From left: Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The two are facing off in the upcoming Brazilian elections, which has required Brazilian citizens – including those studying at Northwestern – to make plans to ensure their votes are counted. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At about 9 a.m. on Oct. 2, McCormick second-year Gabriel Araujo and McCormick third-year Felipe Dimantas boarded the train to downtown Chicago with a group of Northwestern students. This group wasn’t going for a sightseeing trip or a day by Lake Michigan. They rode the CTA to the Brazilian consulate on North Michigan Avenue to vote in Brazil’s presidential election.

The students waited in line for about an hour, joining the ranks of Brazilian citizens from all over the Midwest who traveled to Chicago to vote.

“We’re all like friends hanging out… It was a cool experience,” according to first-time voter Araujo, who said many of the students were also members of the Brazilian Student Association.

This won't be the last time that Brazilian citizens travel downtown to vote this month. Following the close election on Oct. 2, President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are facing off in a runoff election set for Oct. 30, 2022.

Chicago is home to the only Brazilian consulate in the Midwest, and serves the Brazilian population of ten different states. Since Brazilian citizens abroad must vote at a consulate, and voting is mandatory for individuals over 18, thousands will flock to the consulate in Chicago again for the runoff election. This election, intensely charged and highly polarized, will determine the future of Brazil for at least four more years, and individuals around the world wait with bated breath for the results.

Who are the candidates?

President Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right incumbent, is defending his seat against leftist challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2011 with a more than 80% approval rating. In 2018, a judge found Lula guilty of accepting bribes and he served time in prison, but the corruption conviction was thrown out by the Brazilian Supreme Court in 2021.

In his bid for the presidency, Lula promises formidable changes. He aims to bring back the prosperity Brazil experienced during the 2000s, to raise taxes on the wealthy and to increase public spending. The former president also wants to continue providing families in need with cash vouchers and promises to implement a plan promoting food and housing security.

Bolsonaro, dubbed “Brazil’s Trump, ” is campaigning on creating jobs by “eliminating bureaucratic red tape,” lowering taxes and boosting Brazil’s economy by investing in technology. He wants to continue his $113 per month voucher for families, a policy that rivals Lula’s. Bolsonaro’s “tough-on-crime” governance will look to increase access to firearms, and his campaign also centers on continued destruction of the Amazon to aid Brazil’s commercial and industrial interests. Bolsonaro’s use of slurs, homophobic and misogynistic comments have been criticized by the LGBTQ+ community and feminists alike, and indigenous leaders, specifically Brazilian Indigenous chiefs Almir Narayamoga Suruí and Raoni Metuktire, have called for Bolsonaro to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity related to his deforestation efforts.

Why is there a runoff?

In the Brazilian electoral system, there’s a runoff if no candidate receives at least 50% or more of the vote, a threshold no one managed to reach last Sunday. The election, as a result, turns into a head-to-head race between the two top candidates: Lula and Bolsonaro, two incredibly polarized candidates with a rivalry, as witnessed in their frequent personal attacks during debate.

During the initial election, Lula received 48.4% of the nation’s vote, while Bolsonaro received 43.2%. Even with a difference of more than 5% lead in the first election, Lula’s win is by no means guaranteed. Polling and the general public greatly underestimated Bolsonaro in the initial vote, according to Thomas Traumann, a Rio-based political consultant. If Lula wants to ensure a win on Oct. 30, Traumann said Lula “will probably need to make some compromises.”

Why is this election so important?

Brazil is currently experiencing the effects of an economic slowdown as poverty rates surge and up to 58.7% of the population is experiencing food insecurity, according to a report published last June from the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutrition Sovereignty and Security. Deforestation of the Amazon hit record highs under Bolsonaro. He supported the expansion of mining and agriculture in the rainforest throughout his tenure. In terms of deforestation rates, the worst year on record is currently Bolsonaro’s first year in office. During this period, over 9,170 sq km were destroyed, endangering the rainforest’s vital ecosystem, as well as the countless indigenous peoples that make the Amazon their home. Since Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, the amount of settlers upon lands reserved for these indigenous groups has skyrocketed, and the government agencies assigned to protect these individuals, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have lost power.

This election also comes at a critical point for Brazil’s democracy. Bolsonaro’s claims of election fraud have been on voters’ minds for months. According to the president, the electronic voting machines utilized by the Brazilian electoral system could be vulnerable to malware, even though evidence proves that the machines are secure. To combat any possibility of the voting machines being hacked, Brazilian military officials asked Alexandre de Moraes, Brazil’s elections chief, to conduct security tests on machines being used by voters.

Araujo doesn’t think there’s any truth to Bolsonaro’s claims, and Dimantas agrees.

“The claims are absolutely outrageous. I’m all for making voting as transparent as possible, but you have to have some concrete evidence to raise the claims [Bolsonaro] did,” Dimantas said, adding that it's dangerous to democracy to question the voting process with no basis.

However, Bolsonaro’s claims of election fraud and other factors like alleged corruption during Lula’s terms have spurred passionate voters to the polls. At the consulate, according to Araujo, “People were wearing shirts of their favorite candidates.”

“Lula’s first and second terms will maybe go down as some of the most corrupt times in Brazil… and a lot of people don’t want that back,” Dimantas said. “All in all, a lot of people are voting either to prevent Bolsonaro from re-election or to prevent Lula from getting back.”

This election and the American presidential election of 2020 are eerily similar, in both the highly polarized political atmosphere and increasing tensions among the populace. Brazil’s polarization is “just like the US,” according to James Green, professor of Latin American History at Brown University. Some of Bolsonaro’s supporters are even warning that they will take to the streets if Bolsonaro does not win the runoff. “Brazilian people are peaceful… But our patience has its limits,” Brazilian citizen Alvaro Corbellion, 59, told the Washington Post.

In a few weeks, Brazilian students here at NU will once again board the train downtown. They’ll pass by Loyola, Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville, transferring from the Purple to the Red line. These students will arrive at the consulate to vote in the closely-watched election. While this election is contentious, to be sure, Gabriel Araujo remains composed.

“I think at the end of the day it will turn out OK,” Araujo said. “I don’t think any of the candidates are particularly good but I don’t see a threat of anything escalating after the results.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Gabriel Araujo's name as "Arujo."