A Test for Democracy: Brazilian Presidential Elections

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Royal Caribbean Group; Former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil (2002–2004), Venezuela (2000–2002), Bolivia (1998–2000), and the Dominican Republic (1994–1997); CFR Member

Academic Director, Brazilian Center for International Relations (CEBRI); Associate Professor, Institute of International Relations, University of São Paulo

Editor in Chief, Americas Quarterly


Managing Partner, McLarty Associates; Former Director for Brazil and the Southern Cone, Office of the United States Trade Representative (1997–2000); CFR Member

Ahead of the October 30 runoff, our panelists discuss Brazil’s presidential elections, the implications for Brazilian democracy, and how the results will affect relations with the United States.


HOCK: Great. Thank you a lot, Kayla.

Welcome to today’s CFR meeting. Our topic for today, “A Test for Democracy: Brazilian Presidential Elections.” I’m Kellie Meiman Hock from McLarty Associates. I’ll be your presider today. And thank you to all of our members for joining.

We have a terrific panel today. We’ve got four-time former ambassador, including to Brazil, Donna Hrinak, who’s currently a senior vice president at Royal Caribbean. We’ve got Feliciano de Sá Guimarães, who is the academic director at CEBRI—I always think of CEBRI as kind of the Brazilian CFR, if you will. And then playing clean up, Brian Winter, who is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly.

So, Donna, I thought I would start with you. I know that the four of us think a lot about Brazil and we’re a little bit in the weeds. But I thought that you might just set the scene for us. Where are we in this race? And what is at stake?

HRINAK: OK. Thanks, Kellie, and good afternoon to fellow panelists and all the members.

So without recapping forty years of Brazilian democratic political history, let me try to describe how we got to where we are. And I should preface all of this with saying, you can’t make this stuff up. So Luiz Inácio da Silva, universally known by the nickname he prefers, Lula, was first elected president of Brazil in 2002, on his fourth attempt. And he was successful in great measure because he convinced the Brazilian elite, particularly the business class, that he was no longer the 1970s radical leftist labor union leader but had moderated his views. And in particular, that a government managed by his PT, the Worker’s Party, would establish a fiscally responsible policy that they would work well with the private sector, and they would welcome foreign investment.

And through two terms, Lula delivered on those promises. And, importantly, he did so without betraying his longstanding base of support among Brazil’s lower classes—the poor, the marginalized. He did have the good fortune of becoming president during a global commodities boom that gave his government an abundance of resources with which to work. Still, during 2002 campaign at the embassy, we used to say that if Lula were to combine responsible economic management with meaningful initiatives to reduce poverty and inequality, he would send a powerful message throughout the hemisphere. And for eight years, he did.

Lula was still wildly popular when he left office. He had about an 80 percent approval rating. But Brazilian presidents cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. So for the 2012 election he handpicked a successor, his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, who would not be a threat to him for leadership within the PT, but who had never run for public office and who was faced with having to continue to satisfy those high expectations that Lula had created, just as the commodities boom goes bust. A recession sets in. Dilma’s well-known for not taking advice from anyone, so she makes few friends. And she is eventually impeached, and her very unpopular vice president, not of the PT by the way, takes over.

At the same time, police begin investigating the so-called car wash, Lava Jato, corruption scandal. Many twists and turns here. But Lula gets caught up in the scandal and spends close to 600 days in jail before his conviction is overturned on a technicality. Those 600 days include the 2018 presidential campaign. So he’s ineligible to run then. There is a PT candidate in the second round, Fernando Haddad. He runs up against a very unexpected opponent in the current president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro’s a graduate of the military academy, a former army captain who turned politician, served on the Rio de Janeiro City Council and in Congress, where he's best known for praising the military dictatorship, which was in place from 1964 to ’85, and for insulting just about everybody else—women, LGBTQ community, Afro-Brazilians. He eventually comes to be called the Brazilian Trump, and he has done nothing to suggest that that moniker is incorrect. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and his insistence that he is a defender of family values, however, did win over one important constituency, Evangelical Christians, an increasingly influential building block in Brazil.

I would say that Bolsonaro’s presidency has been characterized in particular by three actions, or perhaps inactions. The placing of military officers in positions throughout the government in a way that has been unprecedented since the dictatorship. His refusal to take the COVID pandemic seriously, which resulted in 680,000 deaths, the second-highest number in the world. And his disregard for the importance of the Amazon to the health of the climate in Brazil and the world.

And so here we are, with two candidates, both of whom have serious flaws but each of whom has a very different vision for Brazil. Some of you may remember when a guy name David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana against former Governor Edwin Edwards, who was widely alleged to be corrupt and was later indicted. And during that campaign, people in Louisiana who just couldn’t believe that these were their two choices had bumper stickers that read, “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important.” That’s the way some people in Brazil are feeling today. That’s it.

HOCK: Donna, thanks for setting that stage. And, Feliciano, I’m going to pivot to you, because in the first round—and we’re sympathetic to this in the United States. We have our own issues here. The polls were all wrong. And one of my favorite Brazilian podcasts, POV, stated last week that a poll is nothing but a snapshot in the movie that is an election. Why were the snapshots wrong? What are the risks in a country like Brazil, if you have the expectations around what an election might be so disconnected from what that election ends up being?

Guimarães: Thank you. Thank you, Kellie. Thank you, the CFR, for an invitation. And it’s a pleasure to be here with my fellow panelists.

