‘Lula’ Wins Most Votes in Brazil’s First Round Election, Poised to Defeat Far-Right President Bolsonaro

Interview with Maria Luisa Mendonça, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, conducted by Scott Harris

Going into Brazil’s crucial Oct. 2 presidential election, a number of polls reported that the nation’s popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the left-wing Workers’ Party was 15 percent ahead of his opponent, incumbent right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. But when the votes were counted, Bolsonaro did better than forecast by finishing only 5 percentage points behind Lula’s 48 percent.  Because no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote, the election now moves to a second round on Oct. 30.

Many Brazilians blame Bolsonaro for mismanagement of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic that killed some 700,000, a death toll second only to Covid deaths in the U.S. Bolsonaro is also accused of implementing policies that have accelerated destruction of the Amazon rainforest by loggers and big agribusiness.

In the weeks before the election, Bolsonaro claimed without evidence that government employees were committing voter fraud to deprive him of victory – leading many to fear he would enlist the military to launch a coup to stay in power. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Maria Luisa Mendonça, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, who examines the results of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, and what’s at stake in the final round for the people of Brazil and the world.

MARIA LUISA MENDONÇA: Yes, it was a surprise because, you know, all the polls were showing that Bolsonaro didn’t have more than about 37 percent of the vote. But I think this analysis that a lot of people who vote for Bolsonaro would not say— it’s almost like people are ashamed to say they’re going to vote for Bolsonaro. So this is probably what happened.

You know, in any case, I think the fact that Bolsonaro is the current president and Lula was able to win, to get more votes — not enough to win in the first round, but still, he got over 6 million votes more than Bolsonaro. I think this is an important sign. 

And also it’s important to understand that Bolsonaro was only able to take power because, first of all, there was a parliamentary coup against President Dilma Rousseff, who was also with the Workers Party in 2016. And then after that, Lula was arrested and was in jail on false charges of corruption; there was no evidence against him. So he was not able to win in the last election when Bolsonaro was elected. So the only reason why the right-wing parties were able to take power and Bolsonaro is a result of that was because there was a parliamentary coup in the first place.

This new fascist movement that Bolsonaro represents is the global movement represented by Trump in the U.S., in other parts of the world. So it’s not like suddenly the Brazilians decided to vote for this person. There was like an orchestrated effort to create this political space for this unknown figure, like Bolsonaro, you know, to take power in Brazil.

SCOTT HARRIS: Maria, what is the outlook for the runoff election at the end of this month? And what are some of the major issues that Brazilian eyes will be thinking about when they go to the polls?

MARIA LUISA MENDONÇA: It’s much more likely that Lula will win because he has more votes and the other smaller parties that were running in the first round probably will support Lula. But that’s the hope. And I think what would be important is for the Workers Party to show that they, again, will be able to change the lives of people in concrete ways.

There was a lot of investment, for example, in educational healthcare during the Workers Party administration and Bolsonaro has dismantled the very important institutions like the Labor Ministry, the human rights institutions, the incremental ministry. I think that it will be important for the Workers Party to send a clear message that it’s possible to rebuild the country after a huge destruction that Bolsonaro had, including horrific policies during the pandemic that cost the lives of about 700,000 people.

SCOTT HARRIS: Right. Yeah. I think the death toll in Brazil, if I’m not mistaken, was second only to the death toll in the United States. And of course, there’s a link there between the reckless and deliberately anti-science policies of both the Trump administration and Jair Bolsonaro. 

Maria, there have been concerns that Jair Bolsonaro, if he were to lose this runoff election, will organize a coup. And there’s a lot of questions about the loyalty of the military to democracy. What are your concerns at this moment as the nation of Brazil prepares for this second and final round of the election?

MARIA LUISA MENDONÇA: Yeah, I think this is still a risk, so it’s very important for people to be aware of that. And that’s why, you know, it was the hope that Lula could win in the first round. But still, I think that the electoral course in Brazil is aware of the risk and is taking important measures to protect that and to guarantee to send a strong message that, you know, we need fair elections in the country.

And Bolsonaro and his party are being investigated currently for spreading fake news and for trying to create those doubts about the democratic system in Brazil. His discourse is very similar to Trump’s discourse, saying that he’s not going to accept the results of the elections that, you know, there is fraud involved. So his strategy is to spread fear. And that’s why people are concerned about that.

For Maria Luisa Mendonça’s bio, visit The Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center City University of New York at pcp.gc.cuny.edu/people.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Maria Luisa Mendonça (18:37) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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