Brazil heads to the polls on Oct. 2 for crucial general elections in Latin America’s largest economy and most populous country that will determine the next President, Vice President, and National Congress. The key question on everyone’s minds is whether the right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro will get another term, or whether the left-wing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will return to office as part of a resurgent pink tide in the region that has recently seen leftists take power in Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, and elsewhere.
It is difficult to choose between these two men.
In the past four years Jair Bolsonaro, the incumbent president has repeatedly questioned the Supreme Court’s role and suggested that the electoral process is rigged. He has compared COVID-19 to “a little flu,” and approved destructive environmental policies that have devastated the Amazon rainforest.
Lula ruled from 2003 to 2010 after winning two four-year terms in office and helped lift millions out of poverty, making him one of the country’s most popular leaders. “Lula is running on nostalgia to win his old job back,” says Gustavo Ribeiro, journalist and founder of English-language politics site The Brazilian Report.
Lula’s controversial nature is not surprising, but it does so in different ways. Lula was charged in September 2016 with corruption. These charges stemmed from Operation Car Wash which investigated money laundering. This investigation sought to eliminate corruption among Latin American politicians and business leaders. He was found guilty in July 2017 and the court disallowed him from running for reelection. But in In March of last year, Brazil’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction, citing some technicalities and saying Lula’s right to a fair trial had been compromised by a biased judge—allowing him to run for President this time around.
Brazilian presidential candidate and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, speaks during an election rally about sustainable development in Manaus, Brazil, on August 31, 2022.
Michael Dantas/AFP— Getty Images
Lula has held up the Supreme Court’s verdict as proof of his innocence: he argues that the corruption charges were cooked up by right-wing forces to keep him out. However, recent polls have shown that people are split on the matter.
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Either way, polls suggest Lula will comfortably defeat Bolsonaro, although it’s unclear whether he will have enough votes to avoid a run-off vote on Oct. 30. Brazil has a rule that if a presidential candidate does not get more than 50%, it causes a head-tohead contest between them. It is almost certain this year Bolsonaro will be facing Lula.
Brazil’s democratic backslide
“Bolsonaro has eroded accountability institutions, he is rotting the state from within,” Ribeiro says. Bolsonaro admitted Monday that if defeated, he would resign. “If that is God’s will I will continue, but if it is not, I will pass the presidential sash and retire.”
That rhetoric has not quelled concerns that the transition of power if Bolsonaro loses may not go smoothly, although experts say it’s unlikely he has the power to overthrow the election. “I don’t think he has the institutional support to pull that off,” Ribeiro says. He could retain significant influence in Brazil if he even attempts to claim he was wronged. “Everybody thinks Bolsonaro might try a January 6 in Brazil if he loses. We are not so sure… if this will be a coup d’etat. I don’t think so but it could just be a way of leaving power but still keeping his people with him,” says Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian journalist and political analyst.
Fueling some of these fears is Bolsonaro’s call last September for tens of thousands of his supporters to protest against the court after his dispute with the judiciary over changes to the voting system that involved the President’s attempts to push for paper voting receipts. International media and Brazilians compared it to the January 6th insurrection on Capitol Hill. While some may point to Bolsonaro as taking a page out of U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook, it may well be the other way around, according to Ribeiro. “Bolsonaro attacked the system way before Trump became President… He has threatened time and again not to recognize the results if he doesn’t believe they are fair and square.”
A second Bolsonaro term, according to civil rights activists, could cause a backsliding in democracy or even worse.
Bolsonaro’s record in office
There are concerns the pace of the Amazon’s deforestation could reach a tipping point where it turns into a dry savanna under a second Bolsonaro term. This would accelerate climate change. The Amazon is a natural sink of carbon dioxide and absorbs approximately 2 billion tonnes of CO2 each year, or 5%. Data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research showed that more than 3,980 square kilometers were deforested in the first six months of this year, the highest amount since 2016.
Bolsonaro has seen budget and staff cuts at environmental agencies and laws regarding deforestation were relaxed. “There has been very little monitoring or fining or attempt to regulate deforestation,” says Amy Erica Smith, an associate professor of political science and expert on Brazilian politics at Iowa State University. What’s more, Ribeiro says: “Bolsonaro incentivizes the use of Indigenous lands, environmental protection areas for mining, for cattle ranching.”
Bolsonaro was also criticized for misinformation and management of COVID-19, a pandemic that ravaged Brazil. Brazil’s COVID death rate is higher than any other country, with over 680,000 recorded deaths.
How do voters care?
Although Bolsonaro has triggered concerns about Brazil’s democracy, it’s unlikely this will be on the mind of the average Brazilian voter, experts say. According to the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Brazilian academic institution, more than a third of Brazilian households are facing food insecurity.
Customer counts money in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil at a fruit-and-vegetable stall on August 26th, 2022
Rafael Martins/AFP —Getty Images
“People are really struggling,” Ribeiro says. “That’s why Bolsonaro has broken the bank to increase social spending.”
Bolsonaro has cut fuel taxes to reduce prices after they shot up in part because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. He increased aid payments to the countries’ poorest through a program called Auxilio Brasil, or Brazil Aid; in August, he started giving out $120 monthly cash payments to 20 million families. Due to lower energy prices, Brazil has had less inflation than Europe or the U.S. Despite the fact that wages are shrinking, unemployment is increasing.
Bolsonaro is also particularly popular among evangelical Christians, who make up almost one-third of the country’s population, according to the Datafolha polling firm. Bolsonaro won 70% support in 2018, according to Datafolha polling firm. “There are enough evangelicals that they could really matter,” Smith says.
“Bolsonaro is the first candidate that really embraced them,” Traumann says. They were given key ministerial posts and a Supreme Court Judge who was an evangelical. Lula was opposed by many evangelicals after he said earlier this year that abortion should now be considered a public health problem and not a religious matter. Bolsonaro reiterated his determination to make sure that most abortions in Brazil remain legal.
That’s not to say all evangelicals vote in a bloc. Some female voters in particular may be put off by what experts say is Bolsonaro’s misogyny. Smith doubts evangelicals will come out as strongly as they did for Bolsonaro in 2018 because “they will be evaluating him not only on culture war issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights but also his performance on the economy and pandemic,” she says.
But if polls are correct, and Lula prevails either on Oct. 2 or Oct. 30, Brazilians—and much of the world—will be tuning in to see what comes next.
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