Brazil: Lula and Bolsonaro statistically tied in presidential race-poll Image Credit: AFP

The race that pollsters once believed would be won outright by former president Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva during the first round on Oct. 2 is instead heading to a tight runoff, with some polls showing the two candidates in a statistical tie.

Lula and his allies would likely blame a loss on Bolsonaro’s deployment of the public purse to juice his popularity, and the vast disinformation campaign aimed at tarnishing Lula.

But the candidate of the Workers’ Party also faces complicated obstacles.

You might call it the paradox of the left. While the poor in Brazil’s north and northeast remain solidly in Lula’s camp, the middle class in the more prosperous south and southeast, which expanded robustly during his presidency from 2003 to 2010 thanks partly to government social programs, has invested its loyalties on the right.

The cleavage is evident in last week’s poll by daily Folha de Sao Paulo. Voters making up to twice the minimum wage of about $230 a month prefer Lula by a 20-point margin. But voters making between two and five times the minimum choose Bolsonaro by a margin of almost 10 points.

Brazil's presidential race has narrowed to a 4-percentage-point gap between leftist front-runner Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro Image Credit: AFP

These better-off voters may not amount to a lot of people — income per person in roughly two-thirds of Brazilian families does not clear the two-minimum wage hurdle — but they could tip an election as close as this one.

The rightward skew is weird considering the Workers’ Party middle-class roots in an alliance between Brazil’s trade union movement with assorted urban intellectuals battling the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

The trend extends beyond the Brazilian left, though. Left-of-centre parties have suffered across much of Western Europe. Closer to home, Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who tags himself as a leftist change agent, has lashed out at an urban middle class that turned against him in last year’s legislative elections.

In Bolivia, the governing Movement for Socialism of President Luis Arce and his predecessor Evo Morales has strong support among rural indigenous Bolivians but less so among the non-indigenous urban middle class.

Even in Uruguay, the Latin American country that most closely resembles Europe’s generous welfare states, the middle class turned against 15 years of government by the left-of-centre Broad Front and two years ago helped deliver the presidency to the center right.

The misfortunes of the Workers’ Party are not solely contingencies beyond its control. In fact, Lula’s main challenge is arguably of his own design, a consequence of what he might proudly call his mission: Trying to govern as a champion of the poor, he picked a fight with those just above poverty. But they were hardly doing great.

Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro
President Bolsonaro, whom opinion polls had shown trailing far behind Lula, will rejoice in the fact that he proved the pollsters wrong, just as he had predicted he would Image Credit: Reuters

As resources grew scarce after the economic slowdown from 2014, life became harder for the middle class. It’s tough to win over these voters with a promise to end hunger. By contrast, you can put them off if you discount their troubles to focus on the poor.

In 2002, Lula won 60% of the vote of Brazilians in the third and fourth quintile of the income distribution, noted Gethin and Morgan — those better off than the 40% at the bottom of the pile but poorer than the top 20%.

In 2018, his political successor Fernando Haddad received less than 40%. Meanwhile, the 60%-plus share of the vote that the Workers’ Party garnered from those in the poorest quintile did not change.

It’s hard to say what Lula can do between now and Sunday to reverse this trend. Compared with the “annihilation” of the moderate right, the Workers’ Party still has remarkable staying power.

Yet if Lula ekes out a win, the middle class’s rightward drift will remain a pressing problem. For a party whose raison d’etre is helping to lift the poor into the middle class, it represents nothing less than an existential threat.

Washington Post

Eduardo Porter is a columnist covering Latin America and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.”