The 2022 election result in Brazil will set the tone for the country and its global standing; it will either continue under its current right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro – who has been in power since 2018 – or there will be a social and political reset under former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known by the nickname, Lula), who previously governed Brazil between 2003 and 2010.

The first round of the election exposed a divided electorate, with Lula gaining the highest number of votes, with 48.4%, on 2 October. As no candidate received more than 50% of valid votes in the first round, however, a run-off election has been scheduled for 30 October.

On 17 October, tensions in the country increased when the two candidates went head to head in a televised debate. Lula branded Bolsonaro “a tiny little dictator” and Bolsonaro in turn called Lula “a national embarrassment”.

How did Brazil lay the foundations for such a polarising political landscape and what impact might the election result have on its global relationships?

Impeachments, prison and petrol: business as usual in Brazilian politics

Anthony Pereira, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Centre at the Florida International University, says that Brazilian politics is still suffering the effects of political meltdown between 2016 and 2018.

Alongside the fallout from the 2014 recession, Pereira says the Lava Jato (or Car Wash) anti-corruption investigation was a key turning point. Beginning in 2014 as a money-laundering probe, the investigation became known as Latin America’s largest corruption scandal in history, which resulted in the conviction of 174 people, including Lula. His two convictions were later annulled by Supreme Court justice Edson Fachin in March 2021.

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The impeachment and removal of former president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 – over criminal misconduct allegations (for alleged budgetary improprieties and delaying federal payments to state banks (Pedaladas) in order to make the fiscal deficit look smaller than it was. She was not charged criminally.) – led the Brazilian electorate to seek an anti-corruption totem. Enter Bolsonaro.

Men of the people

Lula and Bolsonaro have strong support bases, with both being considered by their respective supporters as a ‘man of the people’. Yet the values of each candidate differ greatly.

Bolsonaro has gained two nicknames; by his supporters he his known as ‘Mito’ (myth in English) – with many seeing him as a god-like figure standing against corruption – and by his opposers he is known as ‘the Trump of the Tropics’.

“The Donald Trump nickname is appropriate to some extent, in that Bolsonaro faithfully mimicked and was aligned with Trump,” says Pereira. “Sometimes he was more Trumpian than Trump himself.”

Pereira gives the example of touting hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid-19, as Trump did. However, he supported this long after Trump himself abandoned the belief.

Bolsonaro is considered a strongman; he has a military history, is publicly supportive of torture methods and holds very staunch conservative views across a range of progressive topics such as sexuality and gender. Also, similar to Trump, he has indicated that he may not respect a result that does not elect him, casting doubt on the electric voting system in use in Brazil.

Pereira explains that Bolsonaro’s black and white approach particularly resonates with evangelical Christians, people in agribusiness, police and military personnel, and the affluent.

Fiona Macauley, professor of gender, peace and development at the University of Bradford, explains: “It is very much tied to prosperity, [Bolsonaro supporters believe that] you pay your dues to the church, you live a good life and by doing all of the right things you will be rewarded. Therefore, people who are in an unfortunate position – that are homeless, or they have committed crimes – those people just simply made all the wrong life choices.”

In contrast, Lula has a socialist background as a former trade union leader who defied military dictatorship over prohibiting worker strikes. He founded and led the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores), the largest left-wing party in Latin America, and he has a humble background that resonates with a lot of his supporters.

“Lula is the only Brazilian president who did not have a university education and came from the working class and endured poverty,” says Pereira.

Macauley agrees that Lula’s focus on helping the working class during his presidency has garnered a lot of his support for this election. “The profile of university students in public universities changed completely [under Lula],” she says. “Working class kids, black kids now go and study in law school as a direct result of his policies. [Lula] instilled significant changes that people don’t forget.”

For Lula, his legacy acts as both a positive and negative in his campaign. Many Brazilians remember his presidency for the positive social initiatives he instilled, while for others his proximity to the Lava Jato investigation is an unforgivable stain on his record.

Will a silent majority settle the election?

Regardless of Lula’s initial lead in the first round of the election, it is difficult to accurately predict who will ultimately win.

All of the experts spoken to for this piece highlighted ‘voter embarrassment’ – a phenomenon in which people keep their voting preference secret for fear of judgement – as a significant factor affecting polling numbers. Furthermore, with such contentious debate on either side, the threat of violence and protests following either result discourages many voters from being vocal.

Bruna Santos, senior advisor of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Centre – an independent research organisation – says: “This is the most consequential election in our democratic history so far. I don’t think there is a precedent for having such important figures that are both up for re-election. The question really is: ‘Who deserves a second chance?’.”

Environment is a key issue in Brazil

Both potential results will have a significant impact on the economy and trading future of Brazil. A key divergent issue is environmental policy, and particularly the deforestation of the Amazon. Lula is open to slowing down the deforestation of the Amazon rainforests and has laid out policies that would drive Brazil towards becoming more compliant with organisations such as the OECD.

Brazil is currently not a member of the OECD; however, an application was made in early October 2022 that may have harmed Bolsonaro’s campaign.

“To join the OECD, Brazil has to comply with a number of requirements,” says Santos. “[Bolsonaro’s] government submitted a memorandum to join the OECD and it leaked. All of the data that was published about the environment within those documents was fake and the OECD found out it was fake. This has consequences that go beyond the forest.”

As the issue of climate change continues to grow in prevalence across global economic policies, the need for Brazil to take the issue of deforestation seriously has grown in importance and is likely to impact investor attractiveness if not meaningfully addressed.

Macauley explains the candidate’s opposing views on the issue. “Lula has a good record on at least slowing or stopping the rate of deforestation significantly,” she says. “Bolsonaro doesn’t believe in this stuff. He doesn’t believe that the Amazon needs to be preserved. His own supporters literally lit fires, in celebration of the fact that they could, in the Amazon as a political gesture.”

The US, China and Brazil

Another issue in which the two leaders differ is their relationship with the US. “Bolsonaro was one of the last heads of state to grudgingly acknowledge the victory of US President Joe Biden in the election in 2020,” says Pereira. “Since then, US-Brazilian relations have not been particularly warm.”

Another significant aggravator between the US and Brazil is the strong economic relationship the country has with China. The US and China continue to have tensions due to an ongoing trade war. Since 2009, China has been Brazil’s main trading partner, with a particular focus on agribusiness. The trading relationship between the two countries has remained strong, even in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to figures from Foreign Trade Data, the total value of trade between Brazil and China reached a record high of $135bn in 2021.

“Neither [Lula nor Bolsonaro] could afford to ignore China,” says Macauley. “They will both want to continue doing business there, but Lula is highly aware that it has to be counterbalanced against environmental concerns.”

Although the trading relationship between Brazil and China looks set to continue regardless of who wins the presidency, the future relations with other countries, including close neighbours such as Argentina, Columbia and Venezuela, will be impacted by the election results. The general view expressed by the experts is that Lula would be more approachable and statesmanlike as president and would strengthen these relations, while Bolsonaro would continue with more strongman posturing.

“If Bolsonaro were to win, Brazil is likely to remain [as it is now] relatively isolated,” agrees Pereira. “If Lula were to win, he will try to signal a change on several fronts. He will also probably try to revive efforts to integrate South America.”

As Brazil edges closer to electing its new president on 30 October, neither candidate can confidently claim the title of frontrunner. Whomever becomes president will face potentially violent protests before re-inheriting a country divided. Alongside contending with the global issues of a looming recession, climate change and an energy crisis, the next president of Brazil will likely set the tone of the country’s political future for many years to come.