Brazil’s leading presidential candidate, a far-right politician named Jair Bolsonaro, was stabbed at a campaign rally last month in an attack that left him in serious condition. When the candidate returned home from the hospital last week, Brazilians staged large demonstrations both for and against his controversial, ultra-conservative agenda.
Throngs of his supporters filled the beachfront walkways of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana neighborhood last Saturday. And about 24 hours later, a massive gay pride parade featuring no shortage of anti-Bolsonaro signs took over the same streets.
When Brazilians head to the polls on October 7 to choose a new president, no one knows what the outcome will be — surveys show as much as a quarter of Brazil’s voting population is still undecided about how they will cast their vote. A ceaseless stream of corruption scandals in recent years, combined with political and economic crises like the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the country’s worst economic depression, have frayed citizens’ trust in government.
”I trust no one,” Salo Maldonado, a 36-year-old small-business owner in Rio de Janeiro, told me. “The main goal of politicians in Brazil is to make money. It’s to keep feeding themselves with power. No one wants to help anybody.”
Bolsonaro, the far-right candidate who has expressed admiration for (and been compared to) US President Donald Trump, is the frontrunner. His most serious competitor is a leftist politician and academic, Fernando Haddad, who is backed by the popular former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. (Lula is serving a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges and withdrew from the race last month.) Two centrist candidates, Ciro Gomes and Geraldo Alckmin, also have a fighting chance, according to recent polls.
Health care and education are at the top of voters’ agenda, along with tackling rising rates of crime and violence. Surveys say voters who consider socioeconomic issues more important than security are more likely to vote for Haddad, while those who prioritize crime and violence are more likely to vote for Bolsonaro.
No matter who wins, however, the country will almost certainly remain extremely polarized. A spate of violent incidents hasn’t improved things. In addition to Bolsonaro’s stabbing, there was a shooting attack on a caravan of buses that were part of former President Lula’s campaign tour earlier this year. Maldonado worries that the election of either Bolsonaro or Haddad, who hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum, could tear the divided country apart. “Either it goes very well or it turns into civil war. It’s not going to be good,” he said.
As the most populous country in Latin America, Brazil plays an important role in the region. But the impact of this presidential election will also be felt as far away as the US, where the Trump administration and powerful Republicans in Congress have been ratcheting up pressure on the government of Brazil’s neighbor, Venezuela. In short, Brazil’s election will likely determine whether the Trump administration gains a new ally, or an opponent.
Here’s a brief guide to what’s at stake.
This is a significant election for Latin America’s most populous country
Brazil was once seen as an up-and-coming developing country, with strong economic growth and a rising global profile. But in recent years, the economy has careened off course, in large part because corruption scandals have decimated the country’s most powerful companies, putting huge swaths of people out of work and weakening investor confidence.
Nearly a third of Brazilians have struggled to buy food in the past year, and a quarter say they’ve had trouble affording adequate shelter, according to a recent Gallup poll. The unemployment rate is in the double digits, and some studies say extreme poverty has more than doubled since the mid-2010s.
On top of this, Brazil is facing a serious security crisis. Murder rates are at an all-time high. The country’s biggest gang, Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) is rapidly expanding as it battles with rivals over important drug routes. Once-vaunted public safety strategies have failed to contain the mayhem, but there’s little consensus on how — or whether — to change course.
A change in leadership will likely mean a shift in current policy. When voters head to the polls this month, they will elect not only a new president and vice president but also federal congressional representatives, as well as executive and legislative representatives at the state level. But the presidential race has garnered the most attention.
The two top-finishing candidates in the first round of the election on October 7 will go head to head in an October 28 runoff that will ultimately determine Brazil’s next president. Polls suggest the two most popular candidates, Bolsonaro and Haddad, will make it to the second round, but it’s less clear who will win that contest.
Bolsonaro and Haddad have starkly different approaches to fixing the country’s problems
Bolsonaro, the far-right candidate, has been a federal congress member since 1990. The 63-year-old former army paratrooper first came to power with support from backers with military ties and has built a reputation as a no-holds-barred conservative.
He’s made safety and security a focus of his campaign, vowing to make punishment for crimes harsher while loosening restrictions on gun ownership. He’s also promised to protect members of the state security forces who have been accused of abuses.
”If [a police officer] kills 10, 15 or 20 [alleged criminals] with 10 or 30 bullets each, he needs to get a medal and not be prosecuted,” he said in a recent television interview.
Bolsonaro has also hinted that he may back the Trump administration’s calls for military intervention in Venezuela. He has strongly criticized the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on a number of occasions, and his running mate, Hamilton Mourão, has talked about sending a Brazilian “peacekeeping” mission into Brazil’s neighbor to the north.
