On October 30th, the people of Brazil will decide the next president of the country. The election could have major consequences for Brazil and the entire South American region. Today, let’s discuss how elections work in Brazil, the background of the two candidates, and some of the major issues during this year’s competition! And, we can learn some useful vocabulary and practice talking about Brazil’s election!

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Vocabulary List

Incumbent (adj) – having a particular official position

The incumbent president of the US is Joe Biden

Corruption (n) – illegal, bad, or dishonest behaviour, especially by people in positions of power

Political corruption is widespread throughout the country

Opposition (n) – elected politicians who belong to the largest political party not in government

The opposition candidate is currently leading the polls

Campaign (n) – a planned group of political/business/military activities that are intended to achieve a particular aim

He became famous for his campaign against building a new airport

Money laundering (n) – the crime of moving illegal money through banks or businesses to make it look like legal money

He was convicted of money laundering four years ago

Law-and-order (n) – the introduction of laws and their strict enforcement by the police and courts

He described himself as a law-and-order politician

Misogynist (n) – a man who hates women

His critics described him as a misogynist

Deforestation (n) – the cutting down of trees in a large area, or the destruction of forests by people

Deforestation is destroying large areas of the Amazon rainforest


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Brazil is Electing a New President!

Brazil is currently in the middle of a national election. On the one side, the incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro – a politician with a passionate fanbase of right-wing Brazilians. Bolsonaro has pushed Brazil into cutting down the Amazon rainforest, has repeated many conspiracy theories, and has a highly controversial approach to government. ‘

On the other side, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silve (or Lula for short) – a left wing politician who was Brazilian president from 2003 until 2010. Lula was incredibly popular during his first terms as president – with an 80% approval rating. But he spent a year and a half in prison over a massive corruption scandal which has damaged his reputation.  

Thinking in English has a lot of Brazilian listeners… and I have received so many requests and messages to do an episode on Brazilian politics. Interestingly, my audience seems to be incredibly divided – there are a lot of Lula supports and a lot of Bolsonaro supporters among the people listening today!

And, of course, there are many more of you from other countries around the world! So… today I want to introduce the Brazilian election to all of you! We’ll learn some useful political vocabulary, practice talking about elections, and develop our understandings of Brazil!

Of course, I am not Brazilian, and I am not an expert in Brazilian politics! I would love your input and ideas – so please leave comments on the transcript, on Spotify, or on Instagram!

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Brazil’s Electoral System

The first thing to make clear is that Brazil has a presidential style of government – or to use the official description – a “federal presidential constitutional republic.” In other words, Brazil has no king, queen, or emperor, but instead a president who is the head of the country. They have a constitution, on which law is based, and the country is federal – meaning that power is divided and spread to different regions (called states).

Brazil has a two-round voting system for the president. While some of you may be familiar with this kind of electoral system, I guess many of you come from countries in which you only need to vote once. In Brazil, however, citizens need to vote twice.

In the first round of voting, there are multiple different candidates and parties running for election. Once votes have been counted, two things are possible. If no one single candidate receives 50% of the vote, then there is a second round of voting. In this second round, only the top two candidates from the first round can take place.

However, if a candidate receives over 50% of the votes in the first round… they become the President without needing another vote. This is rare, but Fernando Henrique Cardoso managed to win this way twice in the 1990s.

The first round of voting in the 2022 Brazilian presidential election took place on Sunday 2nd October. Around 10 different candidates took part, and no one single person received 50% of the votes. The top two candidates – former president Lula and current president Bolsonaro – will now take part in the second round of the election. This is scheduled for this weekend – Sunday 30th October.

According to the results of the first election, the opposition Lula is currently ahead. He received around 48% of the national vote, while the incumbent Bolsonaro received around 43%.

Although losing, this was actually quite a good result for Bolsonaro. He performed a lot better than expected – some polls and surveys in Brazil suggested Lula was up to 14% more popular than Bolsonaro. In reality, the difference was just 5%.

Polls looking at the second round of voting are much closer – as of the time of writing, Lula is predicted to get around 52% of the vote while Bolsonaro is expected to get around 48%. But everyday this number is getting closer and closer. The two candidates are now battling to persuade millions of Brazilians to switch their votes.

But who are Lula and Bolsonaro?


Who are the Candidates?

Who is Lula?

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was Brazilian president from 2003 until 2011 and is currently leading the race to become the next president of the South American country. But who is he?

After working a variety of jobs (including shining shoes) to support his family as a child, Lula began working at the Villares Metalworks in Sao Paulo. He joined the Metalworkers’ Union and began to work for the Union fulltime in 1972 – serving as the legal officer and then union president.

