Voices: The outcome of Brazil’s titanic election battle will reverberate across the Western world

On Sunday, the two biggest names in Brazilian politics went head-to-head to claim the greatest prize in Latin America. The most highly-anticipated election in Brazil’s history, it has garnered significant international attention. Few, however, foresaw the result that played out.

Some polls had predicted left-wing former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, better known simply as Lula, would achieve the 50 per cent threshold required for a first round victory.

Instead, the incumbent, far-right former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, far outperformed expectations, winning in several key states where he was projected to lose heavily, and securing 43 per cent of the vote to Lula’s 48 per cent. Both candidates now face another month of fierce campaigning before voters choose between them on 30 October.

Although Lula remains the frontrunner, Bolsonaro goes into the second round with substantial momentum, as Sunday also saw many of his allies win seats at all levels of government. The candidates are sworn enemies and have led highly polarised campaigns riven with personality politics and raw emotions. It is both a compelling soap opera and a high-stakes contest with serious ramifications for Brazil and the world.

The two men are highly charismatic, flawed in different ways and ideologically opposite. Lula, freed from prison after his conviction for corruption was overturned, is aiming for a third term in government. President from 2003 to 2010, he oversaw an unprecedented period of economic growth and social progress, bolstered by soaring global commodities prices, and left office with sky-high approval ratings.

His conditional cash transfer programme, Bolsa Família, lifted millions out of poverty, though the reputation of the Workers’ Party he founded was subsequently tarnished by a series of corruption scandals, some of which involved Lula personally.

Bolsonaro, who in 2018 successfully campaigned on an anti-establishment, free market platform, has cut taxes, sought to sell off state-owned companies, and tried to introduce much-needed reforms to the bloated pension system.

His presidency has been marred by accusations of corruption, environmental degradation, and an inadequate response to the Covid-19 pandemic, exacerbated by Bolsonaro’s highly inflammatory remarks on minorities, the media, and his political opponents. His subversion of the norms of politics and etiquette make this election even more highly charged.

The winner will take the helm of a huge economic power. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of chicken, beef, soy, coffee and sugar. That matters, with the global population rising rapidly, and food security a concern for many.

A vital source, too, of mineral wealth, Brazil holds globally significant reserves of iron ore, gold and copper, and is investing heavily in lithium production, a critical element for the batteries needed to power the green energy revolution. Brazil is also at the cutting edge of financial innovation, boasting the biggest financial technology market in Latin America, and the fifth-largest in the world. Nubank, an online bank founded and headquartered in Brazil, is valued at $30bn, and is one of more than a dozen Brazilian start-up companies valued at over $1bn.

One of the bitterest dividing lines between the candidates is their approach to the environment. Bolsonaro has promised to continue the economic development of Brazil’s vast Amazon region, even at the cost of environmental destruction. Lula, by contrast, has made protecting the rainforest and indigenous lands one of his re-election pillars.

Whatever the outcome, Brazil is well positioned in the global energy transition, with almost half of the country’s energy already coming from renewable sources, particularly hydro and wind.

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As Latin America’s biggest economy and a leading democracy, Brazil matters in the wider global battle between the competing models of liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Ruled by a military dictatorship until 1985, Brazil is now firmly democratic. It is vital for the health of Latin America that it stays that way, given Brazil’s status as a leader in the region.

Latin America also more widely shares a similar code of values to the Western world, seeking to advance broad social programmes, pursuing capitalist economic development, and following a rules-based order. China’s influence has soared, due to heavy investment and high demand for the region’s exports. A strategic objective of major Western nations must be to maintain healthy relations with key allies like Brazil, as well as important neighbours such as Colombia and Argentina.

Latin America has all the conditions to thrive economically, but has often lacked leaders with the vision and integrity to drive their countries forward. On 30 October, two politicians with big visions and even bigger personalities enter the ring once more to determine the future of a nation with limitless potential. The reverberations of this titanic contest will be felt across Latin America and beyond.

Jeremy Browne is the CEO of Canning House, and a former Foreign Office minister for Latin America