10-03-21 10:00:00, Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on November 9, 2019 as he walked free from jail (Photo by NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images); Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on February 24, 2021 (Photo by EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images)
The resounding victory of the seven-term right-wing Congressman Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s 2018 presidential elections was stunning by every metric.
Consigned for decades to the political fringes due to his explicit praise for the military dictatorship that savagely ruled Brazil until 1985 along with other outlandish statements (“I would be incapable of loving a gay son. I prefer that he die in an accident”), the former Army Captain’s ascension to the presidency of the world’s sixth-most populous country was highly consequential for the region and the world. That he won by a large margin in a country that had previously voted for the center-left Workers’ Party (PT) in four consecutive national elections dating back to 2002, and whose media and political establishment were undisguised in their revulsion toward him, made his victory, whatever else one might say about him, politically impressive.
But that victory has always borne an enormous asterisk: the judicial elimination of his most formidable opponent. Polls throughout 2017 and into 2018 uniformly showed former two-term president Lula da Silva, founder of the Workers’ Party, as the clear frontrunner. That should not be surprising: Brazil experienced massive economic growth under Lula’s two terms, eventually passing the UK to become the world’s sixth largest economy (it is now back to twelfth); millions were lifted out of poverty; and Lula was term-limited out of office with an 86% approval rating. “That’s my man right there. The most popular politician on Earth,” proclaimed then-President Barack Obama when he met Lula in 2010 at the G-20 summit, Lula’s final year in office.
As Americans know better than anyone, none of this proves Lula would have defeated Bolsonaro had he been permitted to run. As the world saw in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming frontrunner, polling data can be wrong. And just as was true of Donald Trump in 2016, one could make the case that 2018 in Brazil was the perfect storm for a Jair Bolsonaro victory no matter his opposition.