So this is the $1 million question in Brazil now, why did they—what was wrong with the polls, right? So if we recap a little bit, like, Brazil, just like any democracy, has multiple polling agencies. I would say that there are fourteen leading poll agencies in Brazil nowadays. If you look at the Estadão newspaper system to calculate the tracking poll, it uses the fourteen most important poll agency. But the two most important ones are Datafolha, from the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, and Ipec, which is a traditional—he changed the name, but it’s a traditional poll agency in Brazil.

So these are the two most important poll agency. Both use face-to-face techniques on their service. They started for the 2022 election at the beginning of the year with samples of approximately two thousand respondents. They increased the sampling to twelve thousand respondents two days before the first round. And as we know from survey analysis—I’ve been working with survey analysis for quite some time, the bigger the sample the smaller the margin of error. And two days before the election, they officially claimed to have a 2.5 margin of error. But based on the twelve thousand respondent samples that both companies had, the actually margin of error should be less than 1.5 percent.

But they still under-capture Bolsonaro voters by almost ten points—ten points, although they accurately capture Lula’s voters. On the other hand, telephone-based and internet-based surveys were slightly more accurate in Brazil, but not for good reasons. Telephone-based surveys traditionally increase voting results from more affluent and urban classes, which favors Bolsonaro. Approximately 50 percent of Brazilians do not have steady access to the internet or phone connections. These poll agencies try to compensate this problem by forcibly increasing the number of poor voters in their samples, but they have not yet found a proper and efficient system to fix such a problem. When one looks at their final numbers, however, one sees a slightly more accurate result. But they still fail to point out Bolsonaro’s surprising rise in election week.

So what happened to the polls? I have here—I’ll try to be brief—five hypotheses of what happened. Two of them you will see are probably the most likely ones. First, in this election exit-polls did not occur. Poll agencies claimed that exit polls are becoming too expensive for them. They also claim that the vote count made by the electoral court in Brazil is just too fast and too efficient to make the exit polls worthwhile. So the last polling day was Friday, or two days before the voting on Sunday. In this scenario, the main poll agencies, both Datafolha and Ipec, did not fully capture the strategic vote toward Bolsonaro from Saturday to Sunday.

This hypothesis suggests that Bolsonaro’s supporters managed to convince the indecisive voters by social pressure on Sunday, or that some right-wing voters hidden within Ciro Gomes and Simone Tebet’s vote intentions—the two other candidates—were scared of Lula’s victory in the first round and migrated to Bolsonaro while walking to the polls. So in my opinion, this is a possible and likely scenario. I saw that in my neighborhood when I went voting on Sunday. A lot of people wearing a yellow jersey, which is sign of Bolsonaro supporter, in the polling station, right? The social pressure over other voters.

The second hypothesis is sampling error due to a lack of updated national surveys. So the Bolsonaro administration purposefully delayed the IBGE—IBGE is the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics that is responsible for a national census—a national census that should have happened last year. There is no doubt that the president intervened on IBGE to stall any attempt to measure the increased poverty and other social—and other social indicators accurately. The political interference affected IBGE’s capability to produce a more trustworthy national census for 2022.

However, IBGE also produces the PNAD, which is a national survey of households, which is a much smaller survey, to update data on multiple social and economic criteria. Some poll agencies, such as Datafolha and Ipec, still use the last census—national census of 2010 in their sampling, while the Quaest and others—Quaest is a very important poll agency now—used the most recent PNAD. Although the sampling might have affected polling results, it is unlikely that this factor alone would make poll agencies produce an error of more than ten points toward Bolsonaro.

So the third hypothesis called the secluded voter effect. So the rising far-right in the West has created a type of right-wing voter that avoids answering polls. They reject any direction of mainstream media. They believe poll agencies are part of a system and represent their enemies—their political enemies. Therefore, a good, conservative right-winger voter should never disclose information to such companies. Unfortunately, no studies in Brazil can directly measure such voters’ effect, although I would consider it a factor for future research. In any case, it is impossible as of now to know the size of the secluded voter effect.

The fourth hypothesis is the hidden voter effect. Some analysts speculated that voters were afraid of disclosing their voting preference due to possible social retaliation from their bosses, family members, or friends. For some time, analysts in Brazil considered this hypothesis seriously. And they usually point out that Bolsonaro’s voters were afraid of disclosing their vote more often than Lula voters.

However, Felipe Nunes, which is the director of Quaest—this is a polling agency that is becoming very famous in Brazil now—have shown that on contrary—he made a series of survey experiments that can measure hidden vote effect. On the contrary, Lula’s voters were more afraid of opening up their preference than Bolsonaro’s voters. It’s more difficult for Lula voters—voters of Lula to defend their political preferences when family members or friends point out Lula’s corruption scandals of the past. So in this sense, the hidden voter effect worked in favor or Lula and did not affect Bolsonaro’s surprising result.

So now I go to the last, and I think the most important and most valid hypothesis of why the polls failed to measure accurately Bolsonaro’s votes, which is the valid votes versus voter disposition hypothesis. I think it makes sense, because I’m going to use the U.S. as an example to understand Brazil. So in this hypothesis, the mistake of most analysts is to compare valid votes, which is a category that the electoral court uses to validate the victory, the victor, the candidate that wins, to vote intentions. You can’t compare valid votes to vote intentions.

Comparing the proportion of valid votes and vote intention is wrong. It’s a wrong method because the universe of voters is not the same. Poll agency mainly calculate voting disposition and voter intention, and not actual valid votes. So the universe of polls is the totality of voters, without excluding abstention. And that’s important. Brazil’s mandatory voting system produces a very high turnout that always gravitates around 80 precent. However, the Brazil electoral court considers only valid votes to count results and excludes no and blank votes. In this election, noes and blanks, when you go to the poll agency, you can press an X or you can type a wrong number. That goes noes. Or you have a specific button for blank vote, if you don’t want to vote for either candidate.

