Brazilians Are Holding Our Breath

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — “If it’s God’s will, I will continue,” Jair Bolsonaro said in mid-September. “If it’s not, I’ll take off the presidential sash and I will retire.”

It feels too good to be true. After all, Mr. Bolsonaro has spent much of the year casting doubt on the electoral process and seemingly preparing the ground to reject the results. The military, ominously, wants to conduct a parallel counting of the votes. Menace hangs in the air: 67 percent of Brazilians fear political violence, and some may not risk voting at all (a big deal in a country where voting is mandatory). Talk of a coup is everywhere.

Amid this uncertainty, there’s one fact to cling to: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s leftist former president, leads in the polls, with 50 percent of intended votes to Mr. Bolsonaro’s 36 percent. Four years after he was expelled from the political scene, on corruption and money laundering charges later shown to be at best procedurally dubious and at worst politically motivated, Mr. da Silva is back to complete the job. On all available evidence, he is poised to win: if not outright on Sunday, by taking more than 50 percent, then on the election’s second round, on Oct. 30.

We Brazilians are holding our breath. The next few weeks could end a dark period, overseen by one of the worst leaders in our history, or they could usher us even further into catastrophe and despair. It’s all a bit much to take in. I’ve personally decided to spend more time sleeping and cleaning the house — the drapes have never been so white (they were originally beige). Yet no matter how much I distract myself, nothing can relieve me from the apprehension that something may go terribly wrong.

On the surface, things seem calm. An outsider walking through the streets would not get the impression that a presidential election is about to be held. Looking out the window, I notice that the Brazilian flags — which have come to represent support for Mr. Bolsonaro — have been removed from the neighboring facades. An ambiguous sign: It could be a pre-emptive response to defeat, or the calm before the storm. There’s not even much talk among friends and family concerning the election; the lines were drawn in 2018 and have not moved much since then.

Yet for all the social polarization, there is still enormous support for democracy here: 75 percent of citizens think it is better than any other form of government. Right from the beginning, Mr. da Silva has been trying to exploit that common feeling and open up a broad front against Mr. Bolsonaro. He picked a former adversary from the center-right, Geraldo Alckmin, as his running mate; assiduously courted business leaders; and secured endorsements from prominent centrists. In this comradely atmosphere, supporters of the center-left candidate, Ciro Gomes, currently about 6 percent in polls, may even throw their votes behind the former president. If that happens, Mr. Bolsonaro will surely be beaten.

That glorious prospect does little to dispel the anxiety enveloping the country. It’s physically impossible not to dwell on what might happen. The possibilities are terrifying: The polls might be wrong, and Mr. Bolsonaro could win. The polls might be right, and Mr. Bolsonaro could refuse to concede defeat, and even initiate a coup. Each day now seems to be the length of a day on Venus — around 5,832 hours — to go by the agitation of my Twitter feed.

There’s simply too much at stake. For one, there’s the democratic process itself, which has been put through the wringer by Mr. Bolsonaro. For another, there’s the future of our judiciary. Just next year, there will be two vacant seats on the Supreme Court, out of a total of 11 seats. If in power, Mr. Bolsonaro would surely seize the chance to make pick hard-right justices as he did with his last two appointees. A Trump-style remaking of the judiciary could be coming down the line.

Then there’s the environment. So far this year, more forest fires have been recorded in the Brazilian Amazon than in all of 2021, which was already catastrophic enough. Since the start of September, dense plumes of smoke have covered several Brazilian states. Under Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration, deforestation has increased, environmental agencies have been dismantled and Indigenous deaths have risen. Reversing these disastrous environmental policies could not be more urgent.

What’s more, a new government could address the appalling fate of the 33 million people living in a state of food deprivation and hunger — to say nothing of the 62.9 million people (or 29 percent of the population) living below the poverty line. It could also draw down the number of firearms on our streets, which, under Mr. Bolsonaro’s watch, has reached the troublingly high figure of 1.9 million. And, at last, Brazilians might begin to heal from the trauma of 685,000 Covid-19 deaths.

But before all that, there’s a necessary first step: pushing Jair Bolsonaro into retirement. Then we can begin to breathe again.

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