Brazil’s Bolsonaro scoffs at polls as runoff election with Lula looms

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, seen at a news conference at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on Oct. 4, is running for re-election. (Reuters/Adriano Machado)

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s incumbent president, outperformed polling averages by as much as 8% in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, setting up an Oct. 30 runoff with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

“All their predictions were wrong, and they are already the biggest losers of this election. We beat that lie, and now we’re going to win the election,” Bolsonaro, who has spent months discrediting the integrity of Brazil’s elections, said Monday.

Polling numbers leading up to last weekend’s voting had consistently shown a strong advantage for Lula, and Bolsonaro, much like one of his main foreign backers, former President Donald Trump, had routinely criticized those surveys, while also appearing to lay the groundwork for contesting his possible defeat.

“The population wants our government to continue. These polls are worthless,” he told reporters in mid-September.

Aggregate polling averages suggested he would only receive around 35% of the vote and that Lula might even win in the first round by receiving more than 50%. Instead, Bolsonaro received 43.2% and Lula secured 48.4%.

Skepticism about polling is part of a larger effort by Bolsonaro to call into question Brazil’s electoral system. His comments have even hinted at violent confrontation and coincided with an increase in political violence in Brazil. In late August, he asserted that he would not leave office unless he were arrested or killed, adding, “And let me tell the scum out there: I will never be arrested.”

Like Trump ahead of the 2020 US election, Bolsonaro began casting doubt on electoral processes in Brazil long before Election Day, stating that he would only support the outcome if he felt the election was “clean and transparent.”

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at the microphone.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, who will face Bolsonaro in a runoff vote in the current presidential election, at a meeting with campaign associates, in São Paulo, Brazil, on Tuesday. (Reuters/Carla Carniel)

In July, Bolsonaro convened a meeting with foreign diplomats in Brazil to document his concerns about electoral fraud, although, like Trump, he failed to present any credible evidence of widespread voting irregularities. In a presentation to diplomats, he chose to focus on an incident that took place in 2018, in which a single hacker breached the country’s electronic voting system, but failed to access any voting machines or critical source code. Police ruled that the breach had no effect on the outcome of the election.

In both countries, a lack of proof has not stopped claims of electoral fraud from spreading, and as in the US, a sizable percentage of the population in Brazil has doubts about the integrity of elections. An Axios-Momentive poll in January 2022 found that more than 40% of Americans did not believe President Biden had been legitimately elected. Likewise, just before Sunday’s race, a Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Brazilians reported they did not believe Brazil’s elections would be fair.

Brazil’s electronic voting system, which has been in place since 1996, has robust security protocols and is subject to randomized testing, to ensure compliance with election norms. After criticism from Bolsonaro in 2018, Brazil’s national electoral authority invited a record number of foreign observers to oversee this year’s voting, including from the Carter Center and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Bolsonaro and Lula’s policies stand in stark contrast to one another. Bolsonaro has built a reputation as a nationalist espousing many conservative positions, including opposition to same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights, abortion and environmental regulations, as well as support for gun ownership and for the military. Lula is running a campaign that strongly appeals to the working class, with promises to raise the minimum wage, expand the social safety net and, critically, crack down on deforestation in the Amazon. Both candidates have made promises to increase cash transfers to the country’s poorest populations.

Trouble ahead?

A passerby seen through two posters hanging from a wire.

A man in Brasilia, the capital, walks past presidential campaign materials depicting former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and and President Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 23. (Reuters/Adriano Machado)

On Monday, the White House indicated that the election in Brazil had occurred in a “free, fair, transparent and credible manner.” According to the Brazilian Report, Brazil’s Justice Ministry reported “87 cases of vote buying or electoral corruption … 71 violations of vote secrecy, 379 instances of illegal campaigning, and 62 instances of illegal transportation of voters.”

The big question is how far Bolsonaro and his supporters will go if he loses on Oct. 30. For months, experts have worried about the ramifications should he reject the election results, fearing an event like the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol or something worse. Before the first round, Bolsonaro told his supporters, “If necessary, we will go to war.”

Of particular concern is Bolsonaro’s close relationship with the military and law enforcement, potentially his key allies if he tries to contest the election. At times, more than half of his Cabinet has been made up of former military officials. He has further raised alarm by pushing for the military to play a role in certifying the election results, inviting comparisons with the military dictatorship in Brazil that ended in 1985.

Yet most analysts generally think that military intervention on behalf of Bolsonaro is unlikely. Brazil’s Supreme Court has taken steps to reduce political activity among military police and signaled its intention to reject any attempt by Bolsonaro to overturn the results should they go against him. Likewise, the army has made efforts to distance itself from Bolsonaro.

This weekend’s voting passed off without violence, but observers worry that a close second round could be a recipe for trouble if the results do not go his way. Bolsonaro’s actions between now and when Brazilians return to the ballot box on Oct. 30 will be watched closely.

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