And it obviously does not count abstention, which accounted for 29 percent of the voters in the first round. Brazil, as I said, 20 percent abstention is average. This year it was one percent higher than the average. So almost the same. In other words, there is likely the abstention was more heavily concentrated among Lula’s voters, which tilted the final results towards Bolsonaro. So Brazilian agencies are not used to calculate what is very common in the United States, the likely voters, which is a typical category with no mandatory systems.

So Quaest, I was just reading like ten minutes ago—fifteen minutes ago I was waiting for the last results that came out Quaest agency, which is the first poll agency in Brazil that is calculating likely voters. And I think it’s a very important category for us to keep in mind until the October 30th, the runoff. So they published their first-ever analysis with likely voters. And the results is 53 percent for Lula and 47 percent for Bolsonaro. So if you take into consideration a 2.5 margin of error, they absolutely tie. So in my opinion, the valid votes versus voter disposition hypothesis is crucial to consider in the runoff.

In sum, I believe that hypothesis number one, which is lack of exit polls—which is the first time we ever had this lack of exit polls—and hypothesis number five, which is the abstention heavily concentrated among Lula voters, accounted for what we can call the polls—the polls errors in Brazil. But based on this hypothesis, I can only say that it’s absolutely impossible to predict who will win on October 30th in Brazil. So thank you. I give the word back to you, Kellie.

HOCK: Feliciano, thank you for that. And I feel like I wasted that time that I spent this morning looking at the polls after hearing your presentation.

But I’ll to Brian. Brian, you’ve done some really interesting analysis of late on the rise of conservative in Brazil, what that means. And I think it’s important for our members to highlight that we’re seeing this not just at the presidential level. The congressional results were very strong, conservatives, governorships were very strong for conservatives. And you may or may not agree with this thesis, Brian, and feel free to poke holes in it, but it seems to me that the, you know, the Congress—at least in Bolsonaro 1.0—played a fairly important role in kind of, you know, keeping Bolsonaro on track from an institutional standpoint.

If you’ve got a Bolsonaro—we’re not sure if he’s going to win—as president, and you’ve got a more conservative Congress, does that dynamic dissipate? And if you’ve got a more conservative Congress and you’ve got a Lula, how does he govern? I would pose all of those questions to you. A very easy one.

WINTER: Only the easy ones. Yeah, that’s right. (Laughs.) OK. Well, thank you, Kellie. Thank you, CFR, for the invitation. It’s also an honor to share this space with Donna and Feliciano.

To try to begin to answer this question, Kellie, I’d like to just tell a quick story about a twenty-six-year-old TikTok star in Brazil named Nikolas Ferreira. Nikolas has built a following of millions of people, on Instagram also, by lashing out against what he calls, “the communist indoctrination” at his university. He’s an interesting character. He was raised in a favela in Belo Horizonte, which is a big city in Brazil’s southeast. He said that he was mocked by fellow students and even some teachers for his Evangelical Christian faith, which has led him to oppose abortion, sex before marriage, and what he describes as, I guess, the broader political decay of Brazil’s political class.

And to just read a short excerpt from a recent interview he gave, he said, “They want our Brazil,”—this is quoting him—he said, “They want our Brazil to become a Canada where there’s quality buses, quality schools, but there’s no morality, a society that is morally sick but economically rich. I see that as an inversion of values,” end-quote. Well, on October 2nd, in the first round of the election, Ferreira received 1.5 million votes and was elected to Brazil’s Congressional House of Deputies, with more votes than any other candidate nationwide for that chamber.

And this was part of a conservative wave that we saw ten days ago—or, I guess, eleven days ago. It was even stronger than many of us expected. I mean, I’ve been following Bolsonaro and Bolsonarismo for five years now, since 2017. And I think many people were caught off guard by the strength of this wave. And, look, it wasn’t enough for Bolsonaro to finish in first place but, Kellie, it was enough to substantially shift the political map in Brazil further to the right.

Bolsonaro allies will be the governors of the three most populous states. That’s Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Minas Gerais. Bolsonaro’s party will also be the largest in both chambers of Congress. Many of his former ministers will be holding key positions, including his former women’s affairs minister, Damares Alves, who is famous for saying boys should were blue and girls should wear pink. She was elected to the Senate for Distrito Federal, which is the capital in Brasilia.

And for me, you know, it was kind of definitive confirmation that this brand of politics, the culture wars, which does reflect—for an American audience especially, I think there are familiar elements in all of this—it really does resonate in Brazil. Some people, especially on the left, were hoping prior to the election that if Bolsonaro lost by ten points or more, which is what some of the polling that Feliciano mentioned—some of those polls were indicating the margin would be that big—that Bolsonaro would go down in history as kind of an accident, a consequence of the deep trauma that Donna described during the 2010s.

That’s over now. I don’t see how you can make that case. And there’s an alternative explanation that I still see in—especially in the Brazilian press—that Bolsonaro’s strength and that of the conservative movement as a whole is a result of anti-PT sentiment, that’s sentiment against the Worker’s Party, which is Lula’s party. I don’t think that’s true either, because if you look at these congressional and gubernatorial races, voters had several options available that were not just the PT that could have—you know, center, center-right, and so on. And in race after race, they pointed to the option on the menu that was the most conservative, the most Bolsonarista, and that’s the one that they chose.

