Brazil two months out

As we noted last week, upcoming mid-term elections and the proceedings of the 6 January select committee have helped to keep election subversion in the news in the United States. But another big election in the Americas, a month before the US votes, also has the supporters of democracy worried.

Brazil goes to the polls on 2 October for the first round of its presidential election; if a runoff is required it will be held four weeks later, on 30 October. Based on the most recent opinion polling, the left-wing candidate, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has a good chance of a first-round victory. Failing that, hypothetical polls for the second round give him a huge lead, approaching 60-40, over right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

Those polls have been quite stable now for more than a year. And since Brazil has nothing like the electoral college to gum up the works, it looks as if the result is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Unless there is some major last-minute drama, Lula should win comfortably.

But that, of course, is not how Bolsonaro presents it. Taking his cue (in this as in much else) from Donald Trump, he insists that he is much more popular than his rival and that only large-scale election fraud will keep him from victory. And he has been making increasingly ominous threats of military intervention to enforce his view of what the ballots should say.

Both Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s fantasies are built on a genuine, if thin, substratum of truth. The US electoral system really is ramshackle and in desperate need of reform. And Brazil, as I pointed out a year ago, really does have a problem in the shape of electronic voting machines that do not produce a verifiable paper trail.

But it’s abundantly clear that neither man has any interest in clean electoral administration. In each case, the objective is to create enough doubt and confusion to justify some sort of extra-legal intervention to remain in office. Trump’s plans to that effect were clumsy and amateurish; Bolsonaro’s may be the same, but it would be dangerous to dismiss them for that reason.

Not very much attention has focused on the military’s role in Trump’s plans, although the topic comes up every now and then. America’s tradition of civilian control of the military is firmly entrenched; there was never much risk that it would be an active collaborator in the overthrow of democracy. Trump presumably counted on military support at some point, but only once his fraudulent legal tactics had laid the groundwork for it.

Brazil is quite different. It has a long record of military involvement in politics, with civilian government restored only in the mid-1980s. Bolsonaro has previously praised the military dictatorship and has a history of trying to tailor the armed forces to his liking. And Brazilian politics is played for high stakes: even more so than Trump, Bolsonaro may well believe that staying in office is his best protection against going to jail.

So while it’s plausible to think that a large part of Trumpism in America basically consists of trolling – of people indulging themselves with no thought of real-world consequences – that’s a more difficult act to sustain in Brazil. When Bolsonaro and his supporters attack the fundamental integrity of the electoral system they must at least know that they are playing with fire.

With all that said, Trump’s plans depended crucially on the quirks of the US electoral system and on the fact that the 2020 election was (somewhat unexpectedly) very close. A Brazilian election, by contrast, is a straightforward affair; the voting machines, despite their theoretical drawbacks, have an excellent record; and if Lula’s polls hold up, a margin of 15 points or more will not leave much room for argument.

Brazilian democracy has held up well over the last thirty years or so, and there is no particular reason to think that its generals are keen to deal themselves back into politics. And the right-wing leaders across the continent that have gone down to defeat in the last couple of years have all conceded and left office peacefully, whatever their pre-election bluster. It’s possible that Bolsonaro will do the same.


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