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Bolsonaro vs. Lula: Brazil faces a stark choice

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil on Sunday faces a crossroads.

After months of pitches to voters, the nation will decide one of Latin America’s most important elections in decades, picking between the two biggest names in modern Brazilian politics and their polar visions for the country.

The choice for Brazilians is whether to give President Jair Bolsonaro a second term, emboldening and empowering him to carry out a far-right mandate for the nation, or whether to bring back former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and return Brazil to a leftist track.

Yet the stakes are far higher than simply a contest between the left and the right.

The election carries major consequences for the Amazon rainforest, which is crucial to the health of the planet. Bolsonaro has gutted the agencies tasked with protecting the forest, leading to soaring deforestation, while da Silva has promised to eradicate illegal logging and mining.

Land being burned for cattle grazing in the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Brazil, Sept. 9, 2019. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)
Land being burned for cattle grazing in the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Brazil, Sept. 9, 2019. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

Brazil’s economy, once the world’s sixth largest, has flatlined over the past decade. Bolsonaro pledges to pursue deregulation and privatization to try to jump-start activity, while da Silva has made his central pitch about feeding and housing the poor, whose numbers have climbed during the pandemic.

The vote is a test of the enduring strength of the right-wing populism that swept across many countries in recent years. Bolsonaro is one of the biggest remaining faces of that movement, but he is trying to withstand a recent clear shift to the left across Latin America.

And then there is the concern for the health of one of the world’s biggest democracies. Bolsonaro has spent years attacking Brazil’s democratic institutions, including a sustained effort to undermine its voting system, leading millions of Brazilians to lose faith in the integrity of their nation’s elections.

Now, much of the country is wondering: If the president loses the election, will he accept it?

After da Silva led in the first round of voting this month, many polls suggest the race has narrowed. The two men have split this country of 217 million people nearly down the middle, with many voters on each side viewing the choice as an existential one for the nation.

“We have a population completely divided between two worlds,” said Malu Gaspar, a political columnist for O Globo, one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers. “So I have a lot of anticipated frustration that this is the most important election of our time, and yet we will come out of it with a lot more problems than when we went in.”

The close race, high stakes, and deep polarization have led to an ugly campaign. Misinformation has soared in recent weeks, with supporters of da Silva accusing Bolsonaro of being a cannibal and a pedophile, while Bolsonaro’s supporters have called da Silva a gang leader, a communist, and a Satanist who wants to close the nation’s churches.

Election officials have tried to intervene, ordering posts and videos on the internet that they say are false. Those efforts have slowed the deluge of misleading information, but they have also become their own controversy, drawing a swell of complaints of unfair refereeing, particularly from Bolsonaro and his allies.

The debates between the two candidates devolved into name-calling and disputes over their past versus their plans for the future. And there has been a spate of political violence, with countless beatings and at least two killings connected to the election.

This past week, the violence and claims of censorship from the right collided when authorities tried to arrest a right-wing congressman whom the Supreme Court had ordered not to speak publicly because, it said, he had attacked Brazil’s democratic institutions. He responded by shooting at police and throwing a grenade, injuring two officers. He is now in jail.

With a victory Sunday, da Silva would complete a stunning political revival. The former shoeshine boy and metalworker with a fifth-grade education rose to become Brazil’s president in 2003. He then used a commodity boom and the discovery of offshore oil to reshape the country, lifting 20 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty. By the time he left office in 2010, he had an 80% approval rating.

But things quickly turned south for him, his leftist Workers Party and Brazil. His hand-picked successor’s interventions into the economy helped plunge Brazil into a recession from which it has never fully recovered, and then a corruption investigation revealed a sprawling kickback scheme that had festered deep inside the Brazilian government under his party’s control.

Nearly 300 people were eventually arrested in the scheme, including da Silva. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison on charges that he accepted a condo and home improvements from companies bidding on government contracts. But after 17 months, he was released and his convictions were later nullified after the Supreme Court ruled that the judge in his cases was biased. While da Silva was not cleared of wrongdoing, the decision allowed him to run for president again.

Bolsonaro is a former army captain who served three decades in Congress as a fringe far-right lawmaker known for extreme statements. In 2018, in the wake of da Silva’s prison sentence, Bolsonaro rode the global wave of right-wing populism to the presidency, promising to root out what he called the corruption of Brazil’s leftists.

Jos Luiz Chaves Fonseca, a supporter and impersonator of Jair Bolsonaro at the Brazilian presidents re-election campaign rally in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 14, 2022. (Maria Magdalena Arrellaga/The New York Times).
Jos Luiz Chaves Fonseca, a supporter and impersonator of Jair Bolsonaro at the Brazilian presidents re-election campaign rally in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 14, 2022. (Maria Magdalena Arrellaga/The New York Times).

His four years since have been tumultuous. He has attacked judges, journalists, political rivals, and environmentalists, while also publicly doubting the science behind COVID-19. He pushed unproven drugs during the pandemic and delayed buying vaccines. The coronavirus killed nearly 700,000 people in Brazil, the second-highest official toll, after the United States.

Yet despite the turmoil, Bolsonaro’s support has endured. He far outperformed polls’ expectations in the first round of voting on Oct. 2, and while recent polls have shown da Silva still in the lead, Bolsonaro was within striking distance.

The president’s base is a bloc known as “beef, bibles, and bullets,” representing people connected to the agribusiness industry, evangelical movement, and law enforcement, and the military. Under a slogan of “God, homeland, family, and freedom,” he has focused his pitch on warnings about the left trying to change what he calls Brazilians’ traditional way of life.

In his closing pitch to voters in the first presidential debate this month, Bolsonaro did not mention the economy, and instead accused the left of wanting to legalize drugs and abortion, abolish private property and force children to learn about “gender ideology” and use unisex bathrooms. “We don’t want a country of retrogression, corruption, thievery, and disrespect for our religion,” he said.

Da Silva has built a broad coalition in recent months, from the center-right to the far left, with people concerned about what might happen under a second Bolsonaro term. But he has maintained Brazil’s working class as his base and built his platform around taxing the rich and expanding services for the poor. His stump speech has highlighted a promise that all Brazilians deserve a top cut of meat and a cold beer.

“Let’s get back to fixing this country, and let’s get back to eating and drinking a beer at weekend barbecues,” he said. Bolsonaro “goes crazy because he thinks only he can, but we want to eat at the barbecues, too.”

The campaign, however, has also had a more worrisome element. For more than a year, Bolsonaro has warned that he may not accept a loss. He has claimed, without credible evidence, that Brazil’s electronic voting system is rife with fraud and that the left is set on rigging the vote. As a result, three out of four of his supporters say they trust the voting system only a little or not at all.

Over the past week, Bolsonaro has also begun to claim other kinds of fraud. His campaign has accused radio stations of playing far more ads from da Silva, which would violate election laws, but the evidence the campaign produced was incomplete and quickly shown to be flawed. Brazil’s election chief, whom Bolsonaro has called biased, dismissed the accusations.

Yet Bolsonaro’s son, a congressman, suggested this past week that the vote should be delayed because of the alleged fraud, and Bolsonaro himself is complaining that it is more proof of an unfair election.

“It’s fraud. It interferes with the results of the election,” Bolsonaro told reporters Wednesday. “I am a victim once again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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