The next elections are over a year away, but Brazilians are already holding their breath: President Jair Bolsonaro will face former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in a very close competition between two of the most popular and yet controversial political leaders from Brazil. The polls give Lula an advantage today, mainly because of Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the pandemic, but a lot will change until October 2022, especially as a recovering economy makes Bolsonaro more competitive.
If Lula wins, returning to power after spending nearly two years in prison for alleged corruption, Brazil will make a radical policy change in many areas, especially with regard to the environmental agenda. But the stakes aren’t just high because of it: with so much at stake, Bolsonaro threatens to challenge the election results if he loses. We learn more about Silvio cascione, Director Brazil at Eurasia Group.
Why are people worried that Bolsonaro will not accept the 2022 election results?
Because Bolsonaro makes very clear threats. He said, for example, that if Congress does not change the constitution to introduce printed ballots, the elections may not take place. The Supreme Court opened an investigation against him because of the threats, then he replied on August 5 that his reaction could be “outside constitutional limits”. If there was any doubt that Bolsonaro was heading for next year’s presidential elections, the past few weeks have dispelled them.
Has this ever happened in Brazil, and to what extent is there a Trump contagion effect at work?
Election fraud was a serious problem in Brazil before the introduction of electronic voting in the 1990s. Before this happened, there were other times when certain groups, such as the military, contested the election results. . But there had been no such threat since the restoration of democracy in 1988. Trump’s example certainly inspires Bolsonaro and his allies. True, Bolsonaro criticized electronic ballots for many years, even before being elected president. But they saw how challenging the election results helped galvanize Trump’s unconditional base at the end of his term, and he’s trying to do the same in Brazil.
Is violence likely around elections? Or only if Bolsonaro loses?
The risk of violence is higher even during the campaign. The 2018 election was already remarkably violent. Bolsonaro was stabbed and Lula almost got shot while on a campaign trip. With such high levels of polarization, the candidates are already strengthening their security apparatus for 2022. After the vote, the risk of violence is indeed higher if Bolsonaro loses and part of that base takes to the streets to dispute the results. The leadership of the armed forces will not support him, but he has significant support within the base of state-based military police forces. Pockets of Bolsonaro supporters in the military police could promote acts of insubordination supporting allegations of fraud. Episodes like the time of January 6 in the United States may well be happening.
What are the prospects for overturning the elections?
Despite all this, the chances of an election overturning are very low. Unlike the United States, the vote count is fast, as are potential audits, and the results do not need to be validated by states or Congress. Bolsonaro would remain president for two months, but he would have no power during the transition period to reverse the results.
What are the longer-term risks for Brazilian democracy?
When the president himself challenges the electoral system, confidence in democratic institutions diminishes. This is what created the conditions for an outsider like Bolsonaro to be elected in the first place. Now in office, he amplifies this mistrust by leading a crusade against electronic voting. If a third of the population thinks the elections were rigged, the government will face tougher opposition.