Two Brazils: Bolsonaro and the 2022 Elections

Joe Mulhall - 13 10 22

Joe Mulhall travels to Brazil to witness the 2022 Brazilian elections, and the threat to democracy posed by fascist incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro.

“Do you want to see a magic trick? You flew to one Brazil, but I’m going to show you that there is two.”

The main roads look like anywhere else. Bustling traffic zipping past shop-lined streets selling all manner of goods. Busy bars playing the highlights of the latest Vasco da Gama game, barbershops with long queues being entertained by booming radios.

But turn off the street into any one of a thousand cramped alleyways and you enter a different Brazil. Tiny houses hang together with labyrinthine stairways winding above and below. In the heart of the favela the sun does not rise, the rays unable to penetrate through the mosaic of slanted roofs and the thick tangle of overhead wires. The stagnant, humid air and constantly damp floors make it feel like a subterranean tunnel, the darkness only lifted by colourful wall paintings and bright red Lula stickers plastered on every other pillar and wall.

Carlos was my guide around Rocinha, Brazil’s biggest favela. He has lived there his whole life. “This is a social experience,” he insisted. “People come to Rocinha and drive around in tour buses and are too scared to get out. It’s not a safari, we aren’t animals,” he said with bite in his voice.

There are over 600 favelas in Rio alone, most to the north and west, though Rocinha is in the south of the city, just moments from the white sand and postcard views of Ipanema. They are cities within cities, each a unique community, within Rio de Janeiro but not part of it. They don’t even look like the rest of the city, with square terracotta-coloured buildings stacked on top of each other like a pixelated image. Looking down from Sugarloaf Mountain, the favelas dot the horizon like glaciers of brick, sliding down crevices and valleys.

Carlos, a wiry man in his fifties who taught himself English with a second-hand dictionary, was passionate about his community and outspoken about the problems it faces. Many leave the favela each morning for work in the city and return each evening. “Some families survive on as little as $15 a week. It’s modern slavery,” he explained. Yet walk five minutes down the hill and there are swanky houses with dramatic sea views that cost millions of dollars. This is what Carlos meant when he told me there were two Brazils.


Brazil has been an unequal society since long before the election of Bolsonaro. While 51% of the population identifies as black, they experience the highest levels of unemployment, illiteracy and the lowest salaries. They are more likely to be homicide victims, victims of police violence and to be incarcerated. On average, black and brown Brazilians have an income that is slightly less than half that of whites. More than half of the people living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are black, as compared to just 7% in the city’s more prosperous districts.

“What about the elections?” I asked.

“Most poor people support Lula,” he replied, but he was not completely convinced himself. “They vote for him because he gives them food.”

“Food’s important,” I offered in response.

“We don’t want to be given food. We want to be able to buy it ourselves.”

We stopped in a roadside bar for a plastic cup of Caipirinha, a sweet cocktail made from the Brazilian spirit Cachaça and handfuls of lime and sugar, and spoke with his colleague, a much younger resident of the area. “Bolsonaro is crazy, but Lula is corrupt,” he said, a refrain I would hear regularly over the week.

He lived on what they affectionately called ‘Snoop Dogg Alley’, a street known for the dealing of drugs. “On a Saturday and Sunday this road will have 400 guns on it,” he said with a laugh. It was hard to imagine, as we sat on a bustling main road sipping a cold drink, but clearly there is more than just one favela, as well more than just one Brazil.

Lula sticker on door in Rocinha

Bolsonaro The Fascist

When you read both the Brazilian and international media coverage of Bolsonaro he is often described as ‘far right’, sometimes just ‘conservative’ or even ‘pro-family’, but very rarely is he explicitly called a fascist. This is despite him fitting comfortably with most academic definitions that allow for fascism to be more than just a historical phenomenon. While the term is unquestionably misused by many, watering down its potency, it remains an important descriptor when applied accurately, and Bolsonaro comfortably deserves it.

In July 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain from a humble background, was nominated as the presidential candidate of the Social Liberal Party. On 6 September, while campaigning in the city of Juiz de Fora, he was stabbed; according to his son Flavio, the knife perforated parts of his liver, lung and intestine. Despite being unable to campaign for much of the election, he swept to victory with a commanding 55.2% of the vote against just 44.8% for Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party. For some of his supporters, surviving the knife attack was “evidence of divine grace” and “remodelled the populist politician into [an] indestructible messianic hero.”

President Trump was quick to call and congratulate the figure who had been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics.” However, while the media was right to draw parallels between the two far-right leaders and to contextualise his victory within a wider trend of far-right electoral victories around the world, Bolsonaro is more extreme than his American ally by an order of magnitude. Trump’s “Grab ‘em by the pussy” remarks sound moderate when compared to the new Brazilian Presidents record of wild, extreme and xenophobic comments.

