By Dr. Imran Khalid*
The first live presidential election debate in Brazil, as was widely expected, has proven to be nothing but a shouting match among the top six candidates – particularly President Jair Bolsonaro and the lead contender and former president, Lula da Silva, who together indulged in an intense contest of allegations and counter-allegations throughout the live session. President Bolsonaro, who many times called his main opponent a “thief” and “ex-convict” over the course of the debate, used hard-hitting language to snub Lula: “Your government was the most corrupt in Brazilian history. It was a kleptocracy, a government based on robbery.” Lula responded by telling the audience that his government should be remembered for helping to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty; he then accused President Bolsonaro of trashing that legacy and “destroying” the country.
Emotions and tempers were running even higher among the candidates’ teams watching the debate on a screen backstage. A member of Lula’s team accused the Bolsonaro team of “lacking the necessary maturity to attend the debate” after they had jeered and shouted insults while Lula was speaking. Ricardo Salles, a Bolsonaro ally and former environment minister, took umbrage and he and a member of Lula’s team literally came to blows.
The first round of the election will be held on 2 October with a second round scheduled for 30 October if none of the candidates get fifty percent of valid votes. But seeing the intensity of President Bolsonaro’s desperate attempts to retain his presidency at all costs, it is predicted he may refuse to accept the results if he musters fewer votes than his main rival Lula, thus following in the footsteps of his role model Donald Trump, who also refused to accept defeat at the hands of Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, Lula, the most popular candidate according to all recent opinion polls, sternly rebutted accusations of corruption and pleaded his innocence. Lula was convicted of corruption in 2017 and surrendered to federal authorities in April 2018 to begin serving a 12-year prison sentence. However, in 2021, the Supreme Court annulled the conviction, allowing him to run for president again. “I was arrested so you could be elected president but then I was found not guilty. But I’m going to win now to see in one stroke what you want to hide so badly!” Lula said in reference to Bolsonaro’s alleged efforts to conceal information and weaken transparency since he took office.
This is Lula’s sixth attempt for the presidency with the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). He served as President from 2003 to 2011 and left office with an approval rating of 90% after millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty during his tenure. However, his good fortune did not last long. After surviving throat cancer in 2011, Lula was convicted of corruption and money laundering six years later, charges that were framed in the context of a broad-based investigation into the state-run oil company Petrobras. Bolsonaro, who is tangibly lagging behind Lula in opinion polls, has many times questioned the transparency of country’s electoral process and criticized in particular the use of electronic ballots – a system that has been in use since 2000. And that’s not all: President Bolsonaro has also requested that the military perform a parallel “public” count of the votes to validate the results. All this indicates that President Bolsonaro is likely not going to accept his defeat silently.
Edson Fachin, a minister on the Superior Electoral Court, has already warned about the high probability of unrest “more severe” than the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. Though Fachin has reiterated repeatedly that election authorities would not allow interference from the federal government or the Armed Forces, there remains every likelihood that President Bolsonaro would not let Lula snatch away the presidency so easily. Growing poverty and hunger, soaring prices, and a surge in destruction in the Amazon rainforest have certainly dented the popularity of Bolsonaro, who, being a typical populist leader, is apparently not ready to gulp down this bitter reality and is trying to generate momentum for a protest campaign to disrupt the process should the result not come out in his favor. Thus, instead of sharing any concrete plans for the rejuvenation of a dithering economy, Bolsonaro is doing only two things: one, making allegations of corruption against Lula; and two, casting doubts on the electoral process as a whole.
On the other side, Lula da Silva, who is quite confident about his success in this race, has vowed to launch a major crackdown against the illegal miners and loggers laying waste to the Amazon in the wake of the “barbaric” murders of the Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and the British journalist Dom Phillips. He has also pledged to create a new ministry for native peoples and rebuild Ibama, the environmental agency, which has allegedly been systematically dismantled by President Bolsonaro since he took over in 2019. “We will put a complete end to any kind of illegal mining. This can’t be simply through a law – it must be almost a profession of faith,” Lula loudly declared. He has further vowed to make the global climate crisis “an absolute priority” if elected. Lula is committed that he would strengthen Brazil’s federal police and its borders in order to wrest back control of remote Amazon regions such as the Javari Valley, where Pereira and Phillips were killed, from gangs of narco-traffickers and gun-runners. Though Lula insists that Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon region is categorical, he is also showing his willingness to welcome international help in the battle to reduce deforestation. “We don’t need to cut down even one more tree to plant soybeans. We don’t need to cut down one more tree to plant corn. We don’t need to cut down a single tree to plant sugarcane or raise cattle,” Lula said to reaffirm his commitment to fight deforestation of the Amazon.
Lula’s showing in recent poll suggests there is a small chance he could garner over 50 percent of the first-round vote, avoiding a runoff against 67-year-old Bolsonaro. If the election does advance to a second round, on October 30, the poll shows Lula is likely to beat Bolsonaro with 54 per cent of the vote. The two main candidates, running in the most polarized presidential race in decades, are far ahead of the other ten challengers. However, despite this high-octane and highly offensive election campaign by Bolsonaro, Lula has been trying to muffle fears that Brazil might suffer a democratic “rupture” and maintains the line that it’s inconceivable that Brazilians would let their hard-fought democracy be derailed so easily. But, a radical far-right former army captain who openly celebrates Brazil’s military dictatorship, President Bolsonaro is seemingly preparing to stage a last-minute maneuver to outflank Lula and reinvigorate his campaign. Bolsonaro has told his hardcore supporters to hit the streets “for the last time” on 7 September, Brazil’s Independence Day. The gathering is being read as a further threat by all stakeholders that Bolsonaro might not be willing to leave his office peacefully, and it stands as just one of many reasons why more than a million Brazilians from across the political spectrum recently signed a high-profile manifesto warning that the country’s young democracy faced a moment of “immense danger.” It’s clear that the Brazilian presidential race has entered a critical stage, and right as populist fanaticism is surging.
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