Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Brazil’s High-Stakes Hustle for Swing Voters

Undecided and apathetic voters could determine the Lula-Bolsonaro showdown—if they turn out.

Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
A man walks past towels with images of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro for sale in Brasília, Brazil, on Oct. 21.
A man walks past towels with images of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro for sale in Brasília, Brazil, on Oct. 21.
A man walks past towels with images of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro for sale in Brasília, Brazil, on Oct. 21. EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images

DUQUE DE CAXIAS, Brazil—On a baking Saturday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling, working-class outskirts, welding inspector Rafael Encarnação paid a visit to his friend from church, air conditioning technician Helton Marques. After catching sight of him, Encarnação, 42, took a deep breath and gave his friend an affable slap on the back. He had come to try to persuade Helton, 48, and his daughter Gabriela, 24, to vote for left-wing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil’s Oct. 30 presidential runoff election.

In the first round of the vote, which occurred on Oct. 2, Helton and Gabriela had cast their ballots for centrist Brazilian Sen. Simone Tebet. Tebet, who received 4.2 percent of the vote, was knocked out of the race when she placed a distant third to Lula, who won 48.4 percent, and far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who followed with 43.2 percent.

The votes of the around 10 million Brazilians who supported Tebet and other eliminated candidates are now up for grabs in the runoff, as are those of the millions of Brazilians who chose not to cast ballots earlier this month. Voting is mandatory for those without an approved excuse, though the fine for not showing up is under $1. Voters have the option to choose “none of the above” at the polls.

DUQUE DE CAXIAS, Brazil—On a baking Saturday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling, working-class outskirts, welding inspector Rafael Encarnação paid a visit to his friend from church, air conditioning technician Helton Marques. After catching sight of him, Encarnação, 42, took a deep breath and gave his friend an affable slap on the back. He had come to try to persuade Helton, 48, and his daughter Gabriela, 24, to vote for left-wing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil’s Oct. 30 presidential runoff election.

In the first round of the vote, which occurred on Oct. 2, Helton and Gabriela had cast their ballots for centrist Brazilian Sen. Simone Tebet. Tebet, who received 4.2 percent of the vote, was knocked out of the race when she placed a distant third to Lula, who won 48.4 percent, and far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who followed with 43.2 percent.

The votes of the around 10 million Brazilians who supported Tebet and other eliminated candidates are now up for grabs in the runoff, as are those of the millions of Brazilians who chose not to cast ballots earlier this month. Voting is mandatory for those without an approved excuse, though the fine for not showing up is under $1. Voters have the option to choose “none of the above” at the polls.

Many Brazilians view the Oct. 30 runoff as the country’s highest-stakes election since it emerged from a military dictatorship in 1985. Ahead of the vote, the Christian nationalist Bolsonaro has claimed Brazil is menaced by a corrupt left—a reference to Lula’s trials as part of a graft scandal at the country’s state oil company during the 2010s—and has also played up anti-poverty measures he implemented during the official campaign period. Lula harkens back to his 2003 to 2010 tenure as president, during which he led Brazil through a historic period of GDP growth and poverty reduction. He also emphasizes corruption allegations levied against Bolsonaro. Critically, Lula has made clear his support for democracy, whereas Bolsonaro has hinted that he might not accept an election loss.

Encarnação’s visit to see Helton and Gabriela was prompted by his friend’s announcement that the pair were planning to vote for Bolsonaro in the runoff. Encarnação, a lifelong leftist, wanted to see if he could sway them otherwise. Tebet, their first-round pick, has endorsed Lula.

Encarnação made his first attempt at a pitch, noting that Gabriela directs a nonprofit that teaches alternative professional skills to youth in Rio de Janeiro’s violent drug gangs. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has often repeated that police should be able to shoot members of drug gangs dead on sight. “Is that what you want for the young people you work with, Gabi?” Encarnação asked.

She paused. Then she offered her rebuttal.

“I may not agree with everything Bolsonaro does,” Gabriela told him, “but I do disagree with everything Lula does.” She said that corruption under Lula siphoned resources away from “people experiencing hunger and extreme poverty” and that she disagreed with leftists’ support for “gender ideology,” a phrase used on the Brazilian right to claim that educators encourage children to be gay or transgender. Her Christian community, she said, overwhelmingly supports Bolsonaro.