There are few minority communities that Bolsonaro has not attacked, though some of his most shocking outbursts have come against LGBTQ+ communities. In 2002, in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper he said: “I’m not going to fight or discriminate, but if I see two men kissing on the street, I’ll hit them,” then in 2011, he shockingly said;

“I would be incapable of loving a homosexual child. I’m not going to act like a hypocrite here: I’d rather have my son die in an accident than show up with some moustachioed guy. For me, he would have died.”
He even suggested that if a son “starts acting a little gay, hit him with some leather.”

Poster on the campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

As is so often the case, Bolsonaro’s ugly track record of homophobia goes hand in hand with a deep-seated misogyny. In February 2016, he said: “I would not employ [a woman] with the same salary [of a man]. But there are many women who are competent.” Most shockingly, in an infamous confrontation with Congresswoman Maria do Rosário, he said: “I would never rape you, because you do not deserve it […] slut!” He also admitted to hitting a woman when he was a boy in Eldorado because: “a girl was getting in my face.”

He also has a history of racist outbursts. During a speech in Rio in 2017, he spoke of visiting a settlement in El Dourado Paulista founded by people of African origin and said, “Look, the lightest African descendant there weighed 100 kg. They don’t do anything. They don’t even serve to reproduce.” He has also lashed out at other South American’s describing Venezuelan immigrant as “scum of the earth.”

In 2020, he said: “The Indians are evolving, more and more they are human being like us”, and back in 1998 he went as far as to laud the genocide of native communities in the USA, saying: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.” Since taking office his racist politics have been turned into racist policies, with Human Rights Watch warning of “Bolsonaro’s plan to legalize crimes against indigenous peoples.”

Bolsonaro’s extreme and explicit homophobia, misogyny and racism pose a genuine threat to the people of Brazil but also to the very survival of democracy in the country. His presidency has to be viewed in the context of his own long history of anti-democratic and pro-dictatorial beliefs, coupled with the fragility of Brazil’s democratic institutions.

Central here is Bolsonaro’s positive view of the bloody military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985. Bolsonaro has denied it was truly a dictatorship and even told Viktor Orban, the far-right leader of Hungary, that the military junta could not be described as such.

Worryingly though, Bolsonaro has not confined his pro-dictatorship views to history and has himself advocated for violent and bloody change. In 1999 he said:

Through the vote, you will not change anything in this country, nothing, absolutely nothing! It will only change, unfortunately, when, one day, we start a civil war here and do the work that the military regime did not do. Killing some 30,000, starting with FHC [then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso], not kicking them out, killing! If some innocent people are going to die, fine, in any war, innocents die.

He also he said “I’m in favour of torture, you know that. And the people are in favour as well.”

During his 2018 presidential campaign, he did not hide such views. In fact, when asked about rampant police violence he replied: “If a police officer kills ten, fifteen, or twenty alleged criminals with ten or thirty bullets each, he needs to get a medal and not be prosecuted.”

It is therefore unsurprising that gun ownership rose by 98% during his first year as President and in April 2020, he revoked decrees designed to facilitate the tracing of weapons and tripled the quantity of ammunition available civilian purchase. These moves have created huge concern amongst many anti-fascists and opponents of Bolsonaro.

His history of pro-dictatorship rhetoric, widespread support from the military and his ramping up of misinformation about possible electoral fraud has convinced many that he may orchestrate a coup should he lose the elections.

Rainy Days Pre-Election

The first thing I did when I landed in Rio de Jannero was buy an umbrella. It was a torrential rain storm, just days before the first round of the 2022 Presidential elections. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former centre-left president, was running against the incumbent fascist Jair Bolsonaro.

Copacabana beach was near deserted, save for the odd hardy jogger battling against the wind and disappointed staff watching the thunderous white waves just beyond their empty bars. People playing beach football had been replaced by intrepid dog walkers in raincoats holding little used umbrellas.

Just a few weeks before, this very beach had been drenched in sun and packed with tens of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters dressed in green and yellow in what The Guardian called “a thumping display of political strength on his country’s most famous beach in a bid to energize his stagnant re-election campaign.”

Despite the rain now, the area was still pulsating with politics. Every street corner was occupied with people waving flags adorned with the faces of candidates. The streets were littered with party leaflets and every other person was proudly wearing a sticker, some for Lula, others for Bolsonaro.

I spotted a small group of Bolsonaro supporters wearing Brazil football shirts covered in political stickers, drinking in a beachfront bar. Sadly, it seems that Bolsonaro supporters have captured the Brazilian flag. As was so long the case in the UK, if people drape themselves in the national flag or even the iconic national football shirt, it is a good sign they support Bolsonaro. “It’s got to the point where anti-Bolsonaro supporters are even debating whether to support the football team,” the journalist Luís Costa told me. Something previously inconceivable in this football-obsessed country.

