Brazil elections lead to a new concern: the country’s politics are getting more like America’s

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Brazil elections lead to a new concern: The country’s politics are getting more like America’s

It was as important and closely watched as any election in recent years in South America, and even when the results came in, there were tensions and fears of unrest. That’s in part because former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s margin of victory — 50.9 percent to 49.1 — was so very thin, and partly because his opponent, the incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, had raged about the possibility of a rigged vote and warned of the consequences were he to lose.


Hear more from this conversation between Tom Nagorski and Guilherme Casarões:




The results are a rebuke — though hardly a resounding one — to Bolsonaro’s blend of bluster, disinformation and far-right policies. They also cap a remarkable comeback for the man known as “Lula” — who finished his second term as president more than a decade ago and then served two years in jail on corruption charges.

“I will govern for 215 million Brazilians, and not just for those who voted for me,” da Silva said Sunday night. “There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.”

It was a powerful message, but Lula returns to power in a much-changed Brazil. The nation’s economy has weakened, and its politics have turned vicious, even violent, in a polarization that political analyst Guilherme Casarões calls “the Americanization of Brazilian politics.” Many would argue that in a political sense, there are indeed “two Brazils.”

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Bolsonaro’s term in office has drawn frequent comparisons to Donald Trump’s four years in the White House. He expressed public disdain for scientists during the covid-19 pandemic — and Brazil’s death toll was second only to the U.S.’s; he was also openly critical of environmentalists, the judiciary, the LGBTQ community and nearly anyone he considered a political opponent.

But the closest Bolsonaro-Trump parallel has come in the Brazilian’s preelection charges of a rigged voting system — and his frequent warnings that any result other than one that kept him in office would be a fraudulent one. At one point last year, Bolsonaro said the only possible outcomes were his victory, his death or his arrest. To which he added: “Tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested.”

As of this writing, Bolsonaro has neither conceded the election nor claimed fraud; he hasn’t said anything about it. That, Casarões told Grid, is a worrisome sign, given that Bolsonaro draws support from the military, security forces and a growing number of supporters who carry guns: “That’s a combination that really might take Brazil to a situation of turmoil.”

All of which has made the Brazilian election important not only for the future of Brazil’s economic, environmental and foreign policies, but also as a test for one of world’s largest and most important democracies.

On Monday morning, Grid’s Global Editor Tom Nagorski spoke to Casarões, who is a is a political scientist and international relations professor at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, in São Paulo. He also coordinates the research initiative Extreme Right Observatory, which monitors and analyzes extreme-right movements around the world.

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This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Nagorski: A basic question to start with, Guilherme: What have we heard, or not, from the Bolsonaro camp? I gather nothing yet from the man himself?

Guilherme Casarões: There’s a joke going around that Bolsonaro took 38 days to recognize Biden’s victory in the American elections, and it took Joe Biden 38 minutes to recognize Lula’s victory in the Brazilian elections. So I think that summarizes what kind of response, what kind of reactions we might expect from Bolsonaro. He hasn’t said anything so far. It’s kind of strange for us in Brazil not to have the incumbent president recognizing the election results.

Apparently, we have a truck driver strike. There are many, many roads in seven different states being blocked by truck drivers who apparently do not want to accept the election results. That’s the kind of situation we are at right now. And of course, we saw most of these things coming, but it’s complicated and frustrating to see in the context of a democracy that the defeated political forces are not willing to accept the results.

TN: I gather Bolsonaro did make a comment in one of the last days of the campaign that sounded a little more conciliatory, I believe it was something along the lines “whoever wins, wins.” He has not made a concession, but he also hasn’t made any angry remarks or suggested fraud.

GC: That is true. Bolsonaro indeed said, I think Friday night, that he would be willing to accept the election results, but that was a first, really. He kept saying for months, maybe years, that he wouldn’t be willing to accept the results in case he lost the election. So as a first for us, it came as a surprise, a good surprise to many of us. But at the same time, I think that Bolsonaro is just waiting for the developments. Maybe he’s thinking about whether to stir a little bit more chaos in the streets, or if he’s going to talk people out of any takeover or coup attempt at this point.

But in any case, I think that his silence is pretty revealing. He’s probably hurt because he didn’t expect to lose. He has tried his best to win, even if it was by resorting to different kinds of voter suppression tactics. He has made use of every single tool and resource he had at hand to get reelected, and things did not work out well for him.

One of the things that really surprised me was the first person who officially recognized Lula’s victory last night was the speaker of the house, who’s a very well-known Bolsonaro ally. There’s a group that we call “centrão” in Brazil, the big center, a group of parties who apparently are jumping on Lula’s bandwagon, or at least try to jump out of Bolsonaro’s. There are still two months until Lula’s inauguration, but I think the main political forces are sending very clear signals that they are willing to accept whoever will take office next year, that they are willing to talk. So that’s good news. That might be evidence that Brazil’s institutions are resilient and are working better than we thought, or at least that Bolsonaro is not strong enough to influence them.

