Predictions of a Lula rout have not come true
If Lula supporters began the night with a confidence that their candidate could kill this election dead in the first round, they finished it daunted by the task now facing them. Lula won 48.4% of the vote against Bolsonaro’s 43.2%. In a normal election, a 5-point gap would be a solid lead to take into a second round (to be held on 30 October). But this has never been a normal election.
With Bolsonaro repeatedly threatening not to recognise the results should he lose, this became a plebiscite on democracy itself. That made it all the more important that the result be definitive, to avoid any violent litigation of the second-round results, which will inevitably be tighter. That hope is now gone. The next month will be brutal, with fears of intimidation and political violence — and the possibility of an attempted coup at the end of it.
The second abnormality is that pre-election polls were wrong. Make no mistake, the result was a shock; the Right was underestimated. In the final polls published before election day, Lula had 50-51% while Bolsonaro was at 36%-37% — and this was according to the two most respected institutes.
In the biggest electoral college of the country, São Paulo state, which accounts for around 20% of the electorate, polls had Lula winning by 9 points. He lost by 7 points. Down-ballot, Bolsonaro’s candidate won the senatorial race against a centrist former governor, while the president’s ally and former minister came in first in the governor’s race, upending the polls. There were similar stories across the country.
Why is this happening? Bolsonaro has been hostile to polling agencies, threatening to shut them down should he be re-elected. Did those intending to vote for him take a similar stance and refuse to speak to interviewers? Voting is mandatory but abstention still hit 20.9%, the highest in 24 years, so it is possible that pollsters misjudged who would actually vote. Alternatively, with the decennial census two years late, we still don’t have a good grasp on the composition of the country — particularly of the number of evangelicals who have become the key voter bloc on the Right.
In any case, Bolsonaro supporters certainly didn’t believe the polls, with many voicing disappointment in Telegram groups, despite overturning expectations. The president’s post-election press conference was relatively downbeat as well.
Maybe they shouldn’t be. The Rightist wave, rather than having abated, appears to have deepened. Bolsonarismo is here to stay.
For now, we know that if Lula wins as he is still expected to, he will have to confront an extremely hostile Congress and possibly the threat of impeachment from day one. One consolation is that no one other than Lula could have got themselves into this situation: Bolsonaro would have smashed anyone else.
But that is cold comfort: Brazil’s democrats, progressives and radicals are left relying on a 76-year-old former president who uniquely left office with 80% approval ratings. Since re-democratisation in the 80s, Brazil’s congress has been extremely fragmented, with most parties serving as vehicles for pork-spending. Lula’s PT party was one of the few ideological forces, along with the centre-Right PSDB. The latter has been demolished. Instead, Brazil now has a coherent, organised and powerful far-Right, in the form of the president’s PL — the largest in Congress.
In the final presidential debate of the first round, held last Thursday night, Lula said, “what I want to do is care for people.” It may be that in a society deeply distrustful of institutions and politicians, this sort of paternalism may simply not work anymore. Lula may be the last to pull it off.