Lula has won Brazil's presidential election, but Bolsonaro's delay on concession is indicative of an ongoing struggle for democracy itself.
It’s a story for our troubled age: a democratic contest takes place, a winner emerges at the polls, and… the incumbent does not concede. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is slated to return to office in January after squeaking out a narrow victory with 50.9 percent of the Brazilian vote: around 2 million more votes than sitting president Jair Bolsonaro. But the delay in Bolsonaro’s concession reminds us that democracy yet hangs in the balance.
Democracy is in some ways the ultimate gentlemen’s agreement, for it requires ongoing confidence between the leaders and the led around rules of conduct established as the basis of free, fair, and open electoral processes. These differ from country to country: in Canada and the UK, votes of non-confidence can topple a prime minister at any time, sending citizens to the polls to vote for members of parliament. The party with the most members then forms government (solely, or in coalition) for up to five years. In Colombia and Brazil, a president is elected by absolute vote for a four-year term after two rounds of voting. In the US… well. Citizens vote for their electors, who’ve made promises to support a given candidate in the Electoral College. Whoever gets at least 270 of those votes is president for the next four years.
Simply put: there is nothing intuitive about our relationships with democracy. They vary the world over and require constant maintenance.
In Brazil’s case, Bolsonaro spent the months leading up to this election alleging that the electronic voting system used in Brazil could not be trusted. Neither could media, he said, nor Congress, nor the courts observing and carrying out the mechanisms of democracy. He went so far as to claim that he would have won more definitively in 2018, too, if not for voter machine fraud. His charges against the voting system are completely unevidenced, but that’s no defense against the spread of disinformation. For instance, one claim of fraud came from video of a machine producing a “null” result when Bolsonaro’s number was entered by a voter. The problem? The voter was entering Bolsonaro’s number when asked to vote on a different electoral question. After selecting a candidate for that electoral question, there would come a time when the voter was prompted to select their preferred president.
The electoral courts showed that the video had been edited, but that’s never the point when it comes to disseminating fake news. Stirring up debate is end-game enough.
Lula won in the first round of presidential voting this year, with 48.4 percent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 43.2, but he didn’t pass the key 50 percent threshold needed to stave off a run-off, which was held this October 30. The two groups they represent, the leftist Worker’s Party and the far-right Liberal Party, are strongly divided. Bolsonaro’s government saw a massive, intentional surge in deforestation of the Amazon, and oversaw the deaths of 680,000 to a pandemic that Bolsonaro routinely downplayed and his government utterly mismanaged. Along with huge ideological divides (with “Bolsonarismo” cleaving to Evangelical conservatism on social issues and favoring a strongly militarized state, up to and including the endorsement of political violence against opponents), the lead-up to this election also saw blatant appropriation of government slush funds to shore up Bolsonaro’s campaigning.
Lula served as president between 2003 and 2010. Accusations of corruption in the lead-up to the 2018 election, where he was doing well in the polls, landed him in prison after a fraught trial headed by a judge, Sérgio Moro, who was ultimately found to be colluding with the prosecution. Moro would be appointed as Bolsonaro’s justice minister later that year, after Bolsonaro’s victory.
Supporters of Lula have high hopes in the wake of his campaign promises to invest more in social-uplift projects and state infrastructure, and to halt deforestation. These aren’t empty promises, either: his last terms in office came with major reductions in inequality through cash-transfers, a sharp drop in illegal deforestation, and an overall period of strong economic growth.
But they do come with an ongoing uphill battle—in part, from investors who do not favor Lula’s approach to the economy and social justice, but also, with no concession readily on offer after these latest electoral results, from the state of this politically stratified nation. Granted, even journalistic outlets like Mother Jones, which have raised very clear concerns about Bolsonaro’s track record as an anti-democratic populist, acknowledge that a “self-coup” would not be easy, despite Bolsonaro’s strong support within the military. But that, too, isn’t the point.
The point is that democracy is a very fragile proposition at the best of times.
And we’re not living in the best of times.
Every bit of doubt in the willingness of both “leaders” and the “led” to abide by existing social contracts serves to diminish our collective democratic labor. As the US heads into its own midterms, the world looks on with similar hopes, and uncertainties, about the end result. Whatever happens on November 8 in the US, as in Brazil in the wake of October 30, one thing is clear: the long term maintenance of our democracies will require a lot more than showing up at the polls.