Brazil Presidential Election Headed To Runoff After Surprisingly Strong Vote For Far-Right Bolsonaro

The head-to-head battle will have massive implications for the world's fourth-largest democracy, as right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro seeks to undermine Brazil's election.
Former Brazil President Lula da Silva and the country's current leader, far-right Jair Bolsonaro, will advance to a runoff election after da Silva fell just short of winning a majority of votes in Sunday's election.
Former Brazil President Lula da Silva and the country's current leader, far-right Jair Bolsonaro, will advance to a runoff election after da Silva fell just short of winning a majority of votes in Sunday's election.
Eraldo Peres/ AP Photo

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro and leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appear headed for a second-round runoff contest to settle Brazil’s presidential election, after neither candidate scored an outright victory in Sunday’s vote.

Datafolha, Brazil’s largest pollster, projected that the race would advance to a second round late Sunday night. Multiple Brazilian news outlets, including the Folha de S.Paulo and O Estado de S. Paulo newspapers, also projected that neither candidate would clear the majority threshold.

Da Silva, who led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, had won 48.3% of votes with nearly all of the count finished. Bolsonaro lagged close behind with roughly 43.2%, a tally that outperformed final preelection polls by about 6 points.

Da Silva will still enter the runoff as a slight favorite to defeat Bolsonaro, but the closer-than-expected first round vote will generate concerns about the accuracy of Brazil’s major polling, which had suggested that Bolsonaro was far weaker and that da Silva’s lead would expand in a one-on-one scenario.

It will also likely fuel Bolsonaro’s skepticism of polling that suggested da Silva could win the race outright Sunday with a clear majority of votes. Bolsonaro and his supporters cast doubt on those surveys throughout the race’s final weeks, and will likely see the president’s significant over-performance as a validation of their skepticism.

Bolsonaro allies won gubernatorial, congressional and Senate races Sunday night, another sign of potentially underestimated strength of his right-wing movement. Bolsonaro’s party won the largest share of seats in Brazil’s Congress, an indication that the far-right will remain an instrumental force in the country’s politics moving forward. And what looked like it could be a runaway win for da Silva even in the event of a runoff now appears to be a competitive race.

The head-to-head contest four years in the making will have massive implications for Brazil’s democracy, the fourth-largest in the world. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who has long expressed affinity for the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, ran for president in 2018 on a blatantly anti-democratic platform, has governed as the authoritarian-minded leader he promised to be, and has spent the last two years waging baseless attacks on the country’s electoral system.

As an ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, he has made it clear that he does not intend to accept the results of an election defeat, sparking fears that he will attempt to provoke something akin to a Brazilian version of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol if he loses.

Da Silva, his supporters and many Brazilian political experts saw a win in Sunday’s first round as a key way to blunt any electoral challenge Bolsonaro may mount, and cut off his path to a second term in which he could further threaten the country’s democracy. Instead, the campaign will head to a runoff race that will conclude on Oct. 30, a period many observers fear Bolsonaro will use to further spread conspiracies and deepen his attempts to undermine the election.

“The second round will give Bolsonaro an extra month to cause as much turmoil as he can,” said Guilherme Casarões, a Brazilian political expert at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

A stronger-than-expected Bolsonaro, however, could also potentially win the runoff race, a result that would grant him a second term that he could use to consolidate many of his efforts to erode basic rights and Brazil’s democratic institutions.

“The odds look substantially bleaker for Brazilian democracy right now than they did 24 hours ago,” Filipe Campante, a Brazilian professor at Johns Hopkins University, tweeted as the results pointed toward a runoff. “Bolsonaro will have a real shot at winning the runoff, and in that case we are in deep trouble.”

Da Silva entered Sunday optimistic that he could pull off a convincing victory this weekend, especially after the release of two new polls that suggested he could garner more than 50% of votes on the eve of the election. He also pledged, however, to celebrate the result even if he fell short, in the hopes of keeping his supporters energized for the runoff race.

“We’re going to party, because we deserve it,” he said Saturday. “To be reborn from the ashes is a reason to celebrate.”

