More than 150 million Brazilians went to the polls to elect a president and members of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies on 2 October. The election was a showdown between the two heavyweights of Brazilian politics, pitting former president and leader of the Workers’ Party (PT), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, against the far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. 

Polling companies and large sections of the media had all but written off Bolsonaro’s chances of re-election, many confidently calling a win for Lula, as he is commonly known, in the first round. However, the results showed a surprisingly strong outcome for Bolsonaro, who received 43 percent of the vote against Lula’s 48 percent, meaning the outcome will be decided in the second round on 30 October. 

Despite Lula winning the first round by more than 6 million votes, the fact that Bolsonaro did much better than expected and will have a second chance is a huge disappointment to the millions of Brazilians who looked to the PT to defeat the far-right movement that has grown around Bolsonaro over the last four years. Now, instead of his presidency ending in the first round with a crushing defeat, the door has been left open for Bolsonaro. 

The election was not just a shot in the arm for Bolsonaro. His vice-president and several former ministers won congressional seats. Among them are his former health minister, who oversaw the deaths of more than 700,000 Brazilians during the pandemic, his environmental minister, responsible for the mass deforestation of the Amazon, and his minister for women, a transphobe who opposes sex education. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party and Bolsonaro-supporting candidates were also the biggest victors in the Senate, winning a majority of the 27 contested seats. They now form the biggest bloc in the Chamber of Deputies.

The congressional weight of this bloc will embolden all the reactionary forces in society. Whatever happens in the second round, Bolsonarismo has consolidated as the dominant right-wing force in Brazilian politics.

The PT maintained and improved its vote in its traditional stronghold of the north-east, where most of the poor Afro-Brazilian population resides. For example, in the state of Piauí, the PT’s first-round vote increased to 74 percent, up from 63 percent in 2018. In key urban areas, the picture was slightly different. The working-class peripheries of Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, have traditionally been PT strongholds. However, in 2018 they swung sharply to Bolsonaro. Four years later, these areas have returned to the PT, with some of them swinging from votes in the low 20s to the high 40s or above 50 percent. 

Worryingly, however, in the working-class parts of other major cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, where the PT has always been weaker than in São Paulo, Bolsonaro maintained strong support, winning in some places by more than 20 percentage points.

Overall, the PT’s first-round vote increased substantially, from 29 percent in 2018 to 49 percent this year. A large part of this jump has to do with Lula himself. Imprisoned for 580 days during the 2018 election (on corruption charges that were later dropped), Lula was barred from competing in the election. The PT’s little-known candidate, Fernando Haddad, was never able to match the popularity of the man who had led the party since its founding in 1980. 

Lula and the PT of today have gone through a series of transformations since the early days. The party originated in the São Paulo metalworkers union and was committed to socialism. It was at the forefront of workers’ struggle and supported indigenous and peasant movements. Lula was briefly a metalworker before entering the union bureaucracy. Formed as a mass party under the military dictatorship, the PT played a key role in Brazil’s transition to democracy. 

The founding of the party, which included several revolutionary socialist and Trotskyist organisations, was a decisive step forward for the Brazilian working class, particularly when it nearly captured the presidency in 1989 with Lula as the candidate. But after successive defeats in the 1990s, the leadership decided that the organisation needed to be palatable to the ruling and middle classes; they adopted a pro-business platform and tamed the radicals.

When it eventually won the presidency in 2002, it did so with a multimillionaire businessman as vice-president. In government, a commodities boom allowed the PT to oversee modest wealth redistribution towards the working class through popular welfare programs, helping to lift millions out of poverty. At the same time, Lula maintained the support of key sections of the ruling class by offering large government contracts, holding back resistance from below and implementing austerity. 

Improvements to the living conditions of a significant section of the working class earned the PT huge popularity, carrying it to victory in the next three elections. However, when the commodities boom came to an end around 2012, the formula proved harder to maintain. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, who won the 2010 and 2014 elections, was impeached and ousted in a parliamentary coup in 2016, which was consolidated with Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 while Lula was in prison. 