Helton largely agreed with his daughter, but he wavered when Encarnação asked him if his life was better during Lula’s two presidential administrations than it is now. “I did buy several new cars” during Lula’s tenure, he said sheepishly. Encarnação received his comments with a glint of optimism.


Swinging votes has proved difficult in the four-week window leading to Brazil’s runoff, according to opinion surveys. An Oct. 16 to Oct. 18 study by pollster Quaest found that only 6 percent of voters were open to changing their minds. For this reason, politicized Brazilians have also aimed to coax commitments out of people who didn’t show up at all for the first round. They total 20.9 percent of all eligible voters, according to election officials, and include both those who had an approved excuse from mandatory voting and those who did not.

Voter abstention from Brazilian elections has gradually risen since 2006. In part, that could reflect delays in updating voter registries, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro political scientist Antônio Alkmim told Foreign Policy; some Brazilians who died of COVID-19 may have been mistakenly counted as abstentions on Oct. 2. Furthermore, a smartphone app has also made it easier to submit an abstention excuse in recent years.

But high abstention rates also reflect some Brazilians’ overall disillusionment with politics. Rio de Janeiro massage therapist Marli Rodrigues said she would not vote in the presidential runoff despite repeated lobbying from her son Chrystian to support Lula because she “doesn’t trust either one.” During a visit to her home by Foreign Policy, she said, “Both candidates, Lula and Bolsonaro, stole from everyday people.”

Because the runoff margin is expected to be tight, fluctuations in turnout could be decisive. Historically, fewer Brazilians have voted in presidential runoffs than in first-round elections. What’s more, the Sunday of the runoff happens to fall after a Friday holiday in some states and thus a long weekend for some workplaces. Weekend travel could affect the vote, Alkmim said.

Turnout could also be influenced by how effectively local politicians allied with Lula and Bolsonaro campaign in their regions, economist and pollster Maurício Moura wrote in O Globo. Lula and Bolsonaro have crisscrossed the country in recent weeks to drum up enthusiasm alongside loyal mayors, governors, and lawmakers. They have also racked up endorsements that extend well outside traditional political circles: pop musicians, soccer players, and usually silent judges and economists have all weighed in. As of Oct. 25, poll aggregator PollsterGraph calculated that Lula was leading Bolsonaro by 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent of votes in surveys. Bolsonaro outperformed polls in the first round of voting.

Another key factor affecting which voters return to the polls is socioeconomic status, Dom Cabral Foundation economist Bruno Carazza told Foreign Policy. He calculated that in the last presidential runoff in 2018, it was in Brazil’s lowest-income municipalities where abstention increased the most between the first and second rounds of voting. Already, in the first round of this year’s presidential election, less-educated voters (a proxy for low-income voters, as election authorities do not track income) disproportionately stayed home.

For those voters, who tend to support Lula, “traveling across town to vote can have a considerable cost,” Carazza said. He added that many lower-income Brazilians work on Sundays, when Brazilian elections are held.

This year, they faced an added cost during the first round of voting: long lines at the polls. Brazil is rolling out biometric fingerprint identification at polling sites, and Neide Cardoso de Oliveira, head of the Rio de Janeiro prosecutor’s office that looks at election irregularities, said the new system was partially to blame for the queues. Brazilian media reported wait times of up to three hours long at polling places across the country on Oct. 2. In Rio de Janeiro, voters from 10 different polling locations told Foreign Policy they saw people give up on the long wait and depart the sites.

“My ankle was swollen and hurting, and after three hours, I went home,” street vendor Dora Abreu told Foreign Policy. She had planned to vote for Lula. “I don’t know whether I’m going to come back for the runoff. I don’t know if I can face the line again.”

Some experts in election law are also looking out for possible irregularities from volunteer poll observers. Just as in the United States—where groups that cast doubt on the results of the 2020 elections have signed up in the thousands to act as poll observers ahead of November’s midterms—supporters of Bolsonaro and his political allies have encouraged Brazilians to do the same.