A man in a football shirt waving a huge green and yellow flag pointed to a group sat in the bar. “Very good people!” he shouted enthusiastically. I went over and was introduced to Valdinei Martins, a candidate standing to be State Deputy in Rio for the Brazilian Labour Party and a fervent Bolsonaro supporter.

Bolsonaro supporters at Copacabana Beach

Bolsonaro’s face dominated the flags, his grinning visage occupying the bottom right corner. “Foda-se Lula (Fuck Lula)” was the first thing Martins said to me, whispering it quietly in my ear. Using a translation app, I asked about his hopes for the presidential election. He explained that it would be close-run, which was surprising considering the polling suggested that Lula would win, perhaps even in the first round.

“That’s not what the polls suggest,” I replied.

“Fake News” he snapped back in English.

“So who supports Bolsonaro?”

“Everyone!” He then jabbed his finger at each of his friends around the table. “Taxi driver, public servant, businessman. Everyone!” 

“And will Bolsonaro leave office if he loses?” I continued, very aware I had just invited myself onto their table and began asking critical questions. But this question was on everyone’s mind. “Bolsonaro is a democrat,” explained Valdinei. I could feel a ‘but’ coming. “But people have to trust the election.” Bolsonaro has spent recent months purposefully seeking to undermine trust in the electoral process, mimicking the Trumpian tactic.

“And what about his views on LGBT people and women?” I asked, pushing a little harder than was perhaps wise. All I got back was a shrug and it seemed our discussion was over. He asked me to pose for a picture with his flag, but I politely declined and made for the exit.

As I left the bar, I asked one of the men enthusiastically waving a Bolsonaro flag why he supported the President. “I don’t”, he replied. “Bolsonaro supports the rich, Lula the poor. They pay me 30R to wave the flag, it’s my son’s birthday today and I want to buy him a cake.”

One bar over, I sat down to digest the conversation but was quickly invited to join a family merrily drinking and singing along to the thumping samba band. They instantly asked what I thought would happen in the election; politics seemed to be the only topic of conversation in Brazil. “What do you think will happen?” I replied.  “We all support Lula,” said the only English speaker, pointing to her mother and aunt. “But he supports Bolsonaro,” raising an eyebrow in the direction of her uncle. “Do you think Bolsonaro will leave office if he loses?” I asked in his direction. After a short pause for the question to be translated, he replied, “I hope not!” He went on to explain his support for the military dictatorship that ran Brazil between 1964 and 1985. “It was safer and there was less corruption,” he added. “He doesn’t like democracy,” added his niece with a smirk.

Election Day

On the day of the 2022 election the sun finally broke through the clouds, painting Rio in a light that matched the postcards. There was an uneasy tension hanging in the air and a noticeably large police presence, walking in large groups, sparkling revolvers strapped to their thighs, some carrying long wooden poles that look like chair legs. They looked more like a gang than law enforcement. Police helicopters flew low over the beach, side doors open like a scene from a Vietnam war movie. Then as the afternoon progressed the military made an appearance, large lorries of heavily armed, helmeted soldiers driving up and down the beach.

Due to their modern system, through which ballots are cast on computers, the results began to trickle in just moments after voting closed at 5pm. The side street bars began to fill with excited supporters huddled around screens. I grabbed a drink in a small restaurant which was already thronged by Lula supporters, who greeted each result with a groan or cheer depending on who won the region.

When Lula left office in 2010 he had a remarkable 80% approval rating. However, in 2017 he was convicted on charges of money laundering and corruption and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison. He later lost an appeal and the sentence was extended to 12 years but soon after the conviction was annulled making Lula free to run again in future elections. The issue remains a contentious one with many Lula supporters believing the conviction to have been politically motivated. 

A group of middle-aged women entered the bar, dressed all in red and covered in Lula stickers. One proudly supported a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Lula Inocente’. She cheered results with such gusto that her voice was already hoarse by 6pm. One especially large victory for Lula flashed on the screen and she pulled up her dress to reveal Lula’s face emblazoned on her underwear.

Newspaper front pages on election day

After 10% of the votes had been counted, Bolsonaro was in the lead with 48% of the vote, worryingly close to the 50% required to win the first round of the election outright. But this was unsurprising, due to the early results coming in from the Northern and Southern regions where he was always expected to do well. By the time 30% of the votes had been counted, people became visibly more worried, with Lula still trailing Bolsonaro by 47% to 43%, a long way from the thumping Lula victory predicated by the pollsters. Michele Prado, an anti-fascist researcher from Brazil texted me: “I’m very distressed. […] In the last 4 years I have been studying and warning that the extreme right was establishing itself here.”

It was not until 70% of the vote had been counted that Lula finally took the lead. The street I was on erupted with cheers and chants of “Olay, Olay, Olay, Olay, LULA, LULA!” It had taken longer than many had hoped, but there was still time for the Workers Party candidate to make a late surge. 

