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One-Term President

Presidential elections in Brazil are 15 months away, but several recent polls show a grim picture for Brazil’s leader as he aspires for a second term in office.

Recent surveys are not looking good for President Jair Bolsonaro. That is because for the first time 54% of Brazilians polled favor his impeachment. His disapproval ratings have also recently risen to 51%, the highest level since he came to power. Meanwhile most Brazilians see him as being “dishonest, false, incompetent, unprepared, indecisive, authoritarian, and unintelligent,” and 70% of them believe there is evidence of corruption on his government. To make matters worse, a new poll revealed that 59% would not cast a ballot for him under any circumstance, while his archenemy, former President Luis Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, is predicted to win a runoff race in 2022 with 58% of the vote. 

Drawing straight from Donald Trump’s autocratic playbook, and with mounting low public opinions Bolsonaro has turned to his most ardent followers for adulation and unconditional love. However, instead of stadium-packed events like Trump, Bolsonaro prefers bike rides. Over the weekend, that is precisely what he did. Without wearing a mask—his signature pandemic look—and apparently still unvaccinated, Bolsonaro led a bike ride around the city of Porto Alegre, where he overwhelmingly won in 2018 and where he still finds strong support. In a desperate attempt to shift the spotlight from his sinking popularity he ended the parade with a speech defending a change in the voting system due to “widespread fraud.” "If [Lula] has 60%, according to [the polls], we are going to make the vote printed and auditable to see if he really wins in the opinion of the people," he proclaimed.

Just like his idol, the former American President Trump, his latest recourse has been an overt campaign to sow doubt in the electoral system as a path to reelection.

Just as Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the U.S. are baseless, Bolsonaro’s assertion of widespread voter fraud in Brazil is unfounded. In fact, since Brazil’s “electronic voting system” was adopted 25 years ago, the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE), which oversees and audits the entire electoral apparatus of the country, has never found any proven cheating. In fact, this system has made elections more secure, faster, and convenient, guaranteeing that some 147 million people have access to the ballot, especially important since voting is compulsory. As for the idea of having a printed ballot—not a bad concept—what is being falsely disseminated among Bolsonaristas (which is what his supporters call themselves) is that one’s vote is only valid if there’s a printed copy of their ballot at the end of the voting process. However, adding printers to the portable voting machines would be an expensive task and would likely make voting less accessible in the most remote areas of the country.

After Bolsonaro made his voter fraud allegations the TSE gave him 15 days to present evidence or information about fraud or irregularities in the 2018 elections. He still has not presented anything and has backtracked on his previous claims, saying, "[the ministers of the TSE] say that I don't have proof of fraud. You (the public) also don't have proof that they didn't happen. At the very least, that’s a tie. I'm looking for transparency, nothing more."

However, his “transparency” assertion, like the one the GOP has been proclaiming in the United States since Trump’s loss, is a clear attempt toput in check the credibility of the whole electoral apparatus in Brazil – a system that has been instrumental to the democratic process instituted in 1985 to mark the end the Dictatorial Military Regime that plagued the country for more than two decades.

Still using another Trumpian tactic, just a few days after backtracking from his voter fraud claims, Bolsonaro maintained that if the voting system continued the way it was, there would be problems and that he “may not accept the results."

Bolsonaro’s attacks on the election results serve him in several ways: first, it paves the way for the idea that the system is rigged if he doesn’t win, and second, it keeps his most militant supporters mobilized, since his political exploitation of the pandemic has been seemingly exhausted. Ironically, though, Bolsonaro is questioning the same electoral system by which he won in 2018, and by which he was reelected in five out of the six races while he served in Congress. Indeed, it is the same system used by anyone who has been in power for the last 25 years.

There is a third reason why Bolsonaro is questioning voting systems. He appears to believe it is the best way to beat any opponent he might face next year, especially former president Lula from the leftist Workers Party (PT) who is his strongest competitor in the race right now. In fact, Lula’s poll numbers started rising as soon as Brazil’s top court (STF) confirmed a decision to annul criminal convictions against him in April.