So, you know, it’s clear that these issues like, quote/unquote, “gender ideology,” abortion—these are issues that really have captured the imagination of a substantial part of the electorate. I think it’s partly the reflection of a changing country. I believe Donna mentioned the growth of Evangelical Christianity, which has gone from 10 percent of the country in the 1980s to an estimated one-third today. It’s not just Evangelical Christians who make up Bolsonaro’s base. His coalition also includes agribusiness, the police and military, small business owners, and others. But at the end of the day, it really is the culture wars that animate the base.

So, Kellie, just to—in conclusion, you know, what does all this mean for Brazilian politics? I’d point to a couple of takeaways, based on the strength of this conservative wave that we saw on October 2nd. The first one is that Bolsonaro still could win this runoff on October 30th. I agree with Feliciano, I think it’s going to be close. I still think that Lula’s a slight favorite if you look at some of the electoral math between—behind what happened on October 2nd. But nobody knows for sure. I am not paying any attention to the polls, I’ve said that publicly, at this stage. I just don’t find them useful. But this is an energized conservative movement, and I wouldn’t underestimate it.

The second takeaway is the risk of a disputed result which, if I’m not mistaken, we haven’t really spoken about yet. And the title of this event is “A Test for Democracy.” And, look, many of us, myself included, have written at length about the risk of a—some call it a Brazilian January 6th following the election. That risk increases the closer the margin gets. I don’t know what the magic number is that constitutes a “safe” victory for Lula. Maybe four or five percentage points. Bolsonaro’s going to protest and say that there was fraud no matter what. The key question is whether key institutions, like the military, go with him. I was in Brazil three weeks ago. Bolsonaro voters, I can tell you—I went to a Bolsonaro rally and a Lula rally within twenty-four hours of each other. And I can tell you that both sides are convinced that they will win in a legitimate, free, and fair election.

And then finally, Kellie, the final takeaway, even if Lula does win, I think he will face a far more difficult operating environment than many people expected. This idea that, you know, by coming back to power he could somehow turn back the clock and go back to this magical period that Donna described back in the 2000s, when things really were quite good, it was always fanciful. But in an environment where both the Brazilian Congress and Brazilian society are so much more conservative than they were twenty years ago, I think it’s going to be really difficult for Lula to address problems like deforestation in the Amazon. Very difficult problem that you need a lot of political consensus and resources to address. As well as the enduring economic malaise that Brazil has been stuck in for the last ten years, or more.

So on that optimistic note, back to you.

HOCK: Well, I’d note, to make it even less optimistic perhaps, Brian, that the global economy is nowhere near what it was back then. The external environment is incredibly complicated. And upon that backdrop, Feliciano, my question to you is, given everything we’ve talked about here, how would a Lula govern? How would a Bolsonaro govern? You know, I think a lot of us do remember—and it was the heyday, right? China was buying everything that wasn’t nailed down, the Brazilian economy was roaring, you know, you had Christ on the cover of the Economist taking off like a rocket, there in Rio.

You know, Brazil was a player on the global stage. Lula really reveled in that role. If he is to win, and particularly if he’s to win, you know, with a slight margin—one of those scenarios that Brian talked through, will he be that global player that he was before? Or does he need to stay home, stick to his knitting, realize that he’s got a tough congressional situation, and try to govern the best he can? And then on the flipside of that, you know, how would another term of God, homeland, and country look from the Bolsonaro perspective?

Guimarães: Thank you, Kellie. These are very difficult questions. I’m not even close to be able to answer them—to have a very good answer for all of them. But I think from what I read and study about Brazilian political system, I think there are some reasons—I mean, contrary to Brian’s view, I think there’s some reasons to be a little bit optimistic if Lula wins, even if he wins by a very small margin. I think there are four reasons behind that, and yet there still three big challenges for the government. And I think I should share that with our members.

First, Lula is probably the most skillful Brazilian politician nowadays, right? Lula has many qualities and many defects, but I believe two of them are essentials in Brazilian politics. First, he possesses an immense charisma that includes people, which is different from Bolsonaro. He includes politicians. Second, he loves to talk to people who do not vote for him. He truly believes that his personal charm, it will win people over. Unfortunately, this sort of skill was lacking in Dilma, and Bolsonaro prefers to quarrel with antagonists. So Lula has a type of skills that is very important in Brazilian politics that is different from Bolsonaro, different from Dilma, but is far from being enough to guarantee a steady and smooth government.

But there are other reasons. Despite recent reforms and executive orders—remember, in Brazil we have an executive order that is more powerful than American executive—it was more or less inspired by the American executive order procedure, but it’s way more powerful. It can reach the entire population. There is still—and this executive power has been reformed, and diminished in its powers over time, since the return to democracy. But there is still an immense power concentration in the hands of the president, both legal, symbolic, and fiscal.

The president is the center of the political system, and he has more than thirty ministries and hundreds of state agencies positions to offer in exchange for political support in both the house and the Senate. So even if Lula wins by a small margin, the executive power can create large political coalitions. And I think Lula will be able to create a large—not as large as he created in his second mandate. It was probably the largest political coalition ever in Brazilian history. But it will be larger than Bolsonaro, or at the same size as the current Bolsonaro coalition.

So the third reason I think is a reason for being a little bit more optimistic is the Worker’s Party has—the Worker’s Party has learned two lessons from the past. First, it has learned that it cannot give the position of a minister to a coalition party, but at the same time retaining most of that administrative key position of that same ministry. So it cannot give the minister—the minister’s going to be from the party so-and-so, but the rest of the ministry administration will be filled with Worker’s Party members.

