Brazilians will vote for their next president tomorrow, choosing between conservative incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and leftist former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. The rivals are campaigning on starkly different economic platforms – Bolsonaro is generally pro-market and dismissive of environmental and social issues, while Lula argues for greater state intervention and stronger environmental protection. Lula is poised for victory following the first-round vote on October 2 or – even more likely – after a potential runoff election on October 30. Bolsonaro’s resistance to a Lula victory could trigger a tumultuous leadership transition. The next president will grapple with a fractious polity, promise-weary citizens, and declining economic growth that has already prompted calls for populist economic measures.
Bolsonaro and Lula hold entirely different visions for Brazil’s future. Bolsonaro’s economic team has championed pro-market policies since taking office in 2019, reducing regulation, selling state assets, and overseeing a long-awaited pension reform. However, with political crises dogging his agenda and the election looming, he has increasingly turned to expensive, eye-catching measures and made a series of bold promises to voters. While Lula wants to limit privatization and more dramatically increase public sector investment, his anti-market instincts have been tempered by political pragmatism. During the campaign, he appears to have been mindful of international investors and business sentiment, particularly in naming centrist Geraldo Alckmin as his running mate and engaging in dialogue with Brazil’s private sector.
On energy, Lula’s commitment to renewables could attract new investment, but foreign investors are wary Lula will prioritize the interests of state-owned energy company Petrobras. He has already encouraged Petrobras to boost spending on fertilizer, biofuels, and renewable energy, moves that would distract from the company’s lucrative oil and gas activities. Both Lula and Bolsonaro favor changing Petrobras’ fuel-pricing policy to lower costs, which would weigh on government finances.
On the environment, the two candidates’ stances are at odds. Bolsonaro’s administration reduced environmental protections, while Lula has pledged to prosecute environmental crimes, cease deforestation, and halt illegal mining. Lula’s mooted changes to mining and agriculture regulation will cause uncertainty in two of the country’s key export sectors, while a promise to pursue “food sovereignty” will privilege smaller producers. Lula’s vow to strengthen institutions and combat corruption following the massive Lava Jato corruption scandal—which ensnared hundreds of political and business leaders, including Lula himself—would be a boon to the country’s investment climate. Bolsonaro successfully ran on an anti-corruption platform to win the 2018 election; however, his wife and son have since faced corruption allegations of their own.
Possible Election Outcomes
Lula has consistently led polls for the past 12 months, attracting 43 percent of voters against Bolsonaro’s 36 percent, according to a recent assessment from a polling aggregator. However, with pandemic-related delays to Brazil’s census, some pollsters question the accuracy of current projections.
If Lula were to win, Bolsonaro could reject the result—as he has consistently threatened to do throughout the campaign—and incite his supporters to demonstrate. The intensity of any disruption will depend on the margin of Lula’s victory and Bolsonaro’s effectiveness in animating his base:
- In the most likely scenario, Bolsonaro’s supporters will initially rally around claims of election fraud and calls for protest. However, without any legitimate evidence of irregularities against Lula’s clear margin of victory, demonstrations will quickly lose momentum and dissipate. Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court—the country’s ultimate election arbiter—will successfully counter Bolsonaro’s divisive rhetoric and help maintain the public’s trust in the country’s democratic institutions.
- In a more concerning but still plausible scenario, anti-Lula protests will be prolonged and larger than expected, prompting Bolsonaro to entrench himself as the January 1 presidential transition approaches. Military and police officers, many of whom strongly favor Bolsonaro, himself a former army captain, will support public rallies against Lula. Under pressure from the international community – wary of Brazil’s history of coups and the military’s political power – factions of the political elite and armed forces will help resolve the impasse, pocketing concessions and putting weight behind a “unity government” of Lula and Bolsonaro-aligned politicians.
In the now-unlikely event that Bolsonaro secures an upset victory that is validated by electoral authorities, Lula and other opposition figures will likely respect the election’s outcome. Lula’s supporters have given little discernable indication of their intent to wage broad public protests or disrupt businesses and government operations should Bolsonaro win re-election.
Regardless of the vote’s outcome, the next president’s agenda will be stymied by ongoing political and social divisions that have been exacerbated by the election. With GDP expected to decline to 0.5 percent in 2023, according to several dour forecasts, poor economic performance could curtail the next president’s ambitions and scope for policy change.
Legislative elections taking place concurrently will also play a key role in determining the next president’s effectiveness. Brazil’s president will need backing from Congress’ centrão bloc, an ideologically amorphous collection of parties known to trade their legislative support for budgetary concessions. With the centrão’s support in Congress, Lula could still push through a series of pork-filled, state-oriented economic proposals.
Regardless of outcome, the presidential election comes at a critical juncture for Brazil. With disruption projected in the weeks ahead, according to our scenarios, the winning candidate will take charge of a divided nation whose politics, economics, and environment will remain of strategic importance to broader Latin America and the international community.
Jay Truesdale is the CEO of Veracity Worldwide, where Mitch Hayes is a director and Eric Cuevas is an associate. The authors wish to thank Veracity editor David Alm and senior associate Nandita Balakrishnan, PhD for their contributions.