An investigation by Brazilian outlets Aos Fatos, Agência Pública, and Núcleo Jornalismo found that at least eight Bolsonaro-aligned political candidates put out recruitment calls for such volunteer poll watchers while also spreading false or misleading information about the elections. A website of unclear origin called “The Myth’s Observers” also proposed registering people “as part of a team that will help reelect Bolsonaro president” before election authorities ordered it to be taken down on Oct. 25.

During the first-round vote, school administrator Elaine Abdo grew suspicious of a volunteer observer’s behavior at her polling place in Duque de Caxias, she told Foreign Policy. Faced with a long, slow-moving line of complaining voters, the observer offered to show people how to fill out the form exempting them from voting, she said. But acceptable excuses include medical reasons or travel—not fatigue from waiting in line, lawyer Marcelo Weick Pogliese of the Brazilian Academy of Electoral and Political Law told Foreign Policy.

Cardoso, the electoral prosecutor, told Foreign Policy she did not receive any similar reports of irregular behavior by observers in the state of Rio de Janeiro. “But our team couldn’t be present everywhere,” she said. If observers encouraged people to leave the polls, “it could have been a crime.”


Despite the obstacles, fear and passion will ultimately motivate many Brazilians to show up at the polls on Oct. 30. Lula and Bolsonaro supporters have pushed hard to inspire both of those emotions in recent weeks, including through social media attacks on their respective opponents.

A deluge of falsehoods pumped through pro-Bolsonaro social media channels 48 hours before the first-round election appears to have won some votes for the incumbent, misinformation analyst João Brant at Brazil’s Culture and Democracy Institute wrote. During that period, a popular pro-Bolsonaro site reported that a convicted São Paulo drug boss announced his support for Lula. Election authorities eventually ordered the content removed on grounds it was “untrue and out of context.”

In recent weeks, Bolsonaro supporters have falsely claimed that Lula has close relations with Rio de Janeiro drug gangs while Lula supporters have called attention to Bolsonaro’s comments in an Oct. 12 interview when he said he “felt a spark” with Venezuelan refugee girls ages 14 and 15. Bolsonaro is 67 and claims to represent family values. Both instances show how economic issues have often taken a backseat to cultural ones ahead of the runoff.

As the attack ads continue, the presidential campaigns have also encouraged their supporters to reach out to people they know who appear to be on the fence. But while the attempts by Encarnação, the welding inspector from Duque de Caxias, to convince Helton and Gabriela to vote for Lula were cordial, some person-to-person attempts at winning votes have been aggressive.

As of Oct. 22, Brazilian labor prosecutors had received more than 1,100 complaints of employers illegally pressuring workers to vote a certain way, up from 212 in 2018. Folha de São Paulo reported on Oct. 19 that the vast majority of those cases involved pressure to vote for Bolsonaro. Complaints have been filed in a wide variety of workplaces, including heavy industry, the commercial sector, agriculture, and local governments.

Many evangelical pastors across the country, meanwhile, have escalated warnings that “if you vote for Lula, something is wrong with your spirituality,” Encarnação told Foreign Policy before his vote-swinging mission. He is a member of one of Brazil’s largest evangelical churches, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, whose billionaire founder supports Bolsonaro. In front of Encarnação’s church, pro-Bolsonaro propaganda was distributed on the day of the first-round election.

Encarnação has not left his church, but he is exasperated. “Bolsonaro has become the main figure of the church. It’s not even Jesus anymore,” he said. Though the founder of his church supported Lula during his successful presidential run in 2002, the church today “ignores that it was ever part of a Workers’ Party government,” Encarnação added.

But it is precisely the church’s lurch to the right that makes Encarnação determined to try to maintain dialogue about politics with his fellow evangelicals, he said. The efforts require both “faith and reason,” he added.

“I think there’s still a chance that Helton votes for Lula.”

Have questions about the Brazilian election campaign, runoff results, or the future of Brazil generally? Join Catherine on Monday, Oct. 31—the day after the runoff vote—for a special live chat at 1 p.m. EDTFP subscribers can submit their questions ahead of time here.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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