ex-Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (L); Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (Photo by EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images)

Storms in South America

The Brazilian elections have divided the country like never before

Artillery Row

Brazil is a world unto its own: a surprising mixture of the most modern cultural and technological trends, with areas still steeped in tradition, faith and the age-old ways of earning a living on the land. 

It’s not uncommon in my current town in southern Brazil to see a Mercedes driven by a rich kid from the city zip past a man heading to his fields in a cart drawn by two donkeys. One is caught somewhere between the old times and the brave new world.

I first visited Brazil in 2019 just prior to the pandemic and ended up staying for almost a year, mainly in the city of Goiania in the centre of the country. Returning at the end of 2021, I moved to the south of the nation in the state of Santa Catarina with a friend, where I am now. 

Here in the south, life is much different than Goias and areas further north. It is a bit more reserved and European in some ways. It’s not only the different southern culture that’s noticeable where I currently live — it’s also the impact of current events.

Things are a little more tense than usual here in Brazil. Prices have gone up about 30 per cent since I was last here, and there is a heated election campaign underway between current right-wing nationalist President Jair Bolsonaro and former leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”).

Bolsonaro’s label as the South American Trump is largely accurate

The election is now in a runoff to be decided at month’s end following an inconclusive first round vote on 2 October in which Lula took 48.4 per cent compared to Bolsonaro’s 43.2 per cent. 

In order to win in the first round a candidate must receive 50 per cent plus at least one vote. 

Left-leaning global media has regularly presented Bolsonaro as a fascist who hates minorities and wants to personally torch the Amazon tree by tree, whilst his strongest supporters call the former army captain the “People’s Captain” and idealise him as a semi-divine saviour. 

The Western media generally implies that Lula is some type of kindhearted populist hero who just wants to help the common man, whilst many of his supporters see him as a flawed but ultimately preferable alternative to Bolsonaro. 

Bolsonaro’s label as the South American Trump is largely accurate. He speaks with no filter and blames “globalists” and progressives for undermining Brazil’s domestic interests and identity. Bolsonaro has said that he will either win, go to jail or be murdered — and that if he loses, it is fraud. 

Bolsonaro promises to continue to cut government waste, boost the economy and keep expanding rights for gun owners, religious Christians and the private market. Praised by some for infrastructure growth and economic acceleration, Bolsonaro has also been lambasted for rightist social positions and exploitation of indigenous land and Amazonian territory. 

Lula served twice as leader of Brazil in the noughties and ended up going to jail for almost two years for corruption on a later-overturned conviction. His leftist Workers’ Party promises to boost government spending on education, social programs, subsidised affordable housing, protect the Amazon more and raise taxes on the rich. 

With its seventh-largest economy in the world and a GDP of $3.2 trillion, world powers have their eyes on Brazil’s plentiful resources and economic potential. Tucker Carlson recently put out a documentary on China’s rising influence in Brazil, accusing US administrations of neglecting the country’s importance whilst focusing on the Middle East and Islamic terrorism. 

If Bolsonaro ends up losing to Lula, it will follow a left-leaning pattern across Latin America, including the recent election of Gustavo Pedro in Colombia in June. From Chile and Argentina to Venezuela and Peru, the South American continent has become increasingly socialist, something often presented in pro-Bolsonaro memes as an encroaching blood-red tide of hammer and sickle flags encircling the verdant green of the Brazilian homeland.

To be sure, Bolsonaro stands a decent chance of rallying a coalition and taking the election in the second round, but Lula is far from out of this fight. Losers from the first round will have the chance to play kingmaker, particularly Simone Tebet of the Brazilian Democratic Movement with four per cent and Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labor Party with three per cent. Both Tebet and Gomes will support and campaign for Lula. 