He gained national attention after campaigning for wage increases – a campaign he was arrested over and sentenced to three and a half years in jail. After being released, he led the national campaign for democratic presidential elections – and was elected as a politician for Sao Paulo in 1986.

After running for president a few times, and losing, he made changes to his approach in 2002. While still aiming to encourage normal people to become involved in politics, he also promised to work with businesses and the International Monetary Fund! In the 2002 election, Lula won with 61.5% of the vote!

As president, Lula’s aims included ending corruption (we’ll talk more about this later), social reforms, and helping the economy. Despite the economy growing and poverty rate falling by the 2006 election, Lula was still criticised for not doing enough to improve education. The first of many corruption scandals also hurt Lula in 2005 – although Lula was not directly involved, the involvement of members of his party hurt his reputation!

After winning the next election in 2006, Brazil’s future was looking good! The economy was continuing to grow, Rio de Janeiro was given the 2016 Olympic games, and new oil was discovered. While Lula was unable to run for a third consecutive term as president, he chose his close advisor – Dilma Rousseff – to run in the next election. She successfully won the election and became Brazil’s first female president.

Lula was widely considered as one of the most popular presidents in the world. He helped millions of poor Brazilians leave poverty and developed successful social welfare programmes.

However, after leaving office, Lula and his successor Rousseff were deeply involved in scandal. Brazil’s massive oil company Petrobras, members of Lula’s Workers’ Party, and Brazilian corporations were found to be involved in a major bribery and kickback scandal.

In March 2016, Lula was charged with money laundering and hiding his ownership of luxury apartments. President Rousseff tried to appoint Lula as her chief of staff – but this was blocked as government officials cannot be charged by federal police. Rousseff was widely seen as trying to protect Lula.

Rousseff was impeached and removed from office after being convicted of corruption due to misusing national money. Lula was facing numerous different criminal cases surrounding the Petrobras scandal. In July 2017, Lula was found guilty of corruption and money laundering and sentenced to 10 years in prison (which was later increased to 12 years).

After initially refusing to surrender to police to start his jail term, Lula eventually travelled to prison to begin his sentence. With Lula unable to run in the 2018 election (due to being in prison), Jair Bolsonaro (who I’ll talk about soon) was able to win election.

In 2019, Lula was found guilty in another corruption case… but in March 2021 the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that Lula should never have been tried for corruption. All of the charges against him were dismissed, and while there are still other corruption cases ongoing against Lula, he was now eligible to run for president again.

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Who is Jair Bolsonaro?

Jair Bolsonaro is the current president of Brazil. He was elected in October 2018, and his politics can be described as right-wing nationalist and law-and-order based. Brazil has struggled with corruption for decades, but large scandals involving presidents and senior politicians caused a lot of anger in the country. The Petrobras scandal, in particular, ruined the reputations of many Brazilian officials.

Bolsonaro was elected during a wave of anger and discontent at the country’s politics. He was seen as different, and promised strict laws, punishments for corruption, and to bring respect and power back to Brazil.

Bolsonaro was educated at military academies and served in the army for 17 years. A lot of comments I’ve received from Brazilian listeners describe Bolsonaro as a military man – during his time as a national politician representing Rio de Janeiro, he regularly praised Brazil’s time under military dictatorship and wanted it to return.

As a politician, Bolsonaro gained a controversial reputation. He was deeply conservative on social issues – opposing rights for minorities. His critics described him as being a misogynist and racist. He gained a reputation as being too extreme, and for most of his time as a politician was prevented from doing anything meaningful.

However, during economic, social, and political crises, politicians with extreme ideologies can become popular. Think of the election of Donald Trump, Brexit in the UK, the conservative governments in Poland and Hungary, and much more.

In 2014, Brazil entered one of the worst recessions in the country’s history. At the same time, the largest political corruption scandal in Brazilian politics – the Petrobras scandal – was revealed. President Rousseff was impeached and removed from the presidency, her successor Michel Temer was accused of being corrupt as well, and former president Lula was convicted of corruption and money laundering in 2017.

Bolsonaro took the opportunity to run for president in 2018 – and campaigned against the corruption and actions of the major politicians. A lot of his characteristics remind me of Donald Trump – he was even described as the “Trump of the Tropics.”

He portrayed himself as an outsider – as different to other politicians. He said what he wanted and didn’t care if it upset or offended people. He supported tough law-and-order policies – this appealed to Brazilians concerned about rising crime. And he supported conservative policies against gay rights and abortion rights – this appealed to the growing number of evangelical Christians in Brazil.  

Bolsonaro was actually stabbed while campaigning in 2018 and had to do much of his work from the hospital – but due to his strong social media presence and the unpopularity of his rivals, Bolsonaro achieved 55% of the national vote during the 2018 election.

