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Filipe DominguesSeptember 27, 2022
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro points up during a military parade to celebrate the bicentennial of the country's independence from Portugal, in Brasília, Brazil, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro points up during a military parade to celebrate the bicentennial of the country's independence from Portugal, in Brasília, Brazil, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

UPDATE FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Brazil’s top two presidential candidates will face each other in a runoff vote after neither got enough support to win outright on Oct. 2 in an election to decide if the country returns a leftist to the helm of the world’s fourth-largest democracy or keeps the far-right incumbent in office.

With 99.9 percent of the votes tallied, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had 48.4 percent support and President Jair Bolsonaro had 43.2 percent. The tightness of the result came as a surprise, since pre-election polls had given Mr. da Silva a commanding lead.

Mr. Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly questioned the reliability of the country’s electronic machines, did not challenge Sunday night’s results. He has claimed to possess evidence of electoral fraud, but never presented any, even after the electoral authority set a deadline to do so. Analysts fear he has laid the groundwork to reject results if he loses the runoff.

On Sept. 7, Brazil celebrated 200 years of independence from Portugal. Instead of holding the bicentennial events in Brasília, the nation’s capital, President Jair Bolsonaro transformed a patriotic military parade into a campaign rally, summoning more than 100,000 supporters and members of the government to Rio de Janeiro, his political base. It was an unseemly misuse of a national event, critics said, but not out of character for the Brazilian populist.

South America’s largest democracy will hold presidential elections on Oct. 2 with two iconic Latin American populists as competing candidates: Mr. Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who served as president from 2003 until 2010.

Mr. Lula leads recent polls by a significant margin, and Mr. Bolsonaro has already threatened not to recognize the election result—unless he is declared the winner, of course. Many fear that the country could see anti-democratic demonstrations similar to those experienced by the United States on Jan. 6 last year during the attack on the capitol by supporters of the defeated presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

South America’s largest democracy will hold presidential elections with two iconic Latin American populists as competing candidates: Mr. Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

This year’s campaign in Brazil has been one of the most tense since the redemocratization of the country in 1985, when the military dictatorship ended. In July, a petition in defense of democracy received more than half a million signatures.

On Aug. 17, the inauguration of the president of the electoral court, which in the past has been a pro forma event, was attended by 2,000 guests and turned into a pro-democracy demonstration. Different civil authorities, such as the attorney general and Supreme Court justices, used the ceremony to defend the current electoral model and the integrity of the electronic voting system.

A Trump-style social media campaign to undermine confidence in the electoral system conducted by Mr. Bolsonaro, his family and his supporters has prompted public figures and representatives from civil society institutions in Brazil to speak out in defense of the nation’s democratic institutions. Among those voices have been leaders of the Catholic Church.

The Brazilian bishops conference issued a “Message to the Brazilian people,” appealing for more “harmony among the powers of the Republic” and respect for “the principles and values of the 1988 Constitution.” After the closing of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops’ 59th general assembly in September, conference leaders wrote: “The logic of confrontation that threatens the democratic rule of law and its institutions transforms adversaries into enemies, dismantles achievements and consolidated rights, incites hatred in social media, deteriorates the social fabric, and diverts the focus from the fundamental challenges to be faced.”

According to Brazil’s bishops, among the “real challenges” facing Brazilian people today are the lingering economic and health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 685,000 Brazilians died during the pandemic while access to vaccines was discouraged or hindered by the federal government and by Mr. Bolsonaro personally. Poverty has been on the rise during the crisis, and more than 33.1 million Brazilians—16 percent of all households—are living in hunger, a number 73 percent higher than two years ago, according to the Brazilian Network for Research on Food Security.

A Trump-style campaign to undermine confidence in the electoral system has prompted public figures in Brazil to speak out in defense of the nation’s democratic institutions.

For months now, the far-right president has alternately escalated and then retreated from rhetorical attacks on the nation’s democratic institutions. Following Mr. Trump’s script in the United States, Mr. Bolsonaro, without offering any evidence, raised suspicions about the electronic ballot boxes that have been in use in Brazil since 1996, voting technology praised by other electoral bodies around the world.

Mr. Bolsonaro, in fact, had been elected to Congress and the presidency through the system he now insinuates is defective. The president is also in constant conflict with the Supreme Court. He denounced some justices as “scoundrels” and describes the court as an enemy to be defeated. He maintains close ties with the military—he has delivered thousands of government positions to former military officials—with the apparent expectation, in defiance of the constitution, that officials loyal to him will oversee the electoral process.

Mr. Bolsonaro has also incited violence against the press. He has been especially hard on female journalists, often reacting to their questions with accusations about their marital life that succeed in generating engagement for him on social media. Episodes of politically motivated physical violence have occurred; some of them, between Lula and Bolsonaro supporters, have resulted in fatalities.

The Brazilian bishops’s statement said, in an apparent reference to Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters, that despite “uncertainty and radicalism,” elections are always a “sign of hope.” They added: “Attempts to break the institutional order, now openly propagated, seek to jeopardize the honesty of the electoral process and the irrevocable right to vote.

For months now, the far-right president has alternately escalated and then retreated from rhetorical attacks on the nation’s democratic institutions.