But Bolsonaro’s popularity alarms many Brazilians — in part because he has expressed admiration for dictators, and has expressed racist views. Bolsonaro openly defended the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the ’80s, and has denied the Portuguese Empire’s extensive involvement in the slave trade — a highly controversial statement in a country where more than half the population is black or mixed race.
The candidate, who is strongly anti-abortion, has also made misogynistic and homophobic comments. Bolsonaro once told a woman colleague in the legislature that she was “not worthy” of being raped by him, and also declared that he wouldn’t be able to love his own son if he were gay. “I prefer that he die in an accident,” he said.
Bolsonaro has been less clear, however, on his plan for Brazil’s economic recovery. According to his presidential platform, he has a vague plan to streamline the health care and education systems, which includes “doing more with the current resources.” His economic adviser, Paulo Guedes, is a free market ideologue who has called for privatizing state firms and reducing government spending.
Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira, a political science professor at São Paulo’s Pontifical Catholic University, compared Bolsonaro to Trump — and Bolsonaro has actually cited Trump as an “example” that he would want to emulate. “Like the election of Trump, the rise of Bolsonaro is not a cause, but a symptom of deeper sociopolitical roots,” Teixeira told me.
Bolsonaro’s main challenger, Fernando Haddad, hails from the other end of the political spectrum. He’s leaning heavily on the leftist legacy of former President Lula, who’s a polarizing figure in Brazil.
Many adore the former president, who used his years in office (2003 to 2011) to push for an expansion of the social safety net, which has been credited with dramatically improving the quality of life of millions of Brazil’s poorest citizens.
But critics say Lula’s administration perpetuated a system of bribery and corruption aimed at keeping his Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) in power. (Lula was barred from running for president due to a conviction last year on corruption charges, which he has denied and is appealing in court.)
Lula’s former running mate and now replacement, Haddad, is a longtime Workers’ Party stalwart. The 55-year-old served as mayor of São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, from 2012 to 2016, and has served in a number of advisory and cabinet positions, including as Lula’s education minister from 2005 to 2012.
Unlike Bolsonaro, Haddad has made economic issues the centerpiece of his campaign. His plan “has Lula’s signature,” the candidate told Reuters in August. “The ideas that I defend in debates are discussed with Lula. They have his endorsement and they’re ideas that I believe.”
Haddad is proposing an ambitious tax-and-spend plan aimed at reducing unemployment, strengthening social programs like housing subsidies for low-income families, and improving the country’s infrastructure.
He and his Workers’ Party say they want to expand rights and protections for women and the LGBTQ community, and promote racial equality. The candidate has strongly criticized Bolsonaro’s positions on these fronts. ”Bolsonaro has a psychological problem against women, blacks, and the LGBT community,” Haddad said at a recent rally. “I’m in favor of the Congress paying for psychological treatment for him.”
Haddad’s stance on abortion, a flashpoint issue for many in Brazil, is less clear. He has said in the past that he is personally against abortion, but when asked more recently about his position, he sidestepped the question, remarking instead that the Supreme Court is considering overturning a near-total, nationwide ban on the procedure.
In terms of security, Haddad once again differs markedly from Bolsonaro. He has called for an increased focus on human rights with respect to law enforcement and the justice system, and for tightening Brazil’s gun laws. His party platform also proposes ending the war on drugs and decriminalizing drug possession. (Almost a third of inmates incarcerated in Brazil’s severely overcrowded and violent prison system are there on drug charges.) “We’re deluding people that we’re fighting something. We’re not fighting anything. We’re losing the war,” Haddad said in a July interview with the Spanish newspaper El País.
But many experts say his success in the election will hinge less on his own ideas and political acumen than on his ability to portray himself as a faithful stand-in for Lula.
“The greatest challenge for Fernando Haddad ahead of the first round is to convince PT (Workers’ Party) voters that he is Lula’s candidate,” University of São Paulo professor Lincoln Secco told the Financial Times.
Two other candidates, Gomes and Alckmin, are doing well in the polls
Ciro Gomes, a longtime politician from the northern state of Ceará, has run on a mostly liberal economic program and has tried to paint himself as a realist concerned about the fate of Brazil’s middle class. Gomes’s plan for dealing with violence and rising crime focuses on boosting investment in law enforcement and creating new agencies and task forces.
Although his website contains a section promoting his belief in “equality and diversity,” Gomes has declined to answer interviewers when questioned about his views on LGBTQ rights and abortion. The candidate is generally seen as a leftist who sometimes breaks the establishment, depending on his personal views.