As President, Bolsonaro achieved his goal of restructuring the Brazilian pension scheme. 40% of national government spending was funding the incredibly generous pension scheme. To cut spending, the minimum retirement ages for men and women were raised by 9 years to 65 and 62 respectively. Previous presidents had been unable to do this.

However, many of his other actions as president have been controversial. Bolsonaro supports the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. He reduced the power of government environmental agencies and ignored illegal logging activities.

Bolsonaro also had a controversial response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He repeated conspiracy theories about the virus, ignored international and scientific medical advice, and laughed at people wearing masks.

And in the last few months, Bolsonaro has been claiming that Brazil’s electoral system is weak and vulnerable to be hacked. There are fears that he will not accept defeat if Lula wins on October 30th – just like Donald Trump in 2020.

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Does this Election Matter?

The biggest consequence of the Brazilian election will be to the economy. Despite Bolsonaro’s statements that Brazil’s economy is healthy, in reality growth is poor and (like the rest of the world) inflation is a major problem.

Bolsonaro’s government has also struggled to deal with the economic consequences of the global pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, Brazil has the highest covid death rate in the world. In other South American countries, like Chile and Colombia, politics has become significantly more left wing. The same thing could be happening in Brazil this year.

Bolsonaro has shown no respect for the environment. This has gained him major support among farmers, businesses, and people in rural states. He has weakened protection of the Amazon – forest fires are at record levels (caused by farmers burning down massive areas of the Amazon) and deforestation is at the highest level for 15 years.

Damaging the Amazon, the largest absorber of carbon in the world, has major consequences to the global environment, Brazil’s neighbours, and the indigenous people who live there. Lula has promised to protect the Amazon and reduce deforestation if elected.

You may have noticed similarities between Bolsonaro and Donald Trump throughout this episode – both are right wing conservatives, both were elected as outsiders promising to end corruption, both had numerous controversial policies, and much more.

There are fears that Bolsonaro could also copy Trump in denying the election result if he loses. Bolsonaro has claimed that if he loses, it will be due to election fraud (there is no evidence for this, and Brazil has never experienced widespread election fraud since the current method was introduced in 1996). He has said the military should monitor the election – something that has made many Brazilians uncomfortable.


Final Thought

We will know the outcome of the Brazilian election after voting finishes on October 30th. Brazil’s electronic voting system is very fast, meaning results could be known almost immediately.

I know I have a lot of Brazilian listeners – and I know many of my listeners are divided over this election. According to the Economist, earlier this year nearly 40% of Brazilians didn’t want either Bolsonaro or Lula as president. There is a choice between a right-wing, kind of anti-democratic, anti-environment Bolsonaro or Lula – who has spent time in prison for corruption and been involved in numerous other corruption scandals.

Lula is still the favourite to win the election, but many of Bolsonaro’s supporters are convinced he will win. And many Brazilians are fearing possible violence over their poltiical views.

All I hope is that the election is peaceful, that the result is accepted, and that Brazil can fix its economic and corruption problems.

What do you think? Who would you vote for – Bolsonaro or Lula? What is your country’s politics like? Is it as divided as Brazil?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

5 thoughts on “182. Bolsonaro vs Lula: The Brazilian Election Explained! (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Actually good topic to listen and to learn some information about the politics, social and etc having countries. I am wrtting from Turkiye and also we will have an election in 2023. I thing that you can share a listening topics about the Turkiye’s election that will be in 2023.

    Thanks for ýour labour.

  2. I think you are brave to talking about the elections in Brazil. I’m brazilian, and here people are angry and violent about topic. I think Jair Bolsonaro encourages violence, and this position is irresponsible for a president. He has envolved in corruption scandals too, like “rachadinhas” and secret budget, for example. I have several critics about Lula, but I understand that we need preserve the democracy and invest in social politics, because Brazil is a unequal country, with a lot of poor people. Congratulations for the episode and sorry about the english mistakes 🙂

    1. Hi Elisabeth! Thank you for your comment!

      I think it is important to practice talking about every topic (including controversial or divisive issues…)! Hopefully Brazil’s election is peaceful and whoever wins does the best for the country.

  3. That was a good subject to listen! I wanted to read about what was the politic situation and why it is an important election for Brazil because in twitter it was a major topic, but I couldn’t be sure where to start. This episode was quite informative. Thank you.
    While listening I thought “A quite drama, almost like it is in Turkey!” and another Turkish alredy wrote about it 🙂 Not surprised.
    The economist probably willl write the same about Turkey. Many people do not support neihter candidates. In fact, we do not even have an official second candidate yet.
    Thanks for the episode.

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