Bolsonaro is clinging to office (

A preliminary decision?  Since July 23, here on São Paulo's Paulista Avenue, only 87 towels with Bolsonaro's likeness have been purchased, but 264 towels with Lula.

A preliminary decision?  Since July 23, here on São Paulo's Paulista Avenue, only 87 towels with Bolsonaro's likeness have been purchased, but 264 towels with Lula.

A preliminary decision? Since July 23, here on São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue, only 87 towels with Bolsonaro’s likeness have been purchased, but 264 towels with Lula.

Photo: imago/Yuri Murakami

On September 24, a man enters a bar in the northeastern state of Ceará. He asks the group: “Who voted for Lula here?” A 39-year-old replies: “Me.” The man then rams a knife into his stomach. The victim dies on the spot.

The episode reflects the heated atmosphere in Brazil shortly before the election. On October 2nd, the first round of the presidential election will take place in the largest country in Latin America. It’s all heading towards a showdown between far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and ex-president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. The Social Democrat is ahead in all polls. However, even if Bolsonaro is voted out of office, his tenure will continue to shape the country for a long time to come.

The right-wing president began implementing a right-wing authoritarian project from day one. However, he cannot govern. He barely achieves a majority in parliament, he governs by decree, the Supreme Court keeps showing him the limits, and many of his legislative projects have failed. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro was shockingly successful in many respects – especially in environmental policy.

For Bolsonaro, the Amazon rainforest is one thing above all: a resource to be exploited. Any means seems to be right for him. The government and its allies are doing everything they can to reduce the size of indigenous shelters and thus gradually soften their constitutional rights.

The government has disempowered environmental and indigenous authorities. It cut their already meager resources, put loyal officials in leadership positions and fired employees with technical or environmental expertise. A few officials continue to enforce the law, including against government interests. But in many protected areas, the authorities are now completely understaffed. As a result, there are fewer and fewer controls and fewer fines. Loggers, gold diggers and land grabbers see this as a free pass for their illegal activities. “Bolsonaro will leave a legacy of destruction,” Marina Silva told nd. The 64-year-old is a former environment minister and probably the country’s most prominent environmentalist. “More than 40,000 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest were destroyed during his tenure.”

On another point, Bolsonaro’s project was quite successful: on gun laws. Immediately after taking office, he launched several decrees to liberalize the strict gun laws. Although the Supreme Court thwarted him in many initiatives, Bolsonaro was able to celebrate some successes. By decree, for example, he ordered that ordinary citizens can purchase up to six weapons, hunters and marksmen can even hoard up to 60 weapons. The unsurprising consequence: more and more weapons are in circulation in Brazil. This should be reflected in the murder rate in the years to come.

In 2018, Bolsonaro still managed to get many voters behind him with his staging as an anti-establishment candidate and the clever use of social media. A similar success is likely to be difficult this year. His biggest problems: the severe economic crisis and growing poverty.

“Bolsonaro will leave behind a Brazil of misery and hunger,” PT politician Symmy Larrat told nd. The 44-year-old is one of many trans candidates running this year. And indeed: Brazil’s economy is doing badly. Inflation is high, energy prices are rising and unemployment is climbing to new highs. 31 million Brazilians are already starving – 15 percent of the population. The economic misery is the dominant campaign issue – Bolsonaro does not play that into his cards.

But the rowdy president is trying to react to the weak polls. At the government’s request, Parliament recently declared a state of emergency, overriding the constitutional ceiling on government spending. This allows for more spending on social assistance – albeit limited to three months. The opposition has criticized this as “purely an election campaign maneuver”. The increased social benefits did not help Bolsonaro to get closer to Lula.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a runoff on October 30th. Lula recently confidently announced that she was aiming for an election victory in the first round – and that is actually no longer that unlikely. Renowned for his charisma and negotiating skills, Lula has forged a broad alliance to return to power in Latin America’s largest country. His deputy is the conservative ex-governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin. Most recently, ex-Central Bank President Henrique Meirelles also pledged his support to Lula.

While the financial markets reacted happily to the closing of ranks, the alarm bells were ringing on the left. Fears are high that Lula’s term in office could be characterized by orthodox fiscal policies.

But the ex-union leader with the scratchy voice has little choice but to forge broad alliances. While left-wing candidates managed to win the elections in Chile and Colombia with mass protests behind them, things are different in Brazil. Lula’s poll high is certainly not an expression of the strength of the left, but can rather be explained by his charisma and Bolsonaro’s catastrophe course. In addition, many Brazilians look back on his tenure with longing. At that time, a commodity boom made it possible to implement ambitious social programs. Blacks were able to attend universities for the first time, domestic workers were granted rights, and millions of Brazilians escaped poverty.

But the golden days are over. The fronts are hardened, society is divided, and the country is doing poorly economically. Even if he manages to win the election, Lula will make many concessions to his conservative partners and will have to fight hard for majorities in the heavily fragmented parliament.

Still, Lula has big plans. He wants to fight poverty, get the country out of its international isolation and promised nothing less than a socio-ecological transformation. Nevertheless, even for Lula there will be no way around the business elite and the influential agricultural industry – and they will put on the brakes on many points. The influential free churches are also an increasingly important player in Brazilian politics and are already helping to shape them according to their ultra-conservative ideas. Thus, the scope for overly large, political transformations is likely to be quite small – also because the left cannot count on a majority in parliament.

Also: Bolsonarism is here to stay. Though many of his former constituents have turned their backs on Bolsonaro, his core supporters remain loyal to him. Precisely because of his constant provocations and hate-driven politics, they celebrate him like a pop star and stand behind him unconditionally. It can be assumed that these parts of the Brazilian population will continue to become radicalized.

And Bolsonaro keeps adding fuel to the fire. He repeatedly spread lies about the electronic voting system and declared that “only God” could remove him from the presidency. Most analysts assume that the tighter the election, the greater the likelihood that Bolsonaro will risk an institutional break. Hardly anyone doubts that there will be violence. The images of the Capitol storm in Washington could serve as a blueprint. Some even fear a classic putsch.

The decisive factor will be whether the military gets involved in an authoritarian experiment by Bolsonaro. Experts assess this question differently. Bolsonaro, himself a reserve captain, is not without controversy in the military. Some cannot forgive his antics as a young soldier when he planned protests against poor pay in the army, while others are disturbed by his uncouth tone. But Bolsonaro enjoys a lot of support, especially in the lower echelons. And the military has been given far-reaching privileges by the far-right government.

While Bolsonaro wielded the ax in almost every other area, the armed forces received record-breaking budget allocations and were spared cuts on pension reform. More than 5,000 military personnel sit in the government, around 340 in well-paid posts, often without the appropriate qualifications. Even at the height of the dictatorship, there weren’t that many. Several ministers had previously had careers in the force, and military personnel are increasingly taking on civilian roles, running nearly a third of state businesses. It is doubtful that they are willing to give up these privileges. It is also unclear whether they feel more committed to the president or the constitution.

Nevertheless, many experts believe that Bolsonaro lacks the necessary backing for an open break with the constitution. And it’s true: there is an active civil society, critical media, and the democratic institutions still function to some extent. Many abroad are therefore counting on the deselection of the great destroyer Bolsonaro. The United States recently indicated that it would not support an authoritarian experiment. And so it could actually be that on New Year’s Day 2023, hundreds of thousands of Lula’s followers will gather in the capital, Brasília, to celebrate. The victory of their idol and the end of the Bolsonaro chapter – at least for the time being.


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