But at the same time, his silence can tell a lot of different stories. I think that judging by yesterday’s results, Lula has won 3 million more votes than he had in the first round. Bolsonaro got 7 million more votes. So, I think that Bolsonaro leaves this election as the single most powerful opposition force in Brazilian politics. This is why the costs of not accepting the elections results are very high, because if he accepts the results right now, he’s probably going to pave his own way to coming back to power in 2026. And trying to challenge democracy right now will have huge costs for him.

TN: You mentioned the truck drivers’ strike. What else are Brazilians afraid of in this period? When you see a 50-to-49 result, what are you worried about?


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GC: The truck drivers’ strike is pretty concerning because we’ve seen this before, in 2018. And then on Sept. 7, 2021, we saw a big mobilization by truck drivers to try and stop the country, to put pressure on the government. In the case of September 2021, it was akin to a coup attempt that really didn’t work out.

Truck drivers are very powerful because Brazil is a country that relies on road logistics for pretty much anything. So, they have a lot of political power. We saw that in 2018. And Bolsonaro was the champion of the truck drivers back then, he was the one to go there, to really talk to people, truck drivers in particular. They seem to live in this parallel world of WhatsApp and fake news, so they are very susceptible to any call to arms.

But this is not the only thing that we are currently worried about. I think that there’s another thing, which is that we live in a country with more and more armed people. And that’s probably one of the most dangerous features of this entire Bolsonaro period. We’ve seen the numbers of guns skyrocket in Brazil between 2018 and today. The number of guns in the hands of private citizens rose from 350,000 in 2018 to more than a million, and most of those who do not support Bolsonaro are probably not really willing to buy guns, so we know what side they’re on.

We combine three elements there: Bolsonaro’s support from the military, the security forces and by armed citizens. That’s a combination that really might take Brazil to a situation of turmoil in the coming weeks, if Bolsonaro decides to summon his supporters to stage any sort of takeover, or if he decides to tell people he’s not going to accept the results, that elections are fraudulent. He’s been saying this for quite some time. What we know from the dynamics of the pro-Bolsonaro movement is that whatever Bolsonaro says, people will follow suit.

So, I think we have to wait for Bolsonaro to drive his supporters in some direction. It’s still uncertain.

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TN: You’ve mentioned misinformation, threats to the democratic process, more and more armed people. Where are the parallels to the United States closest, and in what ways is Brazil different?

GC: That’s a great question. I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s going on with Brazil, especially in the last four years. Since 2013, we’ve seen a very dramatic change of the way Brazilians think about politics and do politics on a daily basis. I’ve been calling this transformation the Americanization of Brazilian politics. This notion that democracy should be the government for the majority and the majority only. This notion is almost akin to a tyranny of the majority. That’s the kind of idea of democracy that Donald Trump has, and that’s the kind of idea that Bolsonaro has as well.

If I could pinpoint the most consequential legacy of the far right in Brazil, over the last four years, it really has been the Americanization of Brazilian politics in the sense that we’ve always had a very pluralistic notion of democracy in Brazil. I don’t want to idealize anything, but one of Brazil’s contributions has been pluralism, racial miscegenation and religious tolerance. Bolsonaro has somehow changed that. He has come up with his very strong idea of Brazil as a Christian country, a conservative country. He has been trying to subvert the country’s identity and create a monolith, an identity monolith. That’s totally different from anything we’ve seen before. We’ve had left-wing governments and right-wing governments in the past, and they were all very much committed to this notion of pluralistic democracy. Somehow, now we have 57 million voters who do not really believe that Brazil is for everyone.

That’s a big consequence because as we see in the United States right now, Brazil is also going to be very much divided for a long time to come.

The Lula administration is more of a national unity government really, if you think about the number of different political forces from all across the board that Lula was able to put together for this campaign. I think one of the big challenges is to heal the wounds of the country and try to hold everyone together as one. That was part of his acceptance speech yesterday. He said, “I’m going to be the president of 250 million Brazilians, not only my supporters.” He has to reach out to everyone, including those who didn’t vote for him. Lula was a very divisive figure, but he’s seasoned enough and knowledgeable enough to reach out to those who don’t really like him. He’s trying to, and he should pave the way for a new political pact in 2026. Lula has already said that he’s not going to run for reelection, which is quite natural because he’s 77. But I think that that was an important sign that Brazil is just in a transition period to a whole new reality as of 2026.

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TN: There are political comebacks in many countries, but Lula’s political comeback is a bit more unusual. He was in office for the last time more than a decade ago and later went to jail for corruption. Help us to understand how it passed that just a few years ago, he was in a jail, and here he is, making an acceptance speech for another term as president.

