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Story Publication logo September 30, 2022

What’s At Stake as Brazilians Prepare to Vote in Highly Divisive Presidential Election


red wave leaves the Brazilian capitol

The future of Brazil's rainforest and democracy hang in the balance.


Brazilians go to the polls Sunday in a hotly contested election that has drawn the world's attention. Will voters reelect right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro? Or, return the twice-elected former president known to everyone as "Lula" to power? In partnership with the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Brazil.

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Judy Woodruff: Brazilians go to the polls Sunday in a hotly contested election that has drawn the world's attention.

Voters will decide whether to reelect their right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, or return the twice-elected former president known to everyone as Lula to power.

In partnership with the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from the Atlantic coast state of Bahia north of Rio.

Jane Ferguson: It takes a strong person to survive the slums, known as favelas, of Panama City. On top of crushing poverty and crime, people must fight just to keep a roof over their heads.

Under the government of Jair Bolsonaro these last four years, efforts by farmers and land developers to push the poor off unoccupied lands, often with violence, have increased.

Nildes Araujo, Land Movement Leader (through translator): It's terrible because he armed the land speculators. They say that we are troublemakers, invaders, and they arm the farmers and say that we don't have the right to land.

Jane Ferguson: Nildes Araujo leads the fight to defend her home, this small patch of land she shares with 60 families living in tiny makeshift houses.

She works with a land rights organization, and after speculators sent gunmen to chase them away, Araujo got a lawyer, went to court, and won the right to stay, for now.

Nildes Araujo (through translator): These conflicts have always occurred, but, with the Bolsonaro government, it worsened, because they do not give us the right to housing. And if it were up to him, we were all on the street.

Jane Ferguson: Millions of Brazilians live in favelas on land they don't own or rent because they cannot afford to.

Residents connect illegally to local power and water sources, and the areas are often blighted by gang violence. But there are few other options for the country's vast population living in poverty.

Marines Andrade lived on the streets for most of her life, before Araujo helped her come here. Her organization gave Andrade this small wooden home to live in four years ago. The memory of life on the streets is still painful for her.

Marines Andrade, Favela Resident (through translator): I have suffered for 58 years. My whole life has been suffering. I used to beg by the church, and I had to hide my children when they were small, so they wouldn't get killed.

Jane Ferguson: Andrade will vote on Sunday for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known to everyone as Lula.

President from 2003 to 2010, left-wing Workers' Party chief Lula was jailed on corruption charges eight years after his presidency, charges that were later overturned. In a sweeping comeback, he is now the front-runner in Sunday's presidential election.

His opponent, the populist incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, is trailing in the polls. Bolsonaro came to power in 2018 amidst economic and political turmoil in Brazil, with a right-wing, often combative message of God, family values, and fervent nationalism.

In this favela, his message does not resonate. Maria Farias has only ever voted for the Workers' Party.

Who are you going to be voting for on Sunday?

Maria Farias, Favela Voter (through translator): Lula.

Jane Ferguson: Lula. No hesitation. Did you vote for Lula the last time before?

Maria Farias (through translator): Always. My vote was for him every time, ever since he ran. Lula, Lula, Lula until I die.

Jane Ferguson: The social programs Lula put in place have had a direct impact on her family.

Maria Farias (through translator): Because of Lula, my daughter got a full scholarship to a private school. We didn't have to pay anything. And now she has a degree and works as a teacher. I am very grateful to the Lula government. And my husband managed to get a car too.

Jane Ferguson: But that is exactly what bothers Aldo Telles, farmer from the central region of Mato Grosso.

Aldo Telles, Cattle Farmer (through translator): His majority works very little, produces very little. It's not about giving things away. The spirit of the Workers' Party is to give things away to left-wing people. Those people do not get out of misery. They are always captive to vote for them.

Jane Ferguson: Telles lives in Bolsonaro territory, a farming community resentful of land distributions to the indigenous people and left-wing government handouts to the urban poor.

Aldo Telles (through translator): The problem is that Lula is left-wing. You must be aware of the problems in Venezuela, the problems in Argentina now, and so many others that are doomed to failure. Lula doesn't think about teaching people how to fish. He thinks about giving the fish away.

What generates wealth, what generates work is production. And if you just give things away, what will happen? The country would be in chaos. That is our fear.

Jane Ferguson: Chaos might be coming regardless. Bolsonaro has for months questioned the election results, casting doubt in the electronic voting system of Brazil, and praising Brazil's military dictatorship that ran the country from 1964 to 1985.

Fears have grown that he may refuse to concede if he does not win, claiming instead that the vote was rigged. The head of the CIA, Bill Burns, reportedly warned Bolsonaro last year to respect the democratic process, and lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe have underlined that they will quickly move to recognize the election results.

Every Bolsonaro supporter we spoke to say that, A, they do not listen to journalists, they don't read the papers or watch television news, and that, B, they get their information from social media and encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp. As a result, they all say, despite what the polls say, they are confident of a sweeping Bolsonaro victory on Sunday.

His campaign has convinced many of his supporters that, if he doesn't win, it's because the voting system is corrupt. To farmers like Celso Nogueira, it will be a fair election only if Bolsonaro wins it.

Celso Nogueira, Farmer (through translator): Bolsonaro has already proven this when we brought people from outside several countries to show that the polls are only fraudulent. If we have a clean election for both of us in the middle of Sunday, October 2, we will have a very clear win for Bolsonaro. The population doesn't want Lula.

Jane Ferguson: Brazilian political analyst and author Marcos Nobre says this brand of populism is new here.

Marcos Nobre, Author, "The Limits of Democracy": This is completely different, because, for one thing, it's far right populism. And, in this sense, he was able to circumvent the usual gatekeepers in the media, and he was able to convince some groups that felt underrepresented that going with him would change everything.

Jane Ferguson: If all this sounds familiar, it should. Bolsonaro has been widely praised by former President Trump. And Bolsonaro's circle are known to have close connections with former Trump strategists like Steve Bannon.

Marcos Nobre: We still don't know if this movement will organize itself as a movement, like an international authoritarian movement. But what we know is that they have connections and they exchange information and techniques.

Jane Ferguson: Not all who are planning to vote for Bolsonaro are die-hard supporters. As Brazilian politics becomes even more polarized, the options for those voting on Sunday are far on either end of the political spectrum.

Aldo Telles (through translator): We don't want to have a president of the extreme right, nor of the extreme left. We would like to have a center president who wishes the good of the entire population, because we are experiencing a very dangerous moment in Brazil.

Jane Ferguson: There is a growing realization in Brazil that politics here has fundamentally changed. The increasing polarization and angry rhetoric has many on edge. As Brazilians use their right to vote on Sunday, their country's democracy feels increasingly fragile.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Cuiaba, Brazil.