“Stirring up the political process, fomenting chaos and encouraging authoritarian actions are definitely not a project of interest to the Brazilian people,” the bishops said. “We reiterate our support for the institutions of the Republic, particularly public servants who are dedicated to ensuring the transparency and integrity of elections.”

Mr. Lula draws most of his support from Brazil’s center-left but retains some supporters among the radical left. He has had to moderate his campaign agenda to appeal to a wider audience. To that end, he chose as his vice president the former governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, a medical doctor and lifelong member of Brazil’s center-right elite. Dr. Alckmin said he agreed to join Mr. Lula, a political rival, to defend democracy from Mr. Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism.

Elected under the banner of the Workers’ Party, Mr. Lula’s two previous administrations were marked by the establishment of new social assistance programs and strong economic growth but also featured numerous cases of government corruption among political allies and within state-owned businesses. Despite the corruption, he left office with high approval ratings and managed to anoint a successor from the Workers’ Party, Dilma Rousseff, who served from 2011 to 2016.

But the popularity of the party declined as the economy lost momentum under Ms. Rousseff, and in 2017, Mr. Lula was convicted on corruption charges. Imprisoned for almost two years, he was blocked from running in 2018, when Mr. Bolsonaro was elected. His conviction was overturned in 2021 by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the case against the former president was adjudicated improperly by the trial judge, Sergio Moro. Mr. Moro later became a minister in the Bolsonaro government and succeeded on Oct. 2 in winning a seat in the Brazilian Senate.

Brazil’s bishops have encouraged voters to choose candidates for Congress and the presidency who are “committed to the integral defense of life, defending it at all stages, from conception to natural death.”

Both front-runners are self-professed Catholics, members of a church that still comprises a majority in Brazil. According to current polls, about half of Brazil’s Catholics say they intend to vote for Mr. Lula, while most evangelical Protestants would like to re-elect Mr. Bolsonaro. The campaign has pressed each candidate to appeal to the religious audience that has most supported his rival—Mr. Bolsonaro reaching out to Catholics and Mr. Lula attempting to connect with Brazil’s evangelicals. Mr. Lula has hosted events and meetings with evangelical groups, while Mr. Bolsonaro invited a Catholic priest and an evangelical pastor to join him in the presidential delegation to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London.

Brazil’s bishops have encouraged voters to choose candidates for Congress and the presidency who are “committed to the integral defense of life, defending it at all stages, from conception to natural death,” a message that would apparently put many Catholics at odds with Mr. Lula. But the politically savvy candidate, who has been generally supportive of access to abortion and contraception, does not highlight such neuralgic issues as central parts of his campaign platform.

Calling on Brazilians to vote with “consciousness and responsibility,” the bishops have lamented the manner in which candidates have exploited religion. The theologian and educator David dos Santos, O.F.M., told America that while most members of the church in Brazil are aware of populist threats to democratic order, others have been deceived by the manipulation of religious imagery and language during the campaign.

“In this political moment, the Catholic Church needs to be more discerning, prophetic and courageous,” he said. “The political, economic and social complexity of Brazil calls for a more authentic interpretation of Jesus’ example.”

Brother Dos Santos is the executive director of Educafro Brasil, a foundation promoting racial equality in higher education. He said two issues have to be taken more seriously in the current relations between the church and the political establishment in Brazil.

He is worried by the rapid spread of politically-hued “fake news” among church members, especially by and among young priests and seminarians—in his view, mostly Bolsonaro supporters. He also notes the growing influence of neo-Pentecostal evangelical churches in Congress as a cause for concern. Their growing presence, he said, is changing not only the nature of Congress, but how religion is preached and practiced by evangelical churches. He added that this is also a risk among politically and socially conservative factions within the Catholic Church in Brazil.

The solution, he said, is for Catholic voters to remain anchored in the Gospel. “We have to look at the concrete life of Jesus of Nazareth and help the people to open their eyes to the values of the Kingdom of God and not distort them,” he said. “A large number of evangelicals and Catholics are becoming aware of these errors and are changing their thinking.”

Worried by the anger and extremism stoked by Brazil’s political culture, Catholic lay organizations have been mobilizing to promote solidarity and a more moderate civil society. Sônia Gomes de Oliveira, the president of the National Council of the Laity of Brazil, told America that all baptized Christians in Brazil need to be authentic witnesses of their faith while active in the nation’s political life. She has been leading a project called “Encantar a Política” (“Enchanting Politics”), whose main objective is to recover the sense of a common good in political culture.

“There has been a mentality that everything that is involved in politics is a bad thing and that everything we do in the name of the poor is leftist,” she said. Citing Pope Francis’ encyclical letter “Fratelli Tutti’,” she argued that Brazil needs a healthy political culture. “If we leave the dimension of politics out of our lives, we will open space for politicians without character to occupy. We need politics as a practice of good, not hate.”

Instead of promoting division in settings where there is already a lot of conflict, Catholics should be the ones “bringing love and enchantment to politics,” Ms. De Oliveira said. “The enchantment of politics goes through respect, citizenship and social justice,” she added.

This report was updated to reflect the election results on Oct. 3.

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