There were good signs for the leftist former president: Brazilian presidential elections are almost never decided in the first round, and Da Silva, as the challenger, still won 6 million more votes than Bolsonaro. He is not far from the majority that would carry him to a second round victory. No first round winner has gone on to lose a Brazilian election since its return to democracy in 1989, and it’s unclear whether Bolsonaro can make up that gap in a head-to-head matchup, given that far more Brazilians say they won’t vote for him under any circumstance than who say the same about da Silva.

So despite Bolsonaro’s surprising strength, da Silva struck a positive tone in a press conference Sunday night.

“I wanted to win in the first round but that isn’t always possible,“ da Silva said. “I always thought we would win this election. And we are going to win this election.”

“It’s 30 more days to campaign,” da Silva said. “And I love campaigning.”

The leftist is attempting to pull off a stunning political comeback 12 years after he left office as “the most popular politician in the world,” as then-U.S. President Barack Obama branded him. From 2003 to 2010, da Silva oversaw explosive growth of Brazil’s economy that lifted millions out of poverty and made Brazil a powerful player on the global stage.

Then he was imprisoned on a corruption conviction in 2018, as part of a wider probe that ensnared hundreds of Brazilian politicians and business leaders. That, along with the collapse of Brazil’s economy under his successor seemingly ended da Silva’s political career and tarnished his legacy.

A year later, The Intercept Brazil revealed substantial judicial impropriety in the case against him. His conviction was annulled, paving the way for a matchup with Bolsonaro that he’d wanted to wage in 2018 but couldn’t because the corruption case led to his banishment from the race.

Bolsonaro, who won an improbable victory in a 2018 election defined by discontent with a political establishment that da Silva had once epitomized, has spent his four years in office eroding Brazil’s democratic institutions and targeting the rights of its most marginalized populations. He has curbed protections for Indigenous Brazilians, sought to roll back rights for LGBTQ people, overseen record levels of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest and unleashed Brazil’s violent police forces to kill even more indiscriminately.

He has routinely attacked journalists and political critics, and has brought Brazil’s military, which had largely abstained from civilian politics since the end of its dictatorship in 1985, roaring back into politics, appointing even more officers to government positions than served in the military government.

Support for Bolsonaro’s scandal-plagued and fitful government cratered during the coronavirus pandemic, which he cast as a conspiracy to bring down his presidency. He opposed lockdowns and sought to undermine faith in vaccines, even as the virus killed more than 680,000 Brazilians, the world’s second-highest official death toll.

Women voters, in particular, turned against Bolsonaro according to preelection polling, thanks largely to his machismo-fueled politics and a lack of focus on the economy even as food, energy and other basic costs rose sharply this summer.

A litany of Brazilian business elites, judges and lawyers ― many of whom had supported Bolsonaro four years ago ― this summer released a letter in defense of the country’s democracy that did not name Bolsonaro specifically but clearly implied that his election conspiracies had put it at risk. Senior officials and lawmakers in both the United States and Europe have also expressed major concerns about the election, warning Bolsonaro to stop threatening it and raising the possibility of sanctions if he tries to remain in power undemocratically.

But Bolsonaro performed far better than expected in states like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s two most populous, and also bested preelection projections in other parts of the country’s south and southeast regions. A strong showing from da Silva in the Brazilian northeast, his traditional stronghold, was enough to give him the lead but not the majority he needed to end the election Sunday.

In the days before Sunday’s vote, Bolsonaro continued to ramp up his attacks on Brazil’s election system: He questioned the legitimacy of polls showing him behind da Silva while his party made false claims about election officials’ ability to manipulate votes.

Bolsonaro may still intensify his attacks, but the first-round results also suggest he still has a chance to win a second term legitimately ― something not even Bolsonaro seemed to believe before Sunday’s vote. That all but ensures that Brazil’s democracy is in for a tense month, and the sort of test it hasn’t faced since the end of its dictatorship nearly four decades ago.

Support HuffPost

Popular in the Community