Geraldo Alckmin, a centrist candidate widely described as “business-friendly,” has also made economic issues a centerpiece of his campaign, pointing to the positive economic performance of São Paulo state during his time as governor there.
Alckmin was endorsed by Brazil’s current president, Michel Temer, in large part because the candidate said he wanted to keep existing economic austerity measures in place. These measures, however, have helped make Temer Brazil’s least popular president ever.
While Alckmin’s economic agenda is undoubtedly more conservative than other candidates, his views on social issues are similar to those of his rival Haddad: He has supported LGBTQ rights but opposed decriminalizing abortion. And on the security front, Alckmin’s proposals don’t promise any radical change from the status quo.
Whoever the next president of Brazil is will have a big impact on the country’s global standing
Given Brazil’s fractured political landscape — where alliances among political figures and parties are more often based on corruption and political expediency than on actual principles — it will be difficult for any of the candidates to implement their domestic policy agendas when they take office.
However, the next president will have a lot of influence over the way the country interacts with its neighbors and the rest of the world.
While experts told me there is likely to be little change in Brazil’s foreign policy under either Gomes or Alckmin, a victory by either Bolsonaro or Haddad could alter Brazil’s outward-facing policy — and especially its relationship with the US.
Bolsonaro’s militaristic, “law and order” rhetoric is similar to that of leaders Trump has praised, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
“If Bolsonaro wins, I expect US-Brazil relations will be fine, or perhaps improve given President Trump’s affinity for strongman rule around the world,” Harold Trinkunas, a Latin America expert at Stanford University, told me.
If Trump and Bolsonaro cultivate a strong relationship, it could also impact how their respective countries deal with the complicated political and economic crisis in Venezuela, which is driving hundreds of migrants to flee to Brazil and other neighboring countries on a daily basis.
Under the Maduro government, Venezuela’s slide toward economic disaster and political chaos has grown ever more dangerous. The country’s currency is essentially worthless, human rights abuses are rampant, and virtually every branch of government and the military is riddled with extreme corruption. The Trump administration has put mounting pressure on the regime, including sanctioning a number of top officials and threatening military action.
“A Bolsonaro administration would most probably adopt a more confrontational attitude toward Maduro’s government, and would perhaps even be available to work with the Trump administration seeking some kind of regime change in Venezuela,” said Teixeira, the political science professor in Brazil.
On the other hand, Haddad, the leftist candidate, could come under pressure from far-left elements of his base to support Maduro. Indeed, Workers’ Party president Gleisi Hoffmann has defended the Venezuelan government.
”Haddad personally, I think, is a completely rational and reasonable person, [but] he may be completely limited by his own political party and make statements that will not be reassuring to the rest of the region,” Paulo Sotero, the director of the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute, told me. “In a polarized game, you go with your base.”
Trinkunas, the Stanford scholar, agreed. “If the outcome of the election is a [Haddad] victory, it will complicate regional efforts to address the crisis in Venezuela,” he told me.
Regardless of who wins, though, the impact of Brazil’s presidential election will stretch far beyond Venezuela.
Teixeira said right-leaning candidates Bolsonaro and Alckmin would be more likely to tighten Brazil’s relations with other South American countries that have conservative governments, like Chile, Peru, and Colombia, while Haddad and Gomes would look to deepen ties with more leftist governments in Latin America and perhaps Europe.
And given Brazil’s huge size in terms of population, land, and economy, the election of a left- or right-leaning president could even determine whether the region as a whole swings in one direction or another. That’s something that will be watched closely by international investors, who typically favor more conservative governments.
“If a new government in Brazil is capable of producing a message that it will be able to act responsibly and restore growth in Brazil, this would obviously be excellent news in the region. I’m sure that it would be applauded in Washington and in Europe also,” Sotero said. “The problem is … that there isn’t much confidence in that scenario.”
Within the country, Haddad’s leftist agenda would almost certainly be strongly opposed by Brazil’s powerful elite, who wield much power in the country. Indeed, a July open letter signed by a number of world leaders and members of the US Congress alleges that “the main objective” for Lula’s jailing was “to prevent him from running” in this election, due to elite opposition to his leftist agenda.
At the same time, Bolsonaro’s lack of executive experience, combined with the long period of time he is expected to need to fully recover from the stabbing attack, could prove to be early stumbling blocks should he become the next president.
“The Brazilian state is a very big machine and very complicated to run,” Sotero said. “[Brazilians], regardless of their political preference, are very concerned about what comes after the election, and where the country goes from there.”