This latest election saw the lowest turnout in two decades, with more than 30 million applying for abstentions and not voting. Whether Lula wins, Bolsonaro gained seats in the 2 October election and should still be able to stop most of the left’s policies. Nonetheless, tempers are high, and “Lula Ladrao (Thief Lula)” and “Fora Bozo (Go Away, Clown!”) graffiti is commonly found scrawled on many road signs and bridges. 

For the most part, Brazilians are not the type to let politics intrude on their relationships, but that is changing lately. There has recently been a troubling trend of people blocking friends and family members and cutting them out of their lives for their political views. Fatal political violence unfortunately has also occurred, committed by Lula and Bolsonaro supporters. 

Bolsonaro himself won the presidency in 2018 in a surprise victory following a near-deadly stabbing attack on him at a campaign rally. His documentation of his recovery process in hospital and masterful use of social media is part of what helped propel him to the Palácio da Alvorada in Brasilia, where he’s since embarked on an ambitious project of economic expansion, infrastructure modernization and free market reforms.

The results from 2 October present a snapshot of a country that’s enormously divided geographically, not just culturally. The north of Brazil, from the state of Amazonas through Acre, Rondonia, Para, Tocantins, Maranhao, Bahia and more voted heavily for Lula. The centre and south of the country, from Goias to Mato Grosso to Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, swung heavily in favour of Bolsonaro, with the exception of left-leaning Minas Gerais. 

It isn’t just the culture war that’s informing votes

This north-south split is often generalised as a class split. The south of the country even has a sizable independence movement called “the South is My Country”. In a 2016 unofficial referendum, Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina surveyed three per cent of active voters (around 616,000), of whom 95 per cent wanted to have their own independent nation. These states even fought an unsuccessful ten year campaign against the rest of Brazil between 1835 to 1845 to try to win independence under the leadership of Anita and Giuseppe Garibaldi. 

The south of Brazil is more developed and richer than much of the rest of the country, with more direct ties to Europe. It’s clear to see that it isn’t just the culture war that’s informing votes; it’s also some economic anxiety and suburban and urban voters who want to protect their wealth and security and buy into Bolsonaro’s characterization of himself as the law and order president. 

The presidential runoff on 30 October between Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party and Lula’s Workers’ Party will be a referendum on the economy, social issues, crime, education and the role of the state more broadly. 

During a live debate with a synthwave-looking background on 16 October, Bolsonaro focused a lot on the corruption surrounding Petrobras and Lula’s corruption, saying Lula wants to drag Brazil into the poverty and misery of Argentina and Venezuela. Bolsonaro said that he is a man of results, and he is truly helping students and the marginalised, as opposed to Lula’s empty rhetoric. “Stop lying,” Bolsonaro demanded. “You’re living in a fantasy land.” 

“The liar is you,” Lula retorted indignantly, later adding that Bolsonaro “doesn’t respect the Amazon”. 

Sneering at Lula like he’d eaten bad feijão (beans) and scornfully referring to Lula’s friendship with Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega, Bolsonaro responded that Lula had zero real accomplishments and had “done nothing” in all his years in office except buddy up to drug traffickers and be a “national shame”.

“You should have ‘stayed home’,” Bolsonaro noted, riffing on the slogan that had proliferated during COVID and slamming Lula for supporting the closure of churches during the pandemic. 

Lula denied Bolsonaro’s characterisations and presented Bolsonaro as a mean-spirited liar who’s trying to unfairly ruin his reputation and mislead Brazilians for the sake of power. 

“I’m coming back to look after the Brazilian people because they need somebody to look after them,” Lula responded. After a recession that started almost a decade ago and bad inflation, Brazil was hit hard by COVID, something for which the left has blamed Bolsonaro. 

Brazil is definitely polarised in a way it’s rarely been, with many people telling me that politics and terms like “left” and “right” never used to be much of a topic here but have become common in discussions — and arguments — among family and friends. 

How will the country weather this storm? We’ll know very soon. What’s already crystal clear is that this left-right split in Brazil, and South America more broadly, will continue to intensify. 

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