Ahead of Sunday’s general election in Brazil, experts Frances Hagopian, José Scheinkman, and Brian Winter participated in a panel discussion and Q&A session on democracy in the nation, recent polling data, and potential election outcomes, and Brazil’s economic and political future.

On Wednesday afternoon, Columbia professor Maria Victoria Murillo, Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) and instructor in the Department of Political Science and at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), moderated a panel discussion on Brazilian government in Columbia’s International Affairs Building. Speakers were Frances Hagopian, the Jorge Paulo Lemann Senior Lecturer in Brazil Studies at Harvard University, José Scheinkman, the Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor of Economics at Columbia, and Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of the magazine Americas Quarterly

The panel discussion was especially timely as political analysts and watchers await Sunday’s Brazilian election results— with bated breath—and question what they mean for the nation’s future. Professor Hagopian, in her presentation, set the tone for the importance of the election and its outcomes: “The whole world is looking in [Brazil’s] direction, and is worried about [the results].” Brazil is seen as a “trendsetter” in Latin America and home to nearly 216 million people. 

The most likely outcomes of the election—whose two leading candidates are incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—are a resounding Lula victory, a Bolsonaro victory, or an election in which neither candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, in which case a runoff election will take place next month.

Hagopian emphasized that there are currently significant concerns about democratic government and that “democracy, as in the United States, hangs in the balance in Brazil,” with international doubts about Brazilian political institutions playing an important role in these questions. Professor Winter echoed this in his introduction, stating that there are currently two main questions to ask: What is going to happen on Sunday? Will the loser of Sunday’s election, if there is a clear one, respect the results of the election? Winter drew comparisons between the Bolsonaro and Trump administrations, as well as potential similarities between the current political climate in Brazil and the lead-up to the events of January 6 in the United States, including past phone calls between Trump strategists and the Bolsonaro family.

Current polling indicates an upward trend in support for Lula, with various polls in Brazil showing him with a high single-digit margin over Bolsonaro. Winter explained that although it’s natural to look at polls with skepticism, particularly after the failures in recent elections in the Americas: “If the polls are right, [the Brazilian election] is basically closed,” as the polling currently predicts a strong Lula victory in the election. 

Winter expects that if Lula wins by more than a five to seven percent margin, it will be very difficult for Bolsonaro to do anything really significant and moving to dispute the victory, despite his numerous past efforts to combat Lula’s presidential bid by criticizing the electronic polling system, casting Lula as an illegitimate candidate, and more over the past few months—but as Winter pointed out, “in the 21st century, coups aren’t done with tanks rolling down the streets, they’re done by fiddling at the ballot box and with legal decisions.” And while the country might be more prone to dictatorship as a result of Bolsonaro’s introduction of military force throughout his presidency, a Lula victory and presidency after Sunday’s election are possible in Brazil’s future.

Professor Hagopian discussed comparative explanations of Brazil’s current political climate under Bolsonaro, examining the downwardly mobile middle class as the base of facism, and explaining the presence of both racial and ethnic divisions, as well as rising neoliberalism and resentment amongst a wave of globalization in the country. 

Additionally, Hagopian spoke of the corruption, political scandals, and economic downturn specific to Brazil, as well as the fragmented party system, that have divided the nation—it is important to recognize these because they’ve helped make a Congress that is “extremely dispersed in terms of ideology.” This has made it impossible to form a coalition in Brazil’s legislature, halting legislation and permitting Brazil to fall into an unsustainable state under Bolsonaro’s administration.

Professor Scheinkman reinforced the destruction of Bolsonaro’s administration on climate, education, and the economy: incentives for deforestation and mining in the Amazon destroyed Brazil’s reputation on climate, nation-wide setbacks in the education sector—exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the explosion of expenditure spending are significant issues facing Brazil’s future government. Schienkmen emphasized that regardless of the winner, the incoming president is going to have “a huge fiscal problem” entering the presidency, and that there will be a renewed need for support on education and climate policy, as well as changes to the public sector, because the economy cannot continue to run as it has under Bolsonaro in recent years.

The panel’s final note was one of hope, an understanding that what happens on Sunday is up to voters. Economic strife and unemployment in Brazil are significant, which means the imperative to get involved has grown, leading more young people to be interested in politics. Sunday’s election in Brazil is an important one: the world looks on with anticipation about the future of Brazilian democracy, but voters have influence and polling shows there is an opportunity to pivot Brazil’s political, fiscal, and environmental future in a new direction.

Brazilian flag via Bwog Archives