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In 2018 Lula was leading the polls against Bolsonaro. During the election campaign, however, he was found guilty of accepting bribes from construction companies in exchange for public contracts, for which he spent a year and a half behind bars. Lula’s conviction and arrest left the race in total disarray, which eventually led to a runoff where Bolsonaro won with 55% of the votes. The former president appealed and was released from prison last year in light of a series of exclusive stories by journalist Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept. Greenwald uncovered how former judge Sergio Moro, presiding over the so-called “Car Wash” criminal cases, was biased against Lula during the trial. A top court recently confirmed this assertion.

The STF’s April ruling reinstated Lula’s eligibility to run for office, although he has not been absolved of the alleged crimes and a lower court is now reviewing his case. Nonetheless, Lula announced his candidacy in May. The popular former leader, however, is not the only obstacle to Bolsonaro’s second term ambition next year. That’s because Bolsonaro is himself implicated in at least two corruption allegations.

First is the damning news from the ongoing Senate Committee Inquiry (CPI), or the CPI of Genocide as many Brazilians call it, of a massive corruption scandal inside the Health Ministry which I wrote about, related to the procurement of vaccines, including allegations of bribery, overpricing, pressure to buy a vaccine, among others. According to two whistleblowers Bolsonaro knew about some of these irregularities but brushed them off. As a result, the STF authorized the Attorney General’s Office to investigate Bolsonaro for dereliction of duty, which the Federal Police just confirmed.

Aside from this corruption allegation is the specter of a massive and avoidable loss of life hanging over Bolsonaro’s candidacy. When the CPI was first launched in late April about 400,000 Brazilians had died of COVID-19. Two months later there were more than 530,000 lives lost. Now, with the more transmissible Delta variant quickly spreading across the country, Brazil is expected to lead the world in COVID-related deaths by the end of August.

The second set of corruption allegations against Bolsonaro are renewed embezzlement charges that came back to haunt him and his family. A major news website published a series of stories in early July suggesting that while Bolsonaro was in Congress he commanded a scheme called rachadina (which roughly translates as “slit”), in which he allegedly hired family and friends to work as staff on his cabinet in exchange for a portion of their wages. This is not an uncommon practice amongst corrupt politicians in Brazil, and in fact, Bolsonaro’s son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro has been implicated in similar scandals in the past.

These two charges of misconduct are slowly eroding the president’s anti-corruption posturing, which had been his strongest argumentagainst Lula and the PT party in the months leading to his victory in 2018 and which he maintained throughout his presidency.

Bolsonaro’s allies, however, are trying to minimize the damage by calling the charges a “witch hunt” and by declaring the bad polls to be just “a reflection of the moment.” (Here again are echoes of Trump’s language and tactics.) They are betting that vaccinations will pick up later this year and turn the economy around.

One of the president’s champions is the Economy Minister Paulo Guedes who has been painting a rosy picture of economic recovery. Guedes’ predictions, however, are not shared by everyone. The former president of Brazil’s Central Bank believes that the economic woes worsened by the pandemic will persist through next year, and will include higher gasoline and energy prices, both which are contributing to a recent hike in inflation rates. Energy tariffs are soaring due to a devastating water crisis that is putting a strain on the country’s power grid. Also, the prices of basic necessities such as meat, eggs, sugar and vegetables have gone up. Even though the government revamped the Bolsa Familia, or the assistance payment program to the poor, from about $38 to $60/month, the program will not take effect until December. In the meantime, the country’s unemployment rate remains at a whopping 14.7%.

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In the face of these multiple challenges, can Bolsonaro fend off an election loss next year? It may be too early to say, but one thing is certain: Brazil’s leader is in uncharted political territory, which is not a good scenario for an incumbent. Nonetheless, what is most likely to be a decisive factor in next year’s election and give him a competitive edge against Lula or other rivals is a strong economy. But if the pandemic remains out of control, the economy will continue to deteriorate, and Bolsonaro will not garner enough support to stay in power. He, like his idol Trump, may end up as another disgraced one-term president, which may not be a bad outcome for Brazil and the world.

Anna Buss