So the Worker’s Party did that the entire first mandate of Lula, and changed a little bit in the second administration. It returned to its type of business during Dilma period, and that was flawed from its inception because there was an imbalance between the coalition in the house and the Senate and the power distribution within the ministries. So the Worker’s Party has to hand out the ministry entirely to the party coalition, to the coalition—to the party within that coalition.

Second, it has also learned the distribution of ministry position should—as I said—should symmetrically reproduce the power distribution within the house and the Senate. So in this sense, Lula has no alternative but to migrate to the center of the political spectrum. He cannot make a left-wing government. It will be very, very difficult for him. He will have to come up with a coalition that is half leftists and half center-right. He has no alternative in that. It was difficult for him to do that in the past. Now he has no alternative. And I think the Worker’s Party has learned both these lessons and will try to change. So Lula advisees are fully aware of these two things.

The fourth reason is the number—and actually I think it’s an important one because it’s a structural change in Brazilian political system. The number of effected political parties in the Congress has decreased. I will explain what that means. It has been shown that a number of parties that actually have say in the house has decreased from 60.46 to 9.27. The 2017 electoral threshold amendment to the constitution tremendously affected the current party’s concentration—the current party system who served in the country. In effect, political parties can access campaign public funding and free TV time. Without those two instruments at hand, political parties tend to mingle over time. Brazil used to have the most fragmented party system in the world. And now it’s average, right?

In addition to the 2017 amendment, it made it harder for small parties to reach the 2 percent threshold in electoral—you have to reach 2 percent of the voters to be able to get these two benefit, right? So having fewer parties to negotiate in the Congress will likely give the next president more leeway to pass legislation in governing Brazil, either Lula or Bolsonaro. However, the negative side effect of the new electoral threshold is increasing—is the increasing political polarization. As Brian mentioned, the Worker’s Party and the Liberal Party, which is the current—which is odd in U.S.; the Liberal Party is the far-right political party in Brazil, which is Bolsonaro’s party—are becoming Brazil’s two biggest political parties, by a large margin.

Now, if you—União Brasil, which is another political party, right-wing part, and the PP, which is the Progressive Party, that in Brazil is a right-wing party—eventually merge, as promised by the leadership, Brazil will have three dominant parties, something never seen since 1985. So to sum up, is that will be easier to negotiate with the house and the Senate with less political parties. And it will be easier to create a large political coalition. Whether this is going to be with Lula or Bolsonaro’s term, it will be easier for both of them. So in this sense, even if either one of them is winning for a small margin, they will—I think it will be easier for them to create a coalition large enough to pass amendments to the constitution. So you need 65 percent of the votes, both in the house and the Senate.

However, there are three significant challenges. And two of them Brian has already mentioned for Lula ahead of 2023. First, and I think this is the biggest challenge, actually, it’s immediate challenge. Which is Arthur Lira’s succession in the house, and also Rodrigo Pacheco’s succession in the Senate. Once elected, Lula priorities should be, and will be probably, to elect the new president of the house, Brazil’s second-most important political position. Lira’s succession will happen in the first weeks of February, when Congress resumes with its new elected members. So Lula will have—either Lula or Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro will support the reelection of Lira because Lira was elected by—with Bolsonaro’s support. If Lula wins, he will have from November until February to either elect his successor or convince Lira to change sides, if Lira has a strong hold in the house. In addition, the selection for the Senate was surprising and positive for Bolsonaro, like Brian said. He elected all his ministers to the Senate, making the liberal party the biggest party in the Senate. So I think Senate will likely be Lula’s worst nightmare. And Rodrigo Pacheco, which is the current head of the—president of the Senate reelection or succession, will also be critical.

And finally, I think that another big challenge that Lula will face if he wins—and Brian mentioned in his presentation as well—is that we have to wait and see whether Bolsonaro’s ability to function as an organizer position in Brazil. Contrary to PSDB Party, which is Fernando Cardoso’s party that governed Brazil for eight years, Bolsonaro’s supporters have a centralized and hierarchical system of political support in which the charismatic leader sets the tone for debate. The big question in Brazil is whether Bolsonarismo can act cohesively in the opposition once out of the government or not.

The Brazilian tradition is one of losing political traction once in the opposition. Bolsonaro may—even Bolsonaro may flee the country to avoid prison in 2023. He has more than fifty lawsuits against him. Once he is not president anymore, a judge of first degree can send him to jail. Right away, immediately, to jail. He will appeal, but he will probably appeal from the jail—from jail. So I doubt that Bolsonaro is as courageous as Lula and face prison in Brazil. He will likely flee the country. I want to see which country will accept Bolsonaro in political asylum for example.

So if this is the case, it will be easier for Lula to govern, because Bolsonarismo as a political movement might lose its political center and power and cohesion once in opposition. But I might be totally wrong. Maybe Brian is—Brian’s analysis is more accurate in the way that he says that we’re seeing in Brazil—I definitely agree, we’re seeing a long-term political movement in Brazil. I’m just not sure about how cohesive they are, once they don’t have executive power in their hands. So thank you. I cannot say much about Bolsonaro’s future administration because I don’t want to think about it very much. So I hand back to you, Kellie. Thank you very much.

HOCK: That’s fair enough. I do understand that Minister Guedes has said he would stay on, so I think that’s what made the market so happy the Monday after the election, in part. But I think one thing that stood out to me, Feliciano, in your comments is you talked about institutions the whole time, right? And so I think that is the big question that a lot of us are thinking about, is, you know, if it is a tight race, as Brian was saying, how will the institutions hold up? So I thought that was—that was interesting in what you had to say.