GC: Lula left office in 2010 as the most popular president in the history of Brazil, if not in the history of Western democracies. He left office with an 83 percent approval. That was quite impressive.

At the same time, his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, was very controversial. She ran very unsuccessful macroeconomic policies from 2014 onward. That explains part of the political reaction to her, which ended up in the impeachment trial of 2016. So it’s complicated, because we have to draw a line separating Lula, his own reputation and his own track record as president, and the Workers’ Party next period in office, which was way more contentious. He has avoided President Rousseff during the campaign. He has tried to refer to his own legacy as president, but not as the legacy of the Workers’ Party for the 13 years that they have remained in office. So, it’s very hard to come up with a convincing narrative at this point.

At the same time, there were several corruption accusations against Lula and the Workers’ Party. It’s complicated — because many people still believe that Lula is the most corrupt politician in the history of the country too.

TN: This explains why we’re sitting here with a 50-49 result, right?

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GC: Exactly. The anti-Workers’ Party sentiment has grown a lot over the last decade. It can be explained by two things: failed macroeconomic policies on the one hand and corruption on the other.

TN: Let’s assume that there is a peaceful transition. Help us to understand how Lula, in term No. 3, may govern. What does he stand for? And how does he get it done, given how divided the country is?

GC: That’s a great question. Unlike past terms, the past 10 years in office, Lula will be a conciliator right now. He has always been very open to negotiation and to compromise, but now more than ever before, Lula is the face of a national unity government. At least that’s how I see it. Those have been very clear signals that he has sent to many, many people in the country. He’s not willing to run on the left-wing platform.

Of course, hunger and poverty alleviation policies are a top priority for Lula. But at the same time, I think that Lula was able to put together so many different politicians from all across the board, that it’s really about saving democracy in trying to fix the country’s problems through consensus. I know it’s hard because the country is super divided right now, but I think Lula has the willingness to try and heal the country.

It’s going to be a battle, of course, because I don’t think the transition will be peaceful at all. I’m pretty sure Bolsonaro will not pass the sash to Lula on Jan. 1. And I’m not sure if the Bolsonaro administration is really willing to help Lula out in the transition process. We still have two months before Lula takes office. So, these are going to be very difficult months.

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The challenge after the transition period will be to form a cabinet with every single political force that has supported Lula over the campaign. That’s going to be tough, because Lula has a very strong left-wing base, which will demand a lot from the government and hold them in a lot of cabinet positions as well. But at the same time, there are some liberal economists and liberal political forces that have also joined Lula’s campaign. They are people who used to be opposed to Lula, and now they are on board. It is a challenge to hold everyone together.

At the same time, his greatest challenge will be in his relationship with congress. Congress has become much more ideological than any time in the past. We have a huge Bolsonaro group in congress, and it’s very hard to pass legislation without the support of these folks. So that’s one thing.

The second thing is we no longer have a strong center-right that will be willing to forge political alliances with Lula. The Social Democratic Party, that used to be the Workers’ Party’s main opponent in politics, has been pretty much destroyed along the way. We no longer have the strong center-right that’s part of the democratic camp. So, this is going to be a challenge because the maneuvering room for Lula is much narrower right now.

But I think that Lula has some tools at hand. He’s got the honeymoon period. He’s got a lot of popular support. Some of the reforms and some of the policies are viable or doable, but, of course, congress is going to be his greatest obstacle for the next four years.

TN: You said something interesting in your first answer — that perhaps Bolsonaro will choose not to advocate violence or call for protests and so forth because he wants to preserve his influence in the years to come. Given all you’ve just said about the Bolsonarists within congress, where do you think he will come down? Is he more likely to scream “fraud” or to be more calm about it?

GC: I think that Bolsonaro is currently facing a dilemma. On the one hand, he needs to play by the rules if he wants to get elected in 2026, he needs to play by the democratic rules of the game. This would make him immobilized to call on his radical supporters and try to become this fierce opposition figure. That’s the path Bolsonaro should take, even though I’m not sure he’s going to do it.

Bolsonaro operates on the logic of polarization and radicalization. It’s very hard to keep his supporters energized and mobilized by accepting the rules of the game. Bolsonaro has pushed democracy to its limits over the last four years. That was part of his campaign and government strategies. I’m not sure his supporters are willing to accept the results, even if Bolsonaro does. I’m still convinced that Bolsonaro still sees these supporters as part of his political capital, so he doesn’t want to lose them to someone who might be even more radical than him. I think he will have to balance between accepting the results and at the same time creating narratives to keep energizing his supporters.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

  • Mariana Labbate
    Mariana Labbate

    Global Editorial Assistant

    Mariana Labbate is the editorial assistant for Grid's Global team.