Hopes were high that Bolsonaro would be removed in the first round of Brazil’s elections. Brazilian activist and author Marcelo Badaró Mattos looks at why the left did not break through, and argues for a different strategy to win the second round.

Lula addressing Workers Party colleagues – photo by Paulo Pinto for Agencia PT used under CC licence.

The first round of the 2022 general elections brought a bitter surprise for left-wing activists who, following the opinion polls, expected that Lula would win outright in the first round, or would head to a second round with a wide margin to his advantage over Bolsonaro.

Some lessons must be learned immediately, because we face an enormous challenge in the coming weeks. We now know that defeating Bolsonaro by electing Lula will be more difficult, and therefore it is all the more vital.

Where we went wrong

The first lesson, obvious but still difficult to grasp, is that our optimism of the will can never substitute for realistic analysis. The social strength of Bolsonarista neo-fascism (as well as Bolsonaro’s first-round vote tally) has grown and solidified since 2018. The greatest sign of this is the impressively stable electoral support for Bolsonaro of around a third of the electorate which, despite some fluctuations, has been captured in polls throughout his tenure, in spot of the nauseating trail of destruction and death of the last four years.

Moreover, we underestimated the strength of anti-Workers Party feeling in the country and particularly in the South-Central regions, as if this had been fully overcome by Lula’s opinion poll advances since the Supreme Court’s overturning of his prior legal convictions in April 2021 [which enabled him to initiate his presidential candidacy]. This anti-Workers Party sentiment still serves to encourage ‘tactical voting’ for Bolsonaro, as was evident in Bolsonaro achieving a much higher vote in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro than polls had predicted.

The second lesson is that electoral surveys need to be read not just mathematically, but with a view to the political and social dynamics that run too deep to be captured by a superficial snapshot of a given sample of voters at a given moment. In superficial terms, the polls estimated Lula’s vote correctly (within the margin of error), as well as [liberal centrist candidate] Simone Tebet’s overtaking of [centre-left, but anti-Workers Party candidate] Ciro Gomes. But they were much less correct about Bolsonaro’s vote, and the vote for Ciro Gomes. It’s clear that a majority of Ciro’s supporters moved across to Bolsonaro – something that our aforementioned hopeful optimism failed to anticipate, having assumed that these ‘centre-left’ votes would go to Lula, when in fact Gomes’ main talking point was his hostility to the Workers Party. However, this alone cannot explain Bolsonaro’s level of support.

It is easy to see that the far right, around the world, has often had larger effective votes than those predicted by opinion polls. One might speculate that a mixture of ‘guilty’ voters and ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’ (if I believe the pollsters are liars, I will in turn lie to them), explains this.

But, at least in the specific case of Brazil (and studies in the United States have shown something similar with Trump’s vote), it is a fact that the polls showed majority support for Lula in the lowest-income strata of the population, and the reverse for Bolsonaro. These are, historically, the layers of the population who are most likely not to vote in elections. They may be internal migrants [from other regions of Brazil] who never regularised their legal address, or may lack the resources to even pay for transport to the polling stations (which in the big cities, especially the megalopolises of the Southeast, can be very distant, especially due to voters often changing addresses).

These are also sectors of the population for which the daily struggle for survival can be so hard that people become completely disconnected from the national political calendar and the exercises of political citizenship. The rate of abstention in this first round was 20.95% of the vote, the highest it has been in the last 20 years. The polls cannot adequately weigh this factor.

Similarly, polls cannot capture that last-minute impulse – a positive impulse of persuasion, or a negative one of intimidation – driven by pressures exerted in the family, in the neighbourhood, at work, etc. The fact that, with the exception of the Northeast (and often even there), climbing voting intentions for Lula in recent weeks have not translated into publicly visibly crowds, the waving of shirts, flags and so-on for Lula in the streets, while the green and yellow colours of Bolsonaro are visible and intimidating everywhere, has had a weight in the final stretch that escaped the notice of opinion polls.

The fear and intimidation occasioned by the political violence that Bolsonarismo, in its more overtly neo-fascist aspect, has perpetrated, had the effect of limiting the visibility of support for Lula, particularly in the Southeast. Many people made their vote for Lula into an act of silent resistance. But silent resistance is not enough to give strength to those who are suffering from more acute coercion, or to give certainty and confidence to those undecided voters who, amazingly, do still exist.