Donna, I’m going to wrap it up with you and, Brian, I’m going to give you a rebuttal. Back when Donna Hrinak was Ambassador Hrinak in Brasilia, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was running for president and won the first time—he obviously ran four times previous to that—the markets were agitated. I think that’s a diplomatic way to put it. I think it would be more accurate to say the markets were freaking out. And one Ambassador Hrinak, I think, was a voice of calm. Brazil would be OK. What does Donna say about this election? Will Brazil be OK?

HRINAK: Yeah, I’m going to come down firmly in the middle between optimism and pessimism. Brazil will be OK, but Brazil will once again fail to fulfil the potential it has, I think, to really lead, and to lead on some critical global issues. And climate change being the foremost of those. I think that if we get Bolsonaro—and, Feliciano, to say I don’t want to think about it—but, I mean, we’ll get more of the same. I think we’ll get lots more of what we’ve seen, and that will be, you know, sort of more disregard for climate and environmental issues. I think we’ll see more polarization in the country. And I think we’ll see more undermining of democracy. And I was struck by what the Economist said about the real difference between Lula and Bolsonaro is that Lula is a democrat, small D, and Bolsonaro is not. And I think we would see more of that in the new Bolsonaro administration.

You know, as far as—we talked about the military—what the military action would be. And I have to say, this is not the first time we were faced with that question. Back in 2002, we also considered what the military might do if Lula were to win. And we also were sending a very important message at that time about what the U.S. reaction would be. No winks, no nods. You know, whoever wins, gets the most vote, we’re going to recognize as the president of Brazil. I think that the embassy, I’m sure, is making those same kinds of contacts now and sending that same kind of message.

International support is going to be important to Lula. But the international community is fickle. It’s got a lot on its plate right now, starting with the United States. And I’m afraid the international community doesn’t think that what happens in Brazil is as important in the immediate or short term as it—as they need to. And so the kind of international support that Lula might hope to be able to rely on, I think just may not be there, given everything else that’s happening.

I do think Lula will have a harder time—and in this I agree with Brian—I do think he will have a harder time governing. He is the most skilled politician in Brazil at reasoning, at arguing, at convincing people. I’m not sure that the Bolsonaro supporters can be reasoned with on many of these issues. And so I think those skills may not come—may not be as handy as they have been in Lula’s past. Contrary to Brian’s failure to—or saying he won’t make a prediction, and Feliciano saying he only can contemplate one outcome, I talked to a banker in Brazil this week who, by the way, predicted a very narrow margin victory for Lula, who said: We don’t have to worry. If Lula gets elected, Congress will be a break on his actions. And if Bolsonaro gets elected, this supreme court will be the break on his actions. There’s a lot that we could unpack right in that statement, but I’ll leave it there.

HOCK: Donna, thank you. Brian, we’re going to give you the last word. Our colleges at CFR have put in the chat how to pose a question to our panelists. We’ve got a couple in the queue. I encourage you to do that. But, Brian, we’ll give the last word before we turn it to member questions.

WINTER: I’ll be brief, because I know we want to get to the questions from people present. On the subject of—just quickly, a specific point on the subject of Lula’s ability to govern. I agree that he is the most talented politician of his generation. That said, I do not know how he will govern with this Congress, because the tools that were available to him in the 2000s will not be available this time around. And let’s—let me be really blunt here. Part of what held together Lula’s coalition back in the 2000s was corruption. We know this through the Mensalão scandal, and everything that was investigated from that, as well as some of the other schemes that were later uncovered. He will be, this time around, under tremendous scrutiny because of the past of his party and his own corruption conviction, which of course was thrown out.

So I believe—I mean, I—again, I have the utmost respect for Lula’s ability to articulate, to dialogue. I think that what Feliciano said is absolutely correct. But, you know, Bolsonaro—how has Bolsonaro governed? Bolsonaro has governed through a legalized practice that is not that different, at the end of the day, from what existed in the Brazil in the 2000s, the so-called secret budget, orçamento secreto, in which they have handed over an enormous percentage of discretionary spending to individual members of Congress to do with what they see fit. We polite call that—in the United States—we call that pork barrel spending. I’m not even sure Lula will be able to do that. So I don’t know how he’s going to get things done and build congressional support, if he is elected.

To the philosophical point, though, about whether—you know, sort of whither Brazil, that, Kellie, that you asked and Donna addressed, I—you know, I’ve been following Brazil for twenty years. And I’m forty-four years old. And I think that those of us who came to Brazil in the 2000s, especially the late 2000s, became intoxicated by this idea of a Brazil that would be transformed into something fundamentally different. And you mentioned the Economist cover, and everything else. And I—you know, I think that Brazil had enormous possibilities. I also think that the more sober version of that, the sort of the older me who has been watching this for a while now, thinks that Brazil will continue to grow and do OK, and be fundamentally the same Brazil that it is today, probably for the duration of my professional lifetime.

And that is different from what I thought ten years ago. It was, like, wow, we’re seeing this country that’s going to become something totally different. More middle class and maybe even reach developed world status, and everything like that. I am in the process of trying to, I suppose at some level, come to grips with the fact that it will be the same. And that’s OK. I mean, that’s what—that’s what happens with most countries over time, is they don’t fundamental transform. I wouldn’t put that possibility off the table, but as I look at the political scenario now for the next four years, no matter who wins, I think that this dream of, you know, a real transformation remains on hold.

