Posters of Brazil's former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and current President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, September 2022
Posters of Brazil's former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and current President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, September 2022
Adriano Machado / Reuters

Nikolas Ferreira, 26, became a TikTok star in Brazil by lashing out against “communist indoctrination” at his university and elsewhere. Raised in a favela in the interior city of Belo Horizonte, he says he was mocked by fellow students and even some teachers for his evangelical Christian faith, which led him to oppose abortion, sex before marriage, and what he describes as the broader cultural decay of the political class. “They want our Brazil to become a Canada, where there’s quality buses, quality schools, but there’s no morality?” he asked incredulously in a recent interview. “A society that is morally sick, but economically rich? I see that as an inversion of values.”

On October 2, Ferreira received 1.5 million votes in his run for a seat in Brazil’s Congressional House of Deputies—500,000 more than any other candidate nationwide for that chamber. He was part of a surprisingly robust conservative wave that also saw Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro perform better in his reelection bid than most polls had suggested. Bolsonaro will now face former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist who governed Brazil from 2003 to 2010, in an October 30 runoff vote for the presidency. Although Lula placed first in the initial round of voting and remains a slight favorite to win, the election of Ferreira and others like him suggests that Bolsonaro and his culturally conservative, antiglobalist allies will be a force in Brazil for many years to come—standing alongside broadly similar movements in Hungary, Italy, Sweden, and the United States, as well as elsewhere in Latin America. That means that, even if Lula wins, he will find it difficult to address pressing challenges such as rising Amazon deforestation and a Brazilian economy that has been shrinking or stagnant for most of the past decade.

Brazil’s Bible Belt

The energized conservative vote helped Bolsonaro compensate, at least in part, for several headwinds working against his reelection bid. Approval ratings for the so-called Trump of the Tropics have remained below 50 percent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed approximately 680,000 people in Brazil, more than in any country except the United States. The estimated number of Brazilians suffering from hunger or food insecurity has almost doubled since the onset of the pandemic, to some 33 million people, although some sectors of the economy have started performing better in recent months. Lula’s campaign has centered to a great extent on nostalgia for the prosperity of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a period that saw Brazil’s economy grow and poverty fall sharply, thanks in part to Chinese demand for the country’s commodities such as soy beans and iron ore. Most polls have suggested that voters give Lula better marks than Bolsonaro for handling the economy and in other areas such as defending the environment and the rights of Blacks, women, and LGBTQ people.

That helps explain why the Bolsonaro campaign has tried to shift the focus to the culture wars and chosen “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” as its slogan. The campaign’s tone and content sometimes seems to have been cut and pasted from the conservative agenda in the United States, and that’s no accident: some of the most prominent pro-Bolsonaro influencers live in South Florida, and Bolsonaro himself regularly shares Fox News clips on social media. Such messages especially resonate with Brazil’s evangelical Christian community, which has grown from less than ten percent of the population in 1980 to about 30 percent today. Bolsonaro’s most effective attacks have included recirculating Lula’s remarks in April that abortion “should be transformed into a question of public health, for everyone to have the right” to the procedure. While some other Latin American countries, including Argentina and Colombia, have moved in recent years to liberalize abortion laws, the issue remains politically toxic in Brazil, where 70 percent of people say they are against legalizing abortion, according to polls. After the closer than expected first-round election result, Lula recorded a video attempting to put the matter to rest, saying, “I’m against abortion.… I think almost everyone is.” His campaign also circulated on social media a statement affirming that Lula “believes in God … and does not have a pact with, nor has he ever spoken with the Devil,” in reaction to a flurry of false memes that gained traction even among some pro-Lula voters.

What’s Past Is Not Prologue

The tenor of politics in Brazil has shifted markedly from Lula’s winning campaign of 20 years ago, when his runoff opponent was a centrist former health minister who won international plaudits for promoting the use of condoms amid the AIDS crisis. But Brazil has always been a more socially conservative nation than its freewheeling international image suggested. The right-wing military dictatorship that governed from 1964 to 1985 was relatively popular for much of its rule despite its brutality toward dissidents; indeed, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has often spoken wistfully of that period and has named retired generals to several key roles in his government. For the first 30 years after democracy returned, power mostly alternated between secular figures on the center-left and center-right. But Brazil’s economic collapse in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the worst in the country’s history, disgraced almost everyone in the previous political establishment, allowing a relative outsider such as Bolsonaro to emerge. His alliance also includes farmers, small-business owners, the wealthy, and those who simply do not want Lula’s Workers’ Party back in power. But exploiting the culture wars has time and again proved to be Bolsonaro’s most effective tactic for energizing his base.

Exploiting the culture wars has proved to be Bolsonaro’s most effective tactic for energizing his base.

That may not be quite enough for Bolsonaro to win a second term. His presidency has been a turbulent one, marked not only by his ineffective and often callous response to the pandemic but by a spike in Amazon deforestation to 15-year highs and constant conflicts with Brazil’s democratic institutions. Meanwhile, Brazil is subject to the same trends that have led incumbent candidates and their allies to lose 14 straight free and fair elections in Latin America, which was struggling with economic dysfunction and social unrest even before the pandemic hit the region especially hard. Bolsonaro lost the first round to Lula by six million votes, a margin that will prove difficult to overcome in the runoff. But here again, the parallels with the United States are striking—even if Bolsonaro loses, the future of his movement seems assured. His former women’s affairs minister, famous for declaring that “boys [should] wear blue, and girls wear pink,” was elected senator of the district that includes Brasilia, the capital. Bolsonaro allies will serve as governors of Brazil’s three most populous states, and his Liberal Party will have more seats than any other grouping in both chambers of Congress.

Brazil is Latin America’s largest country, and although it is separated from its neighbors by language and often hostile geography, there are signs of Bolsonaro’s style catching on elsewhere. The next mayor of Lima, Peru’s capital and the third-largest city in the Americas, will be a businessman who rails against communism and says he wants to put Jesus Christ “at the head of the executive, legislative and judicial branch.” Some leaders on the Argentine and Chilean right have clamored to have their pictures taken with members of the Bolsonaro family. Brazil’s size and visibility make it an attractive validator and fellow traveler for the global right generally; Hungarian President Viktor Orban, former U.S. President Donald Trump, and others have offered their support.

But the consequences of these trends in Brazil are also of global significance. The idea that Brazil could somehow turn back the clock by electing Lula and recapture the optimism and promise of the early twenty-first century has always seemed fanciful. And even if Lula does win, he will be boxed in by a Congress, and indeed a society at large, that is significantly more conservative than it was during his first presidency. In such an environment, it will be very difficult for Lula’s government to marshal the considerable resources and political consensus needed to slow deforestation in the Amazon or pass reforms to alleviate misery and lift Brazil out of more than a decade of unimpressive economic growth. Structural changes that investors have long yearned for, such as new trade deals or a reform of one of the world’s most complex tax codes, will likely remain on hold. A large part of the political class will want to remain focused instead on issues such as gender ideology and supposed trafficking of minors. “If a person is crazy and poor, it’s clear which [problem] you should solve first,” said Ferreira, the young congressman, referring to Brazil as a whole. A large, energized, and apparently growing number of Brazilian voters think he’s right.

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