsonaro's four years in office is heavily influenced by how badly the pandemic was handled, the ever-present friction with the institutions, his radical speeches and the figures of the social crisis, with the number of Brazilians going hungry jumping from 19 to 33 million. "Bolsonaro attacked the heart of the Brazilian political system," explains the political analyst Eduardo Grin, "which is based on federalism and the balance of powers. The climate of constant warfare with the Supreme Court, with governors, with the press and with the opposition has created rifts in the stability our democratic system, which is something that now frightens moderate voters."
Locked in his self-referential circle, with its clear echoes of Donald Trump, the president seems detached from the nation's true issues. He still rails about fighting corruption in the Workers' Party and the threat of communism, but fails to deal with concrete issues such as hunger, inflation and unemployment. Many people feel his attacks on the electoral system are inherently contradictory: electronic ballot boxes have been in use in Brazil for 26 years, without creating the slightest suspicion of fraud and resulting in him being elected five times as a federal deputy and as president. On the other hand, Lula has been using a double-sided strategy for months now: when addressing the poorest, he recalls the glories of his eight years in office, filled with social programmes and wealth redistribution; but when his audience is middle class, his discourse focuses on defending democracy and the need for political dialogue.
At this stage, Lula seems destined to win, whether in the first or second round of voting, but the real unknown is what the nature of his new government will be. He is a skilled coalition builder and has forged an expansive alliance of distinct forces, but this will lead to a major struggle to keep everyone together once in Brasilia. The original sin of the Workers' Party was precisely to have adopted bribery as a means to keep everyone seated at the enlarged table. Today, the economic outlook is worse. Chinese demand will be nothing like it was in 2003, and the transition from the Bolsonaro government will be tricky, quite unlike the case when the handover was from Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Yet, for the moment, nobody really wants to think about what comes next. All efforts are focused on the elections in the hope that things can be resolved in a single round of voting, thus completely squashing any hope of a Bolsonaro revival. After all, recent history in Brazilian politics has taught us that anything is possible.