I walked a few streets down to another bar where there was a bigger TV screen and a more mixed group, half Lula, half Bolsonaro. As I sat down, a drunk Bolsonaro supporter in a Brazil football shirt walked past and took aim at a young gay couple stood by the bar. Passions flared and a brief scuffle broke out between Lula and Bolsonaro supporters before being separated by bar staff.

A woman involved in the scrap spotted me sat at the table and walked over. “I’m black, I’m a woman and I’m a lesbian. I’m everything they hate.” She clasped her hands around her neck, “These people have been stood on my neck for four years.” She introduced herself as Marilia, a chef who had worked in New York for many years and then joined me at my table. “Watch my dog,” she said, “she’s a total bitch.” We watched the last 10% of votes being counted together as she threw back her drink with enthusiasm. “If Bolsonaro loses tonight, we’re going to get so fucking drunk!” she shouted as she waved to the waiter to bring more beer.

I asked what the fight was about. “He was a bully. I can’t stand bullies.” I believed her. She proudly sported a rainbow sticker that read, “Amar os Amigos: Desarmar os Inimigos” which she translated to me as “Love your friends, disembowel your enemy”, though it seems “disarm your enemy” may be a more accurate translation.

Another strong result for Lula flashed up on the screen and she jumped out of her seat to face a group of Bolsonaro supporters celebrating a birthday on the table behind us. “You’re not celebrating any more are you!” she fearlessly said before sitting down with a broad grin and a cackle. “We’re going to get so drunk tonight,” she said again, smashing her hand down on the table.

The Results

When the results had finally all been counted, Lula had failed to make it across the line. He was painfully close to winning in the first round, but with 48.4% he fell just short. “We’ll beat him next time”, Marilia optimistically said as we parted way.

Despite her optimism, Bolsonaro had performed much better than most people expected, securing 43.2% of the vote. This was despite some pre-election polls estimating Lula would emerge with a 13 or 14-point margin of victory, leading many to ask serious questions about the accuracy of the polling.

As I walked back to my hotel I passed the famous Rio institution of Bip Bip. A tiny bar tucked into the wall; every inch of it covered in framed pictures of Brazilian musical legends. While a group of musicians sat around the only table quietly playing Bossa Nova with consummate skill, the mood on the street in front of the bar was sombre.

Bip Bip Bar

Not only had Bolsonaro far exceeded what was expected, the far right had performed well in congressional and governor’s races as well. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) became the largest party in the lower house of Congress, with dangerous and extreme allies of Bolsonaro doing well. Ricardo Salles, who presided over an expansion of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, won a seat for Sao Paulo while Eduardo Pazuello, in charge of Brazil’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic, won in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile in the Senate, PL and its allies won at least 15 of the 27 seats being contested.

One Lula supporter in a rainbow shirt dejectedly shook my hand. “I had no idea just how strong the far right really are,” he said, on the edge of tears. He raised his can of Heineken, “To the death of our democracy” he toasted. Another Lula supporter came over. “I don’t want to be here drinking; I want to be at home crying. But a friend said it’s better to be around friends who can hug you.”


Whether owing to Bolsonaro himself or to his party and allies, the far-right performed much better than most had expected. Many I spoke with had understandably hoped for the best, presuming Bolsonaro’s presidency was a blip, something that could be quickly smoothed out by a decisive defeat this time around.

Yet, just as the impact of Trump’s period as president has continued to resonates in the US following his defeat, a second-round victory for Lula will not bring about the end of Bolsonaroism. As the congressional and governor races show, the far right have put down roots in Brazil and the danger will not simply end with a Bolsonaro defeat in the second round of the elections.

There are also more fundamental questions about the very survival of democracy in Brazil. Bolsonaro is not a true democrat, and a smooth transition of power should he lose the next round is far from guaranteed. The one upside of his strong performance is that it makes it harder for him to claim widespread electoral fraud, though he may still question results in regions he loses. Throw in widespread support from the military and a rapidly arming supporter base and the picture is a troubling one.

Brazil also feels extremely divided. Supporters on each side wear t-shirts calling for the imprisonment of their opponent, a sign that political divisions run deep. Bolsonaro has stolen the flag and, as the far right always strive to do in power, redefined the nation to exclude those who oppose him or he dislikes. Rebuilding a more inclusive nationhood will be no simple task. 

When in power, fascists like Bolsonaro and their pernicious politics become normalised. Divisive, hateful and authoritarian attitudes can seep into the groundwater, becoming remarkably hard to reverse.

A Lula victory would be an important step towards stemming the tide, especially if his presidency begins to address the material needs of the people of Brazil. However, even if Bolsonaro loses at the end of October, it looks like Bolsonaroism is here to stay.


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