Aug 18, 2022 - World

Lula leads Bolsonaro as Brazil's election heats up

Bolsonaro at a motorcycle rally in Salvador in July. Photo: Arisson Marinho/AFP via Getty

Brazil's election campaign officially kicked off this week, with polls showing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leading incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in their titanic clash of ideologies and personalities.

Driving the news: A new Datafolha poll out Thursday evening shows Lula up 47% to 32%. Four other recent polls showed him leading by between 7 and 12 points.

The big picture: Gustavo Ribeiro, editor of the Brazilian Report, tells Axios this is "both the most boring and most tense" election he has ever covered.

  • Boring, because Lula has held a consistent lead ahead of the Oct. 2 vote.
  • Tense, because of the intense dislike between the candidates and their supporters, and because Bolsonaro has repeatedly claimed the election will be rigged and he's threatened to reject the results.

"It would really surprise me if he doesn't try to pull some stunt like Jan. 6," possibly before the election, Ribeiro says.

  • The key date to watch is Sept. 7, the 200th anniversary of Brazil's independence, when Bolsonaro has called on his supporters to take to the streets.
  • Flashback: The far-right leader declared at a similar rally last year that only God could remove him from power. The rally fizzled out before some ardent supporters followed through on plans to storm the Supreme Court.

What they're saying: During a campaign launch Tuesday in the southeastern city where he was stabbed in 2018, Bolsonaro — whose base is comprised largely of evangelicals — proclaimed that "the creator saved my life so I could give my best for our nation as president."

  • At Lula's launch event, held in the industrial city where he began his career as a union leader in the 1970s, Lula remarked that Bolsonaro might be "possessed by the devil."
  • Lula was barred from running against Bolsonaro in 2018 due to a corruption conviction, which was later annulled. "I'm returning so we can take our country back," he declared.

Lula oversaw a dramatic reduction in poverty during a presidential tenure (2003–2011) that coincided with a commodities boom.

  • After a decade of turmoil for Brazil's economy and for his leftist Workers' Party (PT), Lula's pitch is that the good times will return.
  • Yes, but: "Public accounts are depleted, poverty rates are going up. It's a pretty nasty scenario for the economy," Ribeiro says, and Lula is "trying to avoid any specifics about his economic agenda."

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is dramatically increasing social spending in an apparent last-ditch effort to win over low-income voters.

  • Mauricio Moura, a pollster and founder of IDEIA Big Data, expects him to narrow the gap as the remaining undecided voters make up their minds.
  • "This is an election of rejection — on the one hand of the government, on the other hand of the PT and Lula himself," Moura says. There are more voters who reject Lula but aren't yet backing Bolsonaro than vice versa, he says.

The bottom line: Bolsonaro's unpopularity makes this "a very difficult election" for him to win, Moura says, but he's expecting a close race.

  • Given Bolsonaro's vote-rigging allegations and the intense polarization in Brazil, a close result would make for tense times, indeed.
  • If neither candidate wins a majority, there will be a runoff on Oct. 30.
Go deeper