Bolsonaro exceeded expectations in Brazil’s first-round vote. But the odds are still against him | Opinion

There is no question that Brazil’s incumbent right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro did much better than expected in the Oct. 2 first-round elections, and that he now has the momentum. But I will be surprised if he defeats his leftist rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in the Oct. 30 runoff.

Granted, we can’t rely on the polls; they were disastrously wrong on the first-round results. Brazil’s biggest polling firms had predicted Lula would win by a margin of almost 15 percentage points and that he could even exceed the 50% he needed in the first round to avoid a runoff.

Instead, Lula won 48.4% of the vote against Bolsonaro’s 43.2%, with the remaining candidates getting a total of about 8%.

Both Lula and Bolsonaro have plenty of ammunition to try to discredit each other over the next few weeks.

Bolsonaro has suggested he may not accept a defeat, raising doubts about his democratic credentials, and environmental groups accused him of destroying the Amazon forest. Lula presided over a corruption-ridden government between 2003 and 2010, and himself spent 580 days in jail on corruption charges before he was freed by a Supreme Court ruling.

Regardless of what the polls will say in the coming days, mathematics is on Lula’s side. The former president will only need to win over an additional 1.6% of voters to be elected in the second round, whereas Bolsonaro would need to increase his support by nearly 7%.

In addition, the candidates who got the third and fourth most votes in the first round, Simone Tebet and Ciro Gomes, are not expected to support Bolsonaro in the runoff.

In an Oct. 3 newsletter, the Eurasia political-risk consulting firm said there is a 65% chance that Lula will win in the second round. His lead in the runoff election “is likely to grow by 1-2 points, given the breakdown of the remaining candidates,” Eurasia’s Latin America director Christopher Garman wrote.

Bolsonaro supporters say pundits got it all wrong in the first round, and are getting it wrong now.

First, even though he came in second in Sunday’s vote, Bolsonaro now is seen as a winner. That could help him draw more support from among those who didn’t vote on Oct. 2.

Second, Bolsonaro will benefit from the support of key officials, such as the newly reelected governor of Minas Gerais, the country’s second most populated state. Romeu Zema, the state’s governor, said Monday that he will support Bolsonaro in the presidential runoff.

Third, a slowly improving economy may help Bolsonaro in the weeks remaining before the runoff. The country’s economy is expected to grow between 2.9% and 3.2% this year, and unemployment has fallen below 9% for the first time in seven years.

“Most analysts in Brazil think this is a 50-50 race now,” former Brazilian ambassador to Washington Rubens Barbosa told me. “But I still think that Lula will win, because Bolsonaro would need eight to nine million additional votes to win. That will be very hard for him.”

If Lula wins the second round, he may have to govern with an opposition congress. The pro-Bolsonaro right wing Liberal Party won 99 seats in the 513 seat lower house of Congress, up from 77 it had until now, and will become the largest single bloc in Congress.

But while a powerful right-wing bloc in Congress would probably keep Lula from imposing some economic policies that the business community opposes, it may not have a big impact on foreign-policy issues.

“There’s a general consensus that Brazil’s Congress has little influence over foreign policy,” Anthony W. Pereira, head of Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, told me. “Congress tends to refer foreign-policy issues to the foreign minister, because most legislators think that talking about foreign policy does not win any votes.”

It’s still possible that Lula could make a big mistake between now and Oct. 30, or that Bolsonaro could get unexpected good economic news that would bolster his numbers. But, barring major surprises, the odds right now are that Lula will win.

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