Bolsonaro Has Already Won, Even If Lula Takes It

It is easier for us to have a constituted belief on which to rely for future certainty, even if reality is inherently uncertain, and even if what we believe may ultimately not pan out. A few months ago, it was apparent that Argentina’s black-market peso-dollar exchange rate was on its way to hitting 400 pesos per greenback, that Lula Inácio da Silva would oust Jair Bolsonaro from the presidency in Brazil (confirming the return of a wave of leftist leaders in Latin America), that the Fernández-Fernández administration had imploded and would be handily replaced by Juntos por el Cambio in 2023, and that Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta would lead the opposition’s presidential ticket. All of these “givens” have proven to be much less robust than previously thought, putting us in the uncomfortable place of not really knowing where we stand. It’s not that we actually knew before, but at least we thought we did, and that was comforting. Not only is the outcome of the 2023 presidential election in Argentina now even more uncertain than ever, we can’t even predict what will happen by the end of the day in Brazil.

There was an eerie sense of deception a few Sundays ago, when Brazilian electoral authorities began to release official figures in the first round of the presidential election. Bolsonaro quickly took the lead and never fell below 40 percent as the tally proceeded, despite major polls suggesting he wouldn’t be able to close an even ten point margin with Lula, who was expected to take the election in the first round. Ultimately, Lula gained on Bolsonaro to end the day beating him by five percentage points, coming in at 48.4 percent compared to the president’s 43.2 percent. As we’ve become accustomed to in several recent elections across the globe, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for political analysts to predict their outcomes. It isn’t entirely clear whether polarization has anything to do with it, but in Brazil, the last major polls published before the election indicated Lula would take 50 percent of the vote compared to Bolsonaro’s 33 percent (IPEC), and 51 to 37 for the leader of the Workers’ Party (Datafolha). These results should hang like a huge question mark over the electoral arena in Argentina, where the ruling Frente de Todos coalition had been discarded as a real contender next year, while liberals led by economists Javier Milei and José Luis Espert were considered marginal figures.

Electoral participation in Brazil was in line with recent elections, according to data put together by the Center for Strategy and Geopolitics of Latin America (CELAG), putting it at approximately 80 percent. One of the theories for the unexpected results had to do with the “shame” of admitting one was going to vote either for Lula or Bosonaro. Seen another way, their high level of public rejection leads many people to vote against the candidate they do not want to see leading the nation, even if they don’t feel represented by their choice. Once again, this is important information for Argentina’s political field to absorb given the potential that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Mauricio Macri could become next year’s presidential candidates.

While Lula is still expected to return to the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia, in many ways Bolsonaro has already won. Firstly, he secured a run-off vote, exceeding everyone’s expectations. He could even win that race, though he’s already secured the largest bloc in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, meaning that Bolsonarismo will have an influential role in the next administration’s capacity to govern. Once again, a deeply polarized election that is decided by a run-off means that whoever takes the presidency will have to appeal to the opposition to pass laws, a major feat in these times of deep polarization, particularly in Brazil where la grieta feels even deeper than in Argentina.

While President Alberto Fernández and his boss Cristina, both Lula fanboys, could celebrate another victory for the “progressives” of Latin America, the true reasons to raise a glass could have more to do with what’s happening in the Argentine opposition. After months of having the spotlight centered on their internal bickering — which pushed the country to the verge of another economic implosion — it’s Juntos por el Cambio who are now airing their dirty laundry in public. In the center of the political arena is neuroscientist Facundo Manes, an outsider representing the Civic Radical Union (UCR) who noted on a televised interview that the Macri administration partook in “institutional populism.” Manes, an outspoken critic of the former president who aspires to head the UCR’s presidential ticket next year, was referring to the electoral strategy of antagonizing Kirchnerism and exacerbating la grieta, a tactic that was hugely successful electorally speaking. He also denounced the alleged internal espionage conducted during the last administration against members of Macri’s own party and even the ex-president’s own family members.

His comments were seen as heretical for the majority of Juntos’ top brass, including UCR party president Gerardo Morales, who himself aspires to be the next president and despises Macri. Accusing the opposition leader of populism implies turning Juntos’ guns on itself, as Kirchnerism is considered the incarnation of all evil because of its populist, absolutist tendencies. Furthermore, accusing Macri of using the judiciary and intelligence agencies for illegal espionage to pursue his political goals is the same accusation lodged by the Kirchnerites – even if they were masters in the art of lawfare before it was turned against them. Manes shoved a metaphorical knife in the electric outlet, attacking the spiritual leader of the space he belongs to and sparking the reaction of nearly everyone else. Whether he was consciously trying to rattle the cage, or whether he is merely a victim of inexperience, he put the coalition on edge by raising the fear of potential fragmentation. While Manes tried to tone it down by saying it is healthy to have dissent, a breakdown of either coalition in the face of a unified opponent could quickly lead to defeat in 2023. A few months ago, the scenario indicated a secession of the Kirchnerites from the Frente de Todos, condemning them to failure in the national vote; the question of a breakup in the opposition could have the same effect.

As mentioned in previous columns, it’s important to keep oneself in check by questioning our own conceptions of reality.

This piece was originally published in the Buenos Aires Times, Argentina’s only English-language newspaper.

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