Brazil’s presidential race is headed for the finish line, as voters prepare to pick either Jair Bolsonaro or Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as their leader on Sunday. In the days leading up to the second and final runoff, Mr. Bolsonaro, the incumbent, has narrowed the gap between him and leftist front-runner Mr. da Silva by four percentage points. Even if Mr. da Silva, popularly known as Lula, ends up winning the presidency, analysts predict the incumbent’s legacy and influence, as well as Bolsonarism – his far-right populist movement – will remain a strong political force in the country.
The general elections on Oct. 2 gave the incumbent’s party its best-ever results in both chambers of Brazil’s National Congress. Mr. Bolsanaro has close allies in Congress, including Brazil’s ex-health minister and former army general Eduardo Pazuello, who’s been blamed for thousands of deaths over his handling of the country’s response to COVID-19, and former minister of women, families and human rights, Damares Alves, a controversial evangelical fundamentalist accused of abducting a six-year-old Indigenous child in 2005 and raising the girl as her own.
These kinds of connections mean that a victory by Mr. da Silva, who served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010, would not weaken the political influence that Mr. Bolsonaro wields in the country.
If Mr. da Silva wins the presidency, Congress will be taken over by what is known as centrao, a group of parties without a consistent ideology that aim to get close to the executive branch for access to funding, which can build their power bases. Congress will also have members from a very strong pro-Bolsonaro ideological wing.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party won 99 seats in the 513-member lower house, making it the single-largest party in the legislature. With his right-leaning allies, he effectively controls almost half of that chamber. Mr. Bolsonaro also commands a strong presence in the senate, after his party and its allies won 13 of the 27 seats that were up for election this year.
Pablo Ortellado, professor of public policy management at the University of Sao Paulo, says that these elections for congress, effectively saw political centrism disappear. It was “captured by Bolsonarism, replaced by a more ideological political representation, more markedly far right,” he said.
Guilherme Casaroes, professor of political science and international relations at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas research institute, says that as a result of the general elections, the country will have “even more conservative legislatures than in 2018.” Bolsonarism is “much stronger than imagined,” he said, with a resilience that “ensured candidates associated with Bolsonaro a quiet, sometimes huge, victory.”
Not only has a good part of Mr. Bolsonaro’s ideological base been re-elected, but new names supportive of him have emerged. Even if Mr. Bolsonaro is defeated in Sunday’s runoff, his ideology will remain a force to be reckoned with in Brazil, “as a propaganda machine, as a mobilization force, a digital communication force,” Prof. Ortellado said. Bolsonarism is not just an electoral phenomenon, he added, but a force that will have a long-lasting impact.
If Mr. da Silva is elected president, he will have a hard time controlling Congress, Prof. Casaroes said. “Disputing spaces with a strengthened Bolsonarism will be difficult, but it is the only way to prevent the current government’s authoritarian project from consolidating at all levels.”
Mr. Bolsonaro was able to unite the far right and ensured electoral viability for right-wing politics. This includes discourses against human rights; attacks on Indigenous rights and lands; and constant threats against the Supreme Court, and against democracy itself.
Felippe Ramos, a political analyst and doctoral candidate in sociology at The New School for Social Research, says that public opinion institutes in the country “were unable to track the Brazilian political tectonic plates.”
“Bolsonarism is not an anti-status quo protest vote like it was in 2018, when Jair Bolsonaro was an unknown politician made famous in the months leading to the election for viral videos in which he disparaged against the establishment,” Mr. Ramos said. “He has now become a truly national project, an enduring point of convergence for a much wider and varied pool of political actors that took a decisively right-wing turn.”
The turn to the far right is not just something that is happening in Brazil. It has been seen in Hungary, under Prime Minister Viktor Orban; in Sweden, with the rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats party; and in Italy, with the recent victory of neo-fascist Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party in the national election.
A number of factors in Brazil explain the rise of Bolsonarism: deindustrialization and the resulting rise in importance of the agricultural sector in the conservative mid-west; the growth of evangelical fundamentalism; increasing mistrust of the country’s traditional and cultural elites.
Prof. Ortellado predicts that if Mr. Bolsonaro is re-elected he will deepen his criticism of the Supreme Court and seek to control the court by increasing the number of vacancies of judges.
If Mr. da Silva wins on Sunday, “he will be met with a really strong and radicalized opposition that will prevent him from achieving much,” Mr. Ramos said.
Even if Mr. da Silva secures a tactical majority, attracting some congressmen by sharing state resources and power, “he would still face a vocal and strident minority that speaks directly and profoundly to half of Brazilians who hate him,” Mr. Ramos added.
A lot is on the line, Prof. Casaroes said. “Those who really care about democracy in the country will have to get off the couch and turn to vote for Lula.”
In the longer term, the viability of the political centre and centre-left will depend on appealing to the hearts of Brazilians and offering them “an agenda that points to the future while avoiding an escalating rhetoric and destructive institutional behaviour,” Mr. Ramos said. “It is a Herculean task, but one that is worth trying.”