HOCK: Brian, we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much.

Kayla, can we go to the member questions, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Beatrice Rangel.

Q: Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my question.

My question is to Guimarães. What do you think—how important will be the anti-incumbent sentiment that is predominant in everywhere in Latin America in these elections? Because everywhere you go in Latin America, it is not a question of whether they are right or left, they just want to get rid of the incumbent. Bolsonaro is an incumbent. So at the end of the day, do you think this is going to carry a lot of weight or it’s going to be insignificant?

HOCK: Beatrice, thanks for that question. Who would like to take it?

GUIMARÃES: I can. Should I answer right away or wait for more questions?

HOCK: Go for it. It’s all yours.

GUIMARÃES: Thank you very much for the question, Beatrice. It’s a very good question.

This is something that I’ve been struggling with for years now. As you said, when we study politics, political systems in general, we learn that incumbents have more chances of winning reelection, because they control the political system, they control the agenda, they have all the instruments, so they tend to be reelected. And in Latin America in the last twenty years or less, it has not been the case so much. So there is a big discussion in Brazil in political science of why is that happening.

So if you look at the—for city halls for mayors and for gubernatorial elections in Brazil, there is a mixed results in that regards. In some levels, incumbents are winning more than the opposition and in some other levels incumbents are not winning as much. But in the federal level, in the national level, this is something to be seen. We cannot ever forget that Bolsonaro lost. He is the president. He got 43 percent of the valid votes. All the polls were saying that he had 36 percent of the valid votes. Fifty-two percent—an average 50 percent of Brazilians do not trust him. They think his government is a bad government. His approval rate is very, very low. So he has all the instruments to lose. He might even win by a small margin, but he has everything on his side to lose.

And this is a common problem in Brazil. If you believe Lula wins on October 30th, he will face the same problem, which is the lack of capacity of incumbents to convince people that they should be reelected, right? In the case of Lula, it relies a lot on his economic policy, but also the international environment that allowed him to—Brazil to grow very fast. He left office with approval rating of 80 percent, which is unseen in Brazil. He will not—unlikely that he will repeat that. It’s almost impossible that he will repeat that in the next four years. And Bolsonaro didn’t repeat that. What Bolsonaristas say is that if it wasn’t for the pandemic, they would have won. That’s—there is something there. I would understand that. But still, we’ll never know.

So the power—that’s the key question. How far goes the power of the incumbent in Brazil? One thing is to govern. And I think they have all the instruments to govern and not to be impeached. Again, the case of Dilma was an odd scenario. But it will not be the same to be reelected in the case of the national government. So thank you.

HOCK: Brian, any comments, or Donna? Or should we go to the next question. Great, Kayla, do you have the next question for us?

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jennifer McCoy.

HOCK: Great, Jennifer.

Q: Hi. Hi, thanks.

Yeah, I’m reminded of Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela being reelected in a similar situation, after presiding over a boon, then presiding over a bust, and crashing and burning. Do you think that the population will have similar kind of unrealistic expectations for Lula? And related to what Brian just said, Lula’s lack of ability to use the secret budget in the same way to build a coalition—I’m a little confused by that. As I understand it, the secret budget is even larger now, and so the president really only has 60 percent of the budget left for his discretion. And why would—why would it be harder to use that now, or why would that not help him govern?

HOCK: Brian, since you raised that point maybe you can kick us off. And, Donna, since you were ambassador in Venezuela, if you have—as well as Brazil—if you have any follow-up comments, we’d love to hear them after Brian.

WINTER: Yeah, quick comments on both questions. I mean, my point is that because of Lula’s past, and because of the history of judicial investigations against both him and his party, I think that they will be held essentially to a higher standard in terms of governance and transparency than Bolsonaro is. And so it’s true that Bolsonaro is using this—you know, has greatly expanded the use of this secret budget as a way to stitch together a coalition in Congress. It’s not clear to me that Lula would be able to do the same if he’s elected, because there will be protests against that.

Now, to the broader question of expectations in Brazil, this is ultimately a question for the person on the ground, so I would defer to Feliciano. I would say, though, that this is a question that has interested me a lot. I wrote a big profile of Lula for Foreign Affairs over the summer that looked directly at this question, of will Lula, if he’s reelected, fall victim to the same cycle of high expectations that doomed previous presidents who presided over commodities booms and then either met with disappointment or disaster? You mentioned Carlos Andrés Pérez. I also mentioned in the article Juan Perón, who of course made a disastrous comeback in the 1970s. And even some of the figures from the recent commodities boons, such as Cristina Kirchner and then Alvaro Uribe, who himself did not come back but he did elect a successor. Things didn’t go that well, at least in some way, in terms of his popularity.

My personal view, based on conversations with a lot of Brazilians, is that expectations are actually in a pretty reasonable place as far as what Lula will and won’t be able to do. I haven’t heard anybody saying, oh, we think it’s going to go back to being the way it was. What I hear is a much more subdued zeitgeist of people saying—even saying, I don’t even really like Lula, but he’s better than what’s there. You know, we saw the continued maturing of democratic institutions under his rule, and things—and there seemed to be a certain stability in the country, despite the problems that he had. So I—you know, we’ll see once he gets elected. I think he’s going to—if he does get elected. I think he’s going to have such a tough time, for all the reasons I’ve said. But expectations strike me as being in a pretty reasonable place.

HOCK: Donna, any follow up?

