A deeply divided Brazil heads to the polls on Sunday in a runoff election that is looking much tighter than it initially seemed. With polls severely questioned after missing the mark in the first round by more than 10 percentage points in some cases, Datafolha figures from Friday put former president Lula at some 49 percent, while the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, is coming in at 47 percent. When projecting only positive votes, they’re seeing a 53 to 47 percent lead for Lula, with the margin spreading 2 percentage points compared to the same instance in the first round.
One of the defining features of the first round vote was how off the political consultancies had it. Averages suggested Lula, a populist leftist that governed Brazil from 2003 to 2010, could win by a ten point margin and take the election in the first round. Bolsonaro, a right-winger in the tradition of a certain Donald Trump, had a much better than expected election, ultimately forcing the runoff where he has proven to be extremely competitive.
The level of polarization in Brazil has reached unimagined levels, even appearing more extreme than Argentina’s own domestic version, dubbed “la grieta” or “the rift.” Interestingly, some analysts indicated that a substantial portion of voters decided to “vote against” one of the candidates. Lula, who was imprisoned on corruption charges that were a bit flimsy, but oversaw the government during a period of massive corruption ultimately uncovered by the Lava Jato/Operation Car Wash investigation, is despised by the elites and the middle classes of the more prosperous south, even if many of them made their way out of povery during his mandate. He retains a strong performance in poorer north and northeastern regions of the country, according to analysis by Bloomberg in Perfil. Bolsonaro absorbs most of that “anti-PT” (Workers Party) vote, along with Evangelicals and the agricultural sector. His right-wing rhetoric is divisive in itself, as he’s used homophobic and anti-feminist language, projecting a “macho man” image that alienates certain sectors of society. Thus, both Lula and Bolsonaro have repulsive qualities in substantial portions of the electorate.
There’s also an important ideological division in the country when it comes to how the economy should be run. Lula represents a more interventionist model of populist capitalism that worked during the heyday of the commodities super-cycle of the 2000s, fueled by Chinese demand. He greatly increased social spending and pushed for the expansion of government owned companies like Petrobras. He’s sought to show himself as a moderate, teaming up with a former political opponent in the presidential ticket, Geraldo Alckim, a figure of the center-right, and could pick fromer Brazilian Central Bank President Henrique Meirelles for the Economy Ministry. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has been a strong proponent of laissez faire economics, espoused by Paulo Guedes, his University of Chicago-trained Economy Minister. This pro-market stance includes the idea of further privatizing state owned companies, including Petrobras. And a hard-line public stance against corruption, even if his family is being investigated for improprieties.
Thus, Brazilians will go to the polls politically exhausted and deeply divided. Lula has a better chance of coming out the victor, but Bolsonaro could still pull a proverbial rabbit out of the hat.