Ahead of Election Day, political polarization in Brazil is on the up and up.

Following the first electoral shift on October 2nd, the two presidential candidates who received the most votes, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers’ Party) and Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), will compete for the highest position in government on Sunday.

Jair Bolsonaro, who has been acting as the country’s President for the past four years, follows a right-leaning political agenda, arguing for the right to bear arms and the privatization of public institutions. The President is a protector of traditional values and speaks highly of the “traditional family.”

Jair Bolsonaro vs Lula: Political polarization in Brazil has reached an all-time high
Jair Bolsonaro [Foto: Fabio Rodrigues-Pozzebom/ Agência Brasil]

His opponent, former President Lula, relies on a leftist discourse, advocating for the reduction of poverty and promising a hunger-free Brazil where “food is never missing from the table.”

Lula is equally known for his social welfare programs, such as the Bolsa Família and the Minha Casa Minha Vida, as he is for his involvement in massive corruption scandals. The 2014 Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), a criminal investigation conducted by the Federal Police of Brazil’s Curitiba branch, accused Lula of stealing 80 million reais, approximately 15 million US dollars.

Lula was convicted in 2017 for corruption and money laundering and was imprisoned in April 2018, just before the 2018 Brazilian general elections. The Worker’s Party, at that time, announced him as their candidate, but the court ruled he was not allowed to run. The Worker’s Party then went with Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro won the election. 

Two years later, with Lula still in prison serving a 12-year corruption sentence, the Brazilian Supreme Court annulled his conviction after The Intercept in Brazil published leaked cellphone group messages between the magistrate who condemned him and the prosecutors. The highest level of the Brazilian judiciary ruled that Lula’s right to a fair trial had been compromised by a biased judge, Sergio Moro.

Lula vs Bolsanero: Ahead of Election Day, political polarization in Brazil is on the up and up
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, The Workers’ Party

“They did not imprison a man. They tried to kill an idea,” Lula said on his release from prison. 

Judge Moro then left his job and accepted Bolsonaro’s invitation to be the Minister of Justice. 

Shortly after, Moro left Bolsonaro’s government, accusing him of trying to interfere in the work of the Federal Police. Surprisingly, or not so much, Sergio Moro just got elected to the Senate and appeared alongside Bolsonaro in the last two debates acting as an advisor. 

When asked why he changed his mind and now supports Bolsonaro again, Moro said, “The important thing is that Worker’s Party corruption plan cannot become a reality again.” 

Lula repeatedly claimed that his arrest was a plan to force him out of the race from the 2018 elections, the same way Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment was, according to many, a parliamentary coup.

A whirlwind of years-long events can culminate now in Lula’s return. 

Lula’s past and political agenda combined with Bolsonaro’s policies and behaviors throughout his mandate, led to an extreme political polarization amongst the country’s population. 

Political polarization in Brazil

Political polarization in Brazil surpassed the global average of 28 countries. Political differences are now one of the main driving forces behind the ever-growing tensions in the nation. A study from UniRio reveals that political violence grew 335% in Brazil throughout the last three years.

According to a 2021 report by Ipsos titled “Cultural Wars,” political polarization in Brazil exceeds class and religious differences in terms of social tension. 8 in 10 Brazilians believe that political tension exists between people who defend different candidates.

Desfile cívico-militar do 7 de Setembro, que este ano comemora o Bicentenário (200 anos) da Independência do Brasil. [Foto: Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil]

In conversation with The Pavlovic Today, Monica Dias de Abreu, a 60 year old Brazilian stay-at-home mom emphasizes the increasing political polarization in the country. “People are either strongly anti-Bolsonaro or anti-Lula. It is hard to find someone who is ‘on the fence’ about who to vote for,” said Dias de Abreu. 

The stay-at-home mom strongly believes that the lack of a powerful third-party is partially responsible for this phenomenon. 

Rifles and Grenades

Only a week from the second electoral shift on October 30th, ex-federal deputy and Bolsonaro’s ally, Roberto Jefferson, attacked policemen who came to take him to a prison complex in Rio de Janeiro with rifles and grenades. 

Jefferson was under house arrest for “organized crime,” and after disrespecting house arrest measures, the minister of the Supreme Court, Alexandre de Moraes, determined the ex-deputy should return to close arrest. 

Lula’s electoral campaign used the incident to draw further support by linking Jefferson’s attack to Bolsonaro, calling the ex-deputy one of the president’s “main allies,” and listing the incident as part of Bolsonaro’s “political violence” campaign.  

Bolsonaro denied that he is connected to Jefferson, claiming that they “Don’t even have a picture together.” Soon after his announcement, images of the ex-deputy and the president together surfaced the internet. 

Roberto Jefferson and Bolsonaro [Photo credit: Palácio do Planalto/Divulgação]

In conversation with the daily newspaper Diário de Goiás, Ricardo Luigi Cuconati, PoolingData’s legal director, said Jefferson’s assault only “reinforces” political polarization. 

“From my analysis, I understand this emphasizes polarization even further. My point of view is that this reinforces people’s convictions on who they will cast their vote for,” said Cuconati.  

The Middle Way

According to the Supreme Electoral Court, Lula received 48.4% of the votes, and Boslonaro fell behind with 43.2%. No other candidate from a third party accumulated more than 5% of the votes. The results speak to the lack of third solid party competitors in the Brazilian political sphere. 

Arturo Venezuela, Barack Obama’s former political advisor, and Latin American politics specialist explained in an interview with BBC News Brazil, that the decline of a political middle ground is partially responsible for increased political polarization. 

Arturo Venezuela maintains that political polarization of this magnitude threatens Brazilian democracy. “In a certain way, there is the disappearance and fragmentation of a middle ground, where agreements would be made between sectors from the centre-right and centre-left,” said the political advisor.  

Voto de Lula [Foto: Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil]

In a piece for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, researchers Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue argue that “severe polarization damages all institutions essential to democracy.”
According to them, polarization on a presidential level allows for the abuse of executive powers.

They say that “polarization shatters informal but crucial norms of tolerance and moderation – like conceding peacefully after an electoral defeat,” which symbolizes a well-functioning democracy.

The latter is already happening in Brazil, where current president Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked the Brazilian voting system, calling it “unreliable.” He argues that electronic ballot boxes allow hackers to manipulate the results. There is no evidence in support of this claim.

Bolsonaro’s fake accusations have been a source of concern for Brazilians, as some fear that the president will not accept election results if Lula wins the second electoral shift.

Ultimately, the highly divided nature of Brazilian politics witnessed in the 2022 elections is harmful to all, regardless of political affiliation, since, at its essence, it is detrimental to democracy.

The solution is not Bolsonaro or Lula but the empowerment of a third party which would serve as a political middle ground in Brazil.


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