While the impeachment of Rousseff was largely orchestrated by the Brazilian ruling class and prosecuted through the media, there was also a genuine and understandable turn against the party from the working class. After thirteen years in government, the PT had serious corruption issues and was rightly seen by many as a party that cut social services and welfare. That anti-PT sentiment was compounded by the fact that Rousseff spent billions of dollars hosting the World Cup and the Olympics. 

The explosion of anti-austerity and anti-PT protests in 2015 and 2016 greatly helped the media and business sector to construct a successful narrative of corruption around Rousseff that would eventually lead to her impeachment.

Lula’s approach to the 2022 election was a continuation of the institutionalisation and conservatisation of the PT that the party leaders began in the 1990s. As running mate, Lula chose a former governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party. Alckmin, who competed against Lula in the 2006 election, is a pro-business figure who, as governor, led a wave of privatisations and budget cutting. Furthermore, instead of the PT putting forward a strong platform of wealth redistribution, it cast the election as a life-or-death choice on the future of Brazilian democracy, with Lula playing the role of saviour. 

The lack of a strong progressive platform was also partly a result of the relatively uncritical support that some important sections of the Brazilian left offered the PT. Despite a period of significant internal debate and opposition, the PT’s main left-wing opposition, the Party for Freedom and Socialism (PSOL), chose for the first time in its history not to run its own presidential candidate. PSOL was formed as a breakaway of the PT left factions in 2004 specifically because Lula’s party was moving too far to the right. But now it’s tailing the PT, refusing to oppose it or provide a clear alternative to it—when the PT has shifted even further to the right.

As a result, the left appears even less equipped to combat the far-right movement that Bolsonaro leads. Bolsonaro’s 2018 victory was not due to some mass embrace of far-right politics among the Brazilian population. The anger of large sections of the working and middle classes at the PT, an anaemic recovery from one of the country’s worst economic crises and the general weakness of the left were key factors in Bolsonaro’s rise. 

But Bolsonaro has now established a solid base of the electorate around his far-right politics. His 2018 first-round vote of 51 million (46 percent), largely held up in 2022, only falling slightly to 49 million (43 percent). This is despite his four years in the presidency having been marred by the massive deforestation of the Amazon, one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the world and the extreme militarisation of poor neighbourhoods. 

Bolsonaro’s electoral coalition brings together a diverse range of groups, including evangelicals, agribusiness and other large capitalists, middle-class groups, the far right and, to some extent, sections of the working class and petty criminals. How this coalition will hold up in the second round or in the future is unclear. 

Lula and the PT are more than capable of winning over large business interests through “fiscal discipline” and attacks on working-class living standards, and the small capitalists through direct cash transfers. The party does have some support among poor evangelicals as well.

Bolsonaro is not, however, driven purely by ideology. Several times during the pandemic, he rejected the advice of his economic minister and made direct cash payments to the poor. He repeated this just weeks before the election to try to buy more votes in PT strongholds. He has, however, proved that his coalition is here to stay and has replaced the traditional centre-right coalition as the country’s major right-wing force. 

Ultimately, a second-round victory for Lula and the PT would be welcome only insofar as it prevents a second Bolsonaro term. The PT represents no path forward for the Brazilian working class. Given the current economic conditions under which it would govern, it is likely that Lula would once again implement austerity. The PT long ago abandoned the class struggle, which is the key reason that Bolsonaro was able to win in 2018. 

But regardless of who wins in the second round, the left needs its own political organisations outside of both the PT and the PSOL. The trade union bureaucracy has equally shown itself to be full of conservative, establishment PT leaders with no interest in challenging the system—much less so with Lula as president. No real gains for the working class will come through a Lula presidency. If he does win, progress will come through resistance, not collaboration.