Brazil is the fourth largest democracy in the world, and its most recent presidential election has also been one of its most contentious. The preliminary election occurred on October 3, 2022 giving left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva victory over right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Despite numerous predictions of a significant margin of victory for Silva, Bolsonaro managed to close that margin to about five percent, sending the race into a runoff election that will end on October 30, 2022 (Jeantet, 2022).
Although the election is closer than previously thought, it is the candidates, specifically the incumbent President Bolsonaro, that make this Brazilian election tense. Bolsonaro’s history of political mismanagement, corruption, and strong ties to the military make him the ideal leader of a coup should he lose the election. Additionally, Bolsonaro has made it clear that he will not take the loss lightly. This past August, Bolsonaro had this to say about the upcoming election: “I have three alternatives for my future: being arrested, death, or victory” (“Might Steal,” 2022). While he may be able to escape arrest through his political influence, the last two are still realistic options. This dramatic rhetoric also comes at a time when Bolsonaro’s popularity has been on a downward trend thanks to COVID.
The Downward Spiral
In April of 2020, the Brazilian public approval of Bolsonaro was at 33 percent. By November, 2021, the number had dropped to 22 percent. This precipitous drop in popularity can be attributed to Bolsonaro’s alleged misconduct in managing the COVID-19 pandemic (Rodriguez, 2021). Although every world leader struggled to formulate a proper response to the health crisis, the Brazilian Senate decided to create a special Parliamentary Commission (CPI) in April of 2021 to look for evidence of illegal activity in Bolsonaro’s response (Cowie, 2021). Six months later, members of the CPI voted to charge Bolsonaro with nine crimes committed by his administration during the pandemic (Rodriguez, 2021). These included crimes against humanity, the falsification of documents, misappropriation of public funds, social rights violations, and noncompliance with pandemic prevention regulations.
Senator Renan Calheiros, a member of the CPI, published the official 1,180-page report of the commission’s findings in which he claims that the Brazilian administration, “omitted and chose to act in a non-technical and reckless manner in the fight against the pandemic… deliberately exposing the population to a concrete risk of massive infection” (“Brazil’s CPI Finds,” 2021). Calheiros’s report was submitted to the Brazilian Prosecutor-General, who determined whether or not to prosecute the President on these charges. Although the actual prosecution may never proceed, this report could represent a major political victory for Bolsonaro’s political opponents who want to hold him responsible for the almost 700,000 COVID deaths that have occurred during his presidency (J. Rodriguez, 2021; M. Rodriguez, 2022). One out of ten Brazilians have caught COVID, and if Bolsonaro’s opponents can attribute these statistics to his administration, they boost their chances of defeating him in the October election (Rodriguez, 2021).
Even before the CPI made its official report, Brazilians were already convinced of Bolsonaro’s culpability in actively worsening the COVID crisis. Reports have been confirmed of Bolsonaro’s consistent rejection of public health advisors, advocacy of natural immunity, and his hosting of large political rallies despite social distancing restrictions. Although the criminality of these actions is dubious, they have been condemned by the public health community. For example, during his testimony before the CPI, Brazilian epidemiologist Pedro Hallal went so far as to accuse Bolsonaro of being the direct cause of some COVID deaths, stating that:
One thing is the responsibility of the federal government which is very clear from the data we have presented. I want to say in all candor…that some of these deaths are the direct responsibility of the president of the republic (RT Staff Reporters, 2021).
Furthermore, Gabriela Lotta, a political researcher for the Getulio Vargas Foundation, claims that, “The [Brazilian] government has been a denialist of the pandemic. It denies that it is serious, denies that it needs intervention, and denies the necessary measures defended by science to face it” (Taylor, 2021). This denial has led to federal complacency and the dissemination of misinformation, which have been labeled by public health officials as the primary contributors toward the high death–toll. In conclusion, Bolsonaro has been getting negative press from both public and private sectors that has reduced his chances of being re-elected.
A Dangerous Man
In addition to his declining public image, Bolsonaro has made his distrust of Brazil’s electronic ballot system clear by claiming it enables voter fraud (Nicas, 2021b). Despite evidence to the contrary, Bolsonaro has continued to question the legitimacy of the voting process, suggesting that the Brazilian military conduct a separate vote tally during the upcoming October election (Nicas, 2022a; Nicas, 2021b). The problem is that Bolsonaro has strong ties to the military, an alarming fact considering that Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. As a former army officer and paratrooper, Bolsonaro began his career in politics by advocating for better wages and increased legal protections for both military and police officers (Stargardter, 2021).
This activism has increased his popularity among both groups. During his presidency, Bolsonaro gained additional support from the armed forces by increasing the size of the military reserve threefold, appointing a general as his Vice President, and staffing his cabinet solely with military leaders (Nicas, 2022a). His Vice President has worsened the situation by stating that the Brazilian military refuses to respect the election results unless the voting system is improved to resist voter fraud (Mier, 2022). Additionally, the current Defense Minister has supported cross-checking e-ballots with printed ballots to streamline the process of a recount (Stargardter, 2021). All of these factors support the theory that President Bolsonaro will demand a recount conducted by the military should he lose the October election.
While an outright military coup is a potential option for Bolsonaro, it is more likely that the military will split into two factions: those who support Bolsonaro and those who do not. Although Bolsonaro prefers a military-style dictatorship, he does not yet have the full support of both the military police and the regular armed forces. Thus, if Bolsonaro loses, it is unlikely that he could lead a coup backed by a unified army (“Might Steal,” 2022). However, if Bolsonaro wins, his corrupt behavior will persist, and the controversy over the legitimacy of his actions will remain unresolved. Unless Bolsonaro makes a glaring error that causes him to lose the support of both the public and the military, his right extremism will continue to cause controversy in following election cycles.
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