With or without Bolsonaro, Bolsonarism will be competitive in the 2026 elections

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According to an approval poll by Instituto IDEIA, 39% of Brazilians consider his performance great or good at the beginning of President Lula’s third term, and 25% consider it bad or terrible. The main results of the poll were disclosed in the webinar “Bolsonarism after Bolsonaro’s defeat,” held by the FHC Foundation, which counted on the participation of economist and social scientist Maurício Moura and anthropologist Isabela Kalil.

Although the approval rate is higher than that of disapproval, the current scenario of political polarization indicates that Lula would have difficulty obtaining approval higher than 50%, which would give him more peace of mind at the beginning of his third term as president. That is also a result of the persistence of the Bolsonarist electorate, which remains faithful to Bolsonaro even with myriad negative facts that have occurred and come to light since his defeat in the runoff of the 2022 presidential election.

According to Instituto IDEIA’S poll—conducted between February 10 and 14, 2023, with 2,000 respondents from across the country—21% of respondents consider Lula’s performance great, 18% think it good, 17% rate it as bad, and 6% as terrible. Twenty-four percent rated it average, and 14% did not have an opinion.

Virtually no one who voted for Bolsonaro sees Lula’s performance as great or good (0%); 63% consider him bad and terrible, 18% average, and 19% don’t have an opinion. “This negative perception that almost 50% of the Brazilian electorate has makes it unlikely that Lula will achieve a majority positive rating in the short and medium term. As long as the Bolsonarist electorate remains loyal to Bolsonaro, Lula’s popularity should hit a relatively low ceiling,” explained Maurício Moura, founder and advisor of Instituto IDEIA.

Also according to the poll, 40% of respondents said Bolsonaro made Brazil worse or much worse, 36% said slightly better or better, and the rest were indifferent to it. “We clearly have a country that remains polarized; a significant part of the population considers that Bolsonaro has left a positive legacy and remains firm with him,” he said.

If Bolsonaro were to run again, 41% of respondents would definitely vote for him, 45% would not vote for him—at all, and 12% might vote for him. “The scenario of the 2022 runoff, when Lula narrowly won with an advantage of less than 2% of the valid votes—in the fiercest election since re-democratization—remains in place,” Moura said.

Those numbers from Instituto IDEIA are just now coming out for the first time. The fresh-out-of-the-oven poll will serve as the basis for a book that Moura is writing, which will be called “Por que Bolsonaro perdeu?” (Portuguese for “Why did Bolsonaro lose?”) that is slated for release in June 2023. Learn more about Instituto IDEIA’s poll in the full debate video (in Portuguese).

What do Brazilians say about January 8 riot?
What about the Bolsonarist networks?

“After the invasion of Brazil’s Congress, the Palácio do Planalto (official workplace of the president of Brazil) and the Supreme Court on January 8, the bolsonarist networks quickly spread another narrative, saying that ‘infiltrated Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT in Portuguese) supporters were the real people responsible for the breach in Brasilia,’” said Isabela Kalil, a professor at the Sao Paulo School of Sociology and Politics Foundation (FESPSP). 

“The far-right fake news machine is very powerful and is acting strongly to change the narrative, making it more palatable to the more moderate bolsonarists, who support the demonstrations against Lula but reject violence,” added the researcher, who is also one of the coordinators of Observatório da Extrema Direita (Portuguese for Far Right Observatory).

The IDEIA poll proves this widespread perception: 35% of all respondents said that infiltrated PT supporters were responsible for the invasions that ended in violence, 32% think they were run-of-the-mill vandals, and 20% said that they were radical bolsonarists. Among those who voted for Bolsonaro, 39% said that PT supporters perpetrated the January 8 attacks, and 39% said they were run-of-the-mill vandals. Only 9% think they were radical bolsonarists. 

“The poll results confirm the power of parallel narrative being built in the online universe of the right and the far right,” said Moura. Of the Brazilians interviewed, 56% approve of the demonstrations but disagree with the invasions and break-ins, 37% do not approve of the demonstrations, and 6% approve of them the way they happened. 

According to Kalil, even the silence of the former president after the electoral defeat—when he did not concede and locked himself in the Palácio da Alvorada (official residence of the President of Brazil) for weeks—and his subsequent voluntary exile in Florida are perceived by his supporters as “signs.”

