Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, mononymously called Lula, on October 30 defeated incumbent Jair Bolsonaro marking a comeback and the end of a decade-long right wing rule.
On first glance, this should not be a surprise — Mr. Bolsonaro, a far-right politician, presided over a disastrous COVID-19 pandemic response in the country with nearly 700,000 registered deaths and an economy that is slowly bouncing back but is still ravaged by high inflation (as high as 11% recently). The Bolsonaro regime consistently downplayed the threat of the virus and was lax in implementing vaccination and lockdown strategies to combat the pandemic. To shore up his sagging popularity, the regime resuscitated a cash transfer scheme to the poor to tamp down the effects of high inflation, but has also increased the government’s gross debt to GDP ratio to a high 90%. Mr. Bolsonaro clearly does not enjoy the benefits of being an outsider to the establishment as he did in the 2018 elections. He has also got to reckon with the candidacy of Brazil’s most well known politician, Lula.
A former union leader who has come from humble origins, Lula served two terms as the head of State between 2003 and 2010, before demitting office to his successor Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) that he helped found in 1980. As President, Lula led his country through a period of economic growth and utilised a period of high commodity prices in the international market to subsidise programmes such as Bolsa Familia that instituted conditional cash transfers for the poor and lifted an estimated 20 million people out of extreme poverty. Lula’s two-terms coincided with the pink tide — the rise of left-wing regimes in Latin America — and he served as one of the key leaders of initiatives for intra-continental cooperation besides a promoter of multilateral international organisations such as BRICS. By the time he demitted power, Lula’s personal popularity and that of his regime’s philosophy, Lulismo, remained high in Brazil.
Lula’s rule, however, was qualitatively different from the more radical socialist-oriented regimes in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. While his working class origins and leadership of a strong trade union in the late 1970s during the military dictatorship in Brazil firmly put him in the Left, his government utilised policies of conciliation and negotiation to advance welfare, and did not quite disturb the hold of the traditional Brazilian elite over institutions of power.
Talk with the elite
The 2000s saw the participation of more Brazilians in the polity and a greater democratisation but the PT’s strategy of negotiating with the elite in Brazil’s Congress and other institutions ensured that the corruption in the highest circles in the country remained intact, affecting even Lula’s party.
The controversial Car Wash scandal, which revealed systematic corruption in the way contracts were awarded by executives of the state-owned petroleum company Petrobras and implicated several politicians, administrators and businessmen, led to the fall of the Dilma Rousseff presidency by impeachment in 2014. Even if Ms. Rousseff was not directly implicated in the scandal, it resulted in the decline in popularity for the PT. Lula himself was arrested, convicted and was barred from participating in the 2018 presidential elections, but was released in 2019 after documents leaked by journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed to collusion by Judge Sergio Moro with the prosecution. Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in March 2021 that justice was biased against him, resulting in the cases against him being annulled and allowing him to run for President again.
Tackling authoritarianism is not new to Lula, though. In a book that came out in 2020, author John D. French writes about how Lula rose from humble origins to become a machinist in the fast industrialising Sao Paulo region and later, a popular working class leader by mobilising industrial workers in massive strikes during the dictatorship in the late 1970s. Lula’s style has always been to utilise dialogue with political opponents without giving up on an ability to “stand up and fight, when needed .. [through] an additive and transformative politics of cunning executed by creating spaces of convergence through difference”. Lula emerged as one of the key politicians in the newly democratic Brazil of the late 1980s after having cut his teeth as a working class leader and a leader of a national trade union confederation. His style of leadership and an ability to speak to Brazil’s poor through a unique “vernacular discourse” was intact both as a trade unionist and a popular politician and the leader of the PT.
Once in power, he continued to use the strategy of dialogue but moderated the ideological impulses of the PT even as he embarked upon welfare programmes that benefited the party’s core base. Yet, the PT and Lula’s critics in the left spectrum in Brazil argue that the party’s strategy to utilise a policy of conciliation and negotiation with the traditional elite allowed it to pursue reforms without blowback but it also helped the fortunes of the richer sections in Brazil — particularly those in the agro-economy sector. They argue that this also paved the way for the parliamentary “coup” from the Right that led to the impeachment of Ms. Rousseff besides the corruption cases giving a fillip to the rise of the far-right led by Mr. Bolsonaro.
Mr. Bolsonaro has never hidden his support for the erstwhile military dictatorship and has also suggested, in Donald Trump-like fashion — to whom his personality and politics are likened to —, that a loss in the elections would only mean electoral fraud, suggesting to his supporters that he will not accept defeat. There is now fear among some Brazilians that Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters might stage an insurrection in the likelihood of an electoral defeat.
Lula’s triumphs against Mr. Bolsonaro is a victory for political decency and social liberalism over far-right populism and crass political discourse in Latin America’s largest country. Lula has promised that if he comes to power, he would implement new welfare, ecological and infrastructure spending schemes based on Keynesianism. But it would be a struggle for him to negotiate with a truculent and more powerful Brazilian Congress than during the 2000s.