HRINAK: Yeah, so I agree with that. I do think expectations are fairly reasonable. I also think they were not unreasonable when Carlos Andrés was reelected, but he managed to make a big mistake in the first days of his administration, and that just sort of set the tone for the whole Carlos Andrés two. And Jennifer and I remember that together. I also have to say, I think, you know, when you look at what’s happened in Venezuela since then, compared to Brazil, the democratic vocation in Brazil among the Brazilian people is so much stronger, I think. And so I wouldn’t expect to have that kind of so unraveling of the commitment to—certainly not to democracy, but to the man that they have elected, regardless of who that is.

I want to say one thing, commenting on Brian’s loss of his illusions about Brazil’s greatness in the world. And I have to say, I still think Brazil has and will—has the ability to and someday will play a greater role in the world and will have a stronger domestic base from which to do that, than they do now. But the one thing I have also been disillusioned on, Brian, is the idea that there will someday be a Brazil-U.S. strategic partnership. Because that—and I’ve seen some people say this is another opportunity for that now, unique moment. We’ve had unique moments in the past. It’s never happened. And I think if Brazil is going to do it, it’s going to do it on its own.

HOCK: Donna, thank you.

Kayla, can we go to the next question?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Shannon O’Neil.

Q: Hi, everyone. Thank you for this great panel.

And I want to actually just build a little bit on where you just left off, Donna, and also cognizant of your statement that the international community doesn’t have a ton of time for Brazil right now. But we know where Bolsonaro stands with the international community, but what does another Lula presidency look like on the world stage? I’d be interested in your thoughts this time around.

I mean, the last time around the BRICS was a big part of his, you know, agenda. He had some dalliances with Iran, negotiating certain things. You know, as you look at the big issues on the table today around the world, where would a new Lula government stand vis-à-vis Russia, vis-à-vis China? Does a change in environmental policy, climate change policy, reopen up, say, or unlock EU Mercosur trade agreements? Other opportunities around the world? Where do you see sort of Brazil on the world stage going under a third Lula term?

HOCK: And, Shannon, I’ll give you a shoutout for your new book on regionalism. And as a trade guy, I am thinking a lot about the trade aspects of that question that you just posed. You know, if it is Lula, what’s a Lula 3.0 as far as market opening, industrial policy? I think we’ve all noticed industrial policy is pretty popular everywhere, including right here in Washington, these days. But we’ll open up the floor to whoever would like to respond to Shannon’s good question.

Feliciano, please.

GUIMARÃES: Thank you. Thank you, Shannon, for a very good question. I think there are two ways of saying this. I mean, I think if you look at Lula’s first administration, the world was totally different, as we all said that. 2008 crisis, Lula came back, the whole discussion of BRICS and Brazil as an emerging power. So from Lula perspective, is that Brazil could play a more prominent international role and that Brazilian foreign policy should follow that prominent international role. So it was a more active foreign policy.

I think today Lula would not be able—even if Celso Amorim becomes the minister of foreign affairs, he will not be able to—of course, to design the same type of foreign policy. And from what I’ve been following in the campaign of Lula, they’re talking more about being—Brazil being a middle power, right? So a middle power, different from an emerging power, means that you have some influence in just a handful of subjects, a handful of issues. One of them is climate change. The other one is South American regional integration. The other one is maybe BRICS in itself, or if Brazil becomes a full member of the OECD some—Brazil will have some influence there, although a much minor influence then it could have had in the past.

So I think the Lula advisors are very well aware that Brazil cannot play the role it tried to play in the 2000s. So the middle—the foreign policy is likely to be what Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s foreign policy was, right? Foreign policy in which Brazil recognizes its place in South America, it recognizes its place that it has influence in just a handful of issues, but not in every aspect, where Brazil might even discuss the reform in the United Nations Security Council, but Brazil will not push hard for that because it will know at the end of the day it won’t be able to do any change. So I think this regard is that Lula will think Brazil in a smaller scale than they thought in 2010. And if they try to mimic what happened in 2010, then they are—they are definitely going to have serious problems in foreign policy. So I think that’s one aspect.

The other aspect is the rivalry between U.S. and China. This is key for Brazil’s foreign policy, and all the other countries in the world. I do think that Brazil tried to play a swing foreign policy. Brazil will not side with United States ever in any—most of the issues. And Brazil will not side with China either. Brazil will try to swing between the two whenever is possible, whenever it’s important to do so. So I think Brazil will hedge. That’s how we’ll say it. We create a foreign policy that avoids risks of taking sides. So it’s—and I agree with that.

I think it would be a terrible mistake for Brazil to side with United States, for example, in the war in Ukraine, or to side with Russia totally, although Brazil is more tilted toward Russia now. This is an example—for example, even if Lula wins, Brazil’s foreign policy towards the war in Ukraine won’t change much, because Brazil has to play this swing position between BRICS and the G-7, or BRICS and the OECD. So I think these are the two aspects that I like to talk about Brazil’s future foreign policy, if Lula wins, of course. Thank you.

HOCK: And I think with that, Kayla, it’s 3:00. We’ve hit the witching hour. I want to thank our terrific panelists. I want to thank our members for participating. I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation, perhaps after October 30th. Thank you so much.

GUIMARÃES: Thank you. Bye-bye.


Top Stories on CFR

United States

New U.S. Census Bureau data shows the United States importing more goods from Mexico than from China. Will the shift change the global trading landscape?



Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in Russia does not appear as ironclad as it once did. Liana Fix and Maria Snegovaya recommend that the United States prepare for potential leadership change in Moscow and develop response strategies with its allies to mitigate fallout.