Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: What's at stake in Brazil's tightening Bolsonaro-Lula race

Brazil’s elections have turned into a nail-biter as incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, called Lula, battle for another term in office. Neither candidate gained more than 50% of the vote which will push the election into a second round between the two men. Brazil’s democratic institutions will be sorely tested as the campaign heats up and divides an already fractious citizenry. Mint breaks down the campaign in Brazil.

What happened in the election?

On Sunday, Brazil held a massive nationwide election. Voters cast their ballots for the presidency, local governorships and the upper and lower houses of parliament. The spotlight was on the presidential election where 11 candidates faced off for Brazil’s top job. The focus was on two men: Bolsonaro and Lula. The former, the incumbent president, was a captain in the Brazilian army before his three-decade career in politics. Lula, who served as president from 2003 to 2010, is a former trade union activist who made his name fighting the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970’s.

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Lula captured over 48% of the vote in the first round with Bolsonaro trailing at 43.2%. This result came as a surprise as Lula had led his rivals by double-digit margins in the polls. Key Bolsonaro allies also won seats in parliament. Since Brazil’s election laws mandate a runoff election between the top two candidates in case no candidate captures over 50% of the vote, the two men will square off again on October 30.

What do Bolsonaro and Lula stand for?

Both men are deeply divisive figures.

Bolsonaro is a darling of the Christian right and has painted himself as a defender of traditional family values. His signature achievements include privatising chunks of Brazil’s mammoth public sector and reforming the pension system. He also secured a massive relief package during the pandemic that put cash payments in the hands of poorer Brazilians. However, he has been widely criticised for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic during which 680,000 Brazilians perished. The subsequent economic losses, coupled with the inflation caused by supply chain shocks and the war in Ukraine, have hurt Brazil’s poor. He has opposed abortion rights for women and is a self-professed opponent of sexual minorities. He is also known for his deeply abrasive political style and has been accused of corruption and nepotism.

Lula is banking on his past reputation as Brazil’s president in the 2000s. A boom in commodity prices allowed him to fund generous welfare programs that benefited the poor and cemented his position as the most popular leader in the country’s recent history. However, he was implicated and sentenced to jail in a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal, known as Operation Carwash, which tarnished his reputation.

Why does this election matter?

The election has been acrimonious in the extreme. Bolsonaro has claimed that the election process may be rigged against him. He has repeatedly cast doubt on Brazil’s electronic voting systems and has hinted to voters that he will not accept an election defeat. Many Brazilians accuse Bolsonaro of weakening the country’s democratic institutions. Should he lose and refuse to hand over power, Brazil will face an acute political crisis.

A second set of concerns are environmental. Bolsonaro has looked to extract natural resources from the Amazon rainforest in an attempt to bolster the Brazilian economy. However, this resource development has caused significant deforestation in the rainforest, which absorbs vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Climate experts warn that further deforestation may be catastrophic for global climate goals.

What are the implications for India?

Both Bolsonaro and Lula have backed stronger ties with India. Bolsonaro was the chief guest on India’s Republic Day in 2020 while Lula visited India thrice during his seven-year tenure as president.

Economic activity between India and Brazil has expanded at a steady clip. Both sides are confident that bilateral trade will hit the $15 billion mark this year. As energy inflation has ravaged economies and markets are roiled by uncertainty, New Delhi and Brasilia have increasingly looked to each other to forge new energy partnerships. Brazil’s PetroBras and the Indian Oil Corporation recently signed a long-term oil contract which points to a deepening relationship on energy between the two countries.

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Ajit Ranade argues a high upswing in business or investment cycle is unlikely in the near term. Anjani Trivedi writes why venture capitalists looking to put their money to work should keep an eye on India. Pradeep S. Mehta tells why courts should appoint economists and finance experts. Long Story draws chip-making lessons for India from East Asia.

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