In another example of cognitive dissonance, bolsonarists understand Bolsonaro’s silence, or his period of self-exile, as signs or codes that can mean many different things. For some, it may mean he will come back and make an entrance; for others, it may mean something else. It’s like when one person looks at the clouds and sees a shape that only they can make up, while another sees something else entirely,” he explained. Former president Jair Bolsonaro left Brazil in December 2022 and came back three months later.

If Bolsonaro becomes ineligible, who is more likely to be the right’s leader?

Although it is too early to entertain such a hypothesis, Instituto IDEIA asked the interviewees who would inherit Bolsonaro’s legacy if he loses his cases in the courts of general jurisdiction or the electoral courts.

The current governor of São Paulo, Tarcisio de Freitas (Republicanos Party), was cited by 20% of respondents who voted for the former president; 17% preferred the governor of Minas Gerais, Romeu Zema (Novo Party); and 16% opted for former first lady Michelle Bolsonaro, who the Liberal Party has courted as an option if the former president cannot run. 

“If we add up all the answers containing the surname Bolsonaro, it reaches 25%. At this point, the numbers show that Michelle is the favorite within the family and would start from a level of at least 20% of voters, which would probably put her in the runoff. Today’s figures point to a scenario in which Bolsonarism will be in the final stretch of the 2026 elections and will be highly competitive,” said Moura.

“Bolsonarism today is not limited to one person, i.e., the former president. It’s a clan. We should not underestimate the relevance of this family in Brazilian politics in the coming years,” warned Kalil.

According to the researcher, who conducts qualitative research with focus groups and closely follows bolsonarist social networks, the president’s sons who are already in politics, especially Representative Eduardo Bolsonaro, did not meet the expectations of far-right voters and, today, would hardly have a chance to succeed their father as leaders of the movement.

“If Bolsonaro does not run again, I bet they would use a woman in 2026; it may be Michelle or another, such as Senator Damares Alves or Representative Carla Zambelli. Michelle navigates better within the evangelical electorate, while Carla has more resonance in groups linked to firearms support,” he explained.

In case Bolsonaro can’t run in the next election, Kalil believes that Bolsonarism will persist as a very relevant political force, but probably with a less radical face. 

The persistence of Bolsonarism must not be based on its more radical, explicitly undemocratic character but probably on a more moderate Bolsonarism within the democratic field. Bolsonarism is not a homogeneous field; there is diversity among its supporters. Identifying these different groups and their directions will be a big challenge for us researchers. ”

The poll identified some “shy voters” among the
young men voting for Bolsonaro

Kalil cited a focus group poll she conducted between the first and second rounds of the 2022 presidential election with men and women from across the country. 

“We identified a group of young men, aged 17 to 19, who intended to vote for Bolsonaro but resisted declaring their vote. Some said their girlfriends could never find out, others that the family was against it because the grandfather or grandmother had died of Covid, and others that they would lose customers and clients if they declared their vote,” she reported.

“The older male electorate that supports Bolsonaro is more visible. Many took part in demonstrations in front of army barracks after last year’s defeat. But a layer of the younger electorate supports the former president and may have gone for the shy vote, which can happen again in the next election,” she explained.

Polarization between left and right is expected
to continue in the near future

For Maurício Moura, the political polarization between PT, on the one hand, and Bolsonarism, on the other, is established in the daily lives of Brazilians and should remain so in the coming years, reinforced by current President Lula and former President Bolsonaro (or whoever succeeds him as leader of the right).

“I see no chance today of a national political project that does not dialogue with one of these poles. The feud between left and right is here to stay and is reinforced by social networks. There is little room for the center as an alternative as it did in the past,” he said.

“I agree with Maurício, but I see the left more dependent on Lula than the right on Bolsonaro. If Lula cannot run for re-election, PT will struggle to find a popular candidate like the current president. Lula has a very long political trajectory, dating to before the re-democratization. It is not easy to find a match for him in the left,” said Isabela Kalil.

“Bolsonaro also has a long political trajectory, although he has only become a national name as of 2018. He has become very popular, and replacing him will not be easy. But more alternatives are emerging from the right,” she concluded.

Otávio Dias is the content editor at Fundação FHC. He is a political and international affairs journalist, a former correspondent for Folha de São Paulo in London, and former editor of the website. Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin, CT and Todd Harkin – Harkin Translations.

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