We can’t afford any more mistakes

The first lesson we should take from this situation is to divest ourselves of the wishful optimism that has circulated within the left since the end of the first round. This can be seen in the upbeat messages circulating pointing to the growth of the left in the House of Representatives in some state legislatures – a growth that starts from a very marginal minority position, that is still very far from having been overcome. On the other hand, the centrão [a cross-section of right-wing politicians across various parties who commonly hold the balance of power in Brazilian politics] has increased its numbers in the House, having capitalised extensively on recent congressional expenses scandals.

In the Senate, boosted by the election of the current vice-president and arch-reactionary former ministers, the Bolsonaristas have increased their presence to the point that they will be able to advance impeachment proceedings against Supreme Court members if Bolsonaro is re-elected. If the mandates won by the left have any use at the moment – and they undoubtedly do – their first test of fire is to maintain the same activist energy on the streets that helped elect these candidates, to elect Lula in the second round

Just as self-deceptive is the optimism of the mathematical calculations that ignores the political and social struggle – ‘Lula has a six million votes advantage’, ‘all we need is 2% more of the voters’ and other similar self-satisfied phrases. Bolsonaro had a place to draw votes from in the final stretch of the first round to get closer to Lula and may still have more ’reserve funds’, in the voters of Tebet, Ciro and among those who spoiled their ballots. Moreover, we need to understand once and for all that a neo-fascist campaign doesn’t simply follow the ‘rules of the game’ of ‘our great democracy’ that nost commentators are so insistent upon.

For this very reason, the institutionalist reasoning that, until now, has dominated the PT campaign leadership, that it is enough to add more formal support to the broad electoral front, can be disastrous in this second round. The eventual formal support from PDT [Democratic Labour Party, Ciro Gomes’ party] (against Ciro’s will) and from MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement, Tebet’s party] does not guarantee anything.

These parties have already elected their parliamentarians, and the MDB will be running only for two state governments in the second round (PDT not even that) and, in such a polarised election, they are unlikely to enthusiastically embrace Lula. Even if they do so, nothing guarantees that their votes will be inherited by the PT. The signal given in the first round regarding Ciro’s slump was, in fact, the opposite. Further meetings with business leaders won’t be enough, either. They have neither a veto nor a vote to offer Lula. The most organic party that the Brazilian bourgeoisie built in the New Republic[1], the PSDB [Brazilian Social Democracy Party], knelt to Bolsonarismo and collapsed. With their defeat in the governor’s election in São Paulo, its last institutional stronghold fell.

To defeat Bolsonarismo on October 30, and this is the main lesson we need to learn from the result of the first round, will require people on the streets, with Lula, to transform the current electoral majority into a wave of popular support, visible and expressive enough to drag parts of those who abstained in the first round, the uncorrupted voters of the other candidates, and to guarantee confidence to those constrained and threatened by the truculence of neo-fascism that it is possible to remove Bolsonaro from the palace.

It will be necessary to drag Lula through the crowds, as on the slopes of Salvador [a city in the Northeast], make him bounce in the middle of the crowd, as in the streets of São Paulo, transforming the next four weeks into the most intense process of political and social mobilisation in recent times. Even if his campaign organisers continue to bet on deals with party leaders and bourgeois representatives, it is necessary to push him towards the streets. A new ‘Ele Não [Not him!]’ movement will have to flourish.

Winning the vote will come from expanding our advantage where it already exists: in the most impoverished parts of the working class, in women, in the black people, in the youth, in the Northeast.

That’s because our future depends on it and because we owe it to the memory of the almost 700 thousand victims of the pandemic; to those who fall in the daily police massacres, transformed into political propaganda by militia governors; and the millions of people who are starving.

‘The only fight that is lost is the one that is abandoned.’ Let’s not give up on this one.

[1] The New (Sixth) Republic was founded in 1985 after 21 years of military rule.

Marcelo Badaró Mattos is Professor of Brazilian History, Universidade Federal Fluminense, Brazil, and the author of Governo Bolsonaro: neofascismo e autocracia burguesa no Brasil, (São Paulo: Usina Editorial, 2020) and The working class from Marx to our times (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).

Translation by Daniel Kraucher, Esquerda Online and rs21 members. Comments in square brackets [ ] are added by rs21.

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