The Global Importance of Brazilian Democracy

Contributing writer Oliver Polachini ’26 reflects on the global importance of Brazilian democracy in light of the nation’s recent presidential elections.

The Global Importance of Brazilian Democracy
Oliver Polachini ’26 reflects on the global importance of Brazilian democracy. Graphic courtesy of Nina Aagaard '26.

Every four years, Brazil partakes in its two most important events: the soccer World Cup and the presidential elections. The World Cup is usually held in June, always in time to impact the elections, which happen in October; this year, however, due to Qatar’s extremely hot summer weather, the World Cup was postponed to December, so the elections happened first. On Sunday, Oct. 30, over 120 million Brazilians left their homes all over the world to cast their electronic ballots and decide their national leader for the next four years.

Among the many options we had during the first round of voting (which was held on Oct. 2), only the two most polemic candidates made it to the run-offs: Lula, who had already run for president five times between 1989 and 2006 and been elected twice, and Jair Bolsonaro, who was a member of the Chamber of Deputies from 1991 to 2018, only leaving to run for — and win — the presidency.

Since moving to the U.S., I have been asked about my opinions on President Bolsonaro countless times. His anti-Indigenous, sexist, homophobic, racist, climate change-denying and Covid-19 negationist views seem to have transcended the borders of Brazil, redefining our country’s image in both foreign and domestic ways.

Even after killing over 600,000 people by failing to determine lockdown measures, while also refusing to buy vaccines and getting involved in a R$40 billion (US$7.77 billion) corruption and bribery scandal, Bolsonaro is still extremely popular. His motto, “God, Country and Family,” was originally written by the National Fascist Party in 1931. As of today, it is acclaimed by Brazil’s enormous Christian population, who think Bolsonaro’s middle name, “Messias,” is a sign that he is the next Messiah to save our nation. When speaking to moderates, the polite way to refer to Bolsonaro’s political stance is “right-wing populism.” Those who are aligned with center-left or left-wing ideas would rather call him a fascist and even a genocidal mastermind. His supporters refer to him as “Captain” — the rank he held in the Army before attempting to bomb a military base — and “legend.” It is impressive Bolsonaro still has supporters, to say the least. But the source of his popularity finds itself in the other candidate.

In 2002, Brazil elected its first president hailing from the popular classes: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was born in the poor Northeast, only learning how to read at the age of 10, losing a finger in a factory while working at the age of 19 and becoming a sindical, or union, leader after that. Lula is seen both as a savior and as a menace. As president, he brought 25 million people out of hunger, and the number of university students rose from 3 to 8 million. A number of people view Lula as some kind of angel who was sent to save their lives.

However, corruption scandals such as Mensalão (during which R$101 million, around US$33 million at the time, was directed to pay deputies to the lower chamber in exchange for votes for Lula’s projects) and Petrolão (famously called the “Car Wash operation,” a bribery scandal involving around R$7 billion, or US$2.33 billion) harmed Lula’s image to an irreversible extent.

These scandals also culminated in a coup against fellow Workers’ Party member President Dilma Rousseff (2016), who was impeached due to fiscal pedaling with no constitutional justifications. Even despite these scandals, Lula was considered the only political force able to combat “Bolsonarism,” the near-cult movement that supports the current president and despises Lula with a passion.

Lula was reelected two weeks ago, though a considerable number of his votes came from people who claimed to be simply fighting for democracy and not for Lula himself. For the past years, Bolsonaro has been giving hints that he wanted to change the national voting system from electronic ballots to paper ballots after alleging fraud in this year’s election, and mentioned the possibility of calling for a third turn of elections if he didn't win the run-offs. On Election Day, the Federal Road Police blocked roads leading from poor towns and Indigenous communities to their voting sites: These groups are likely to vote for Lula, who is estimated to have lost around 200,000 votes due to this intervention. Right now, Bolsonaro’s supporters are again blocking roads and airports around Brazil while asking for “justice” in the electoral system and demanding the arrest of the president of the Supreme Electoral Court.

Brazilian democracy is threatened: After all, a significant number of Brazilian citizens (including me!) found themselves voting for a candidate only to avoid the other’s victory. When I talked to U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin with the Amherst Political Union a few weeks ago, he discussed how the U.S. is the largest democracy in the Western world right now. I asked about his thoughts on how the American democracy impacted other democracies in the West, but I also asked about the reverse: How do other big yet fragile democracies such as the one I was born in impact the one which I live in now? Raskin’s response was a confirmation that threats to democracy in any country also do threaten democracy in the U.S.; just as the American Revolution served as one of many inspirations for the French Revolution, and populism spread throughout Latin America because politicians could see it working in their neighboring countries, upheavals in world democracies often affect others like dominoes falling in a line. It is impossible for a democracy to exist independently, and each democracy helps sustain another by economic deals and political agreements.

I can see how democracies impact one another when my classmates ask me how things are going politically back in Brazil, or when the U.S. offers interventions or special representatives to check whether Brazil follows its interests or not. I also see how non-democracies impact one another when I see the rise of far-right wing movements across the world. Americas to Europe, and from Europe to the rest of the world.

I am extremely happy Lula won. I have my criticisms of him, but I also acknowledge that my ability to study abroad at Amherst is thanks to his policies and impact while he was president. His victory does not mean anyone should take their eyes off Brazilian politics or the paths current democracies around the world are taking, but at least Brazilians will get to enjoy the World Cup without another attempt at a coup d’etat, and maybe see Brazil conquer its sixth title. Or maybe not, depending on how Bolsonaro’s supporters and their own relationships to democracy might surprise us from now on.