An electoral pivot that restores Brazil’s democracy

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s win is the most decisive reversal of a great wave called an Age of Reaction” — a wave that has seen reactionary regimes come to power across a range of electoral democraciesz

Updated - November 07, 2022 01:10 am IST

Published - November 07, 2022 12:16 am IST

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on voting day

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on voting day | Photo Credit: AP

In the presidential election in Brazil, on October 30 (the second round), the two-time former President, and leader of the leftist Worker’s Party (PT), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — universally known as Luladefeated the far-right incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro. The election could not have been more pivotal or more consequential; nothing less than a referendum on democracy itself. Mr. Lula’s win brings to an end the reign of a right-wing populist who has relentlessly attacked democratic institutions, revelled in misogyny and homophobia, celebrated the gun culture, demonised Brazil’s slum dwellers as criminals and drug traffickers, and accelerated the burning of the Amazon. There is little doubt that a second-term Bolsonaro would have accentuated the authoritarian turn, with a deepening reliance on the military to run the government, the ongoing politicisation of Brazil’s once robust federal bureaucracy, the packing of the Supreme Court, and the erosion of civil liberties at the hands of a federal police force beholden to Mr. Bolsonaro.

What Lula’s return means

The electoral pivot brings back a centre-left party that presided over an era of dramatic poverty-reduction and expanded social rights from 2003-2014. It brings back a coalition of Brazil’s large and disproportionately black class of the labouring poor (the social class that gave Mr. Lula the most support), women who supported Mr. Lula overwhelmingly in what is still a deeply patriarchal society and progressive elements of the middle class. It promises to usher back in policies that favour moderate redistribution and a commitment to deepening social rights and environmental protection, including slowing the world-catastrophic destruction of the Amazon. But maybe, most decisively, Mr. Lula’s return brings back a leader and a party that played a historic role in consolidating Brazil’s democracy, and that when in power, have pioneered some of the boldest and most effective efforts to promote participatory democracy anywhere in the democratic world.

Mr. Lula’s victory margin was narrow, 51.9% to Bolsonaro’s 48.1%, the narrowest in Brazil’s presidential history. Given Mr. Bolsonaro’s disastrous management of the COVID-19 crisis, his constant attacks on democratic institutions and basic science, his habit of appointing unqualified sycophants (often military generals) as Ministers, and an almost continuous stream of scandals, polls and pundits alike had just a few months ago predicted a runaway Lula victory.

The first round of the election, which took place October 2, revealed a deep reservoir of conservatism in Brazil as well as a very effective reactionary coalition. Not only did Mr. Bolsonaro do better than predicted, but his right-wing allies in congressional and gubernatorial elections outperformed all other parties. The conservatism is rooted in Mr. Bolsonaro’s alliance with Evangelical churches, a rapidly growing demographic that now accounts for a third of Brazil and favours traditional family values which include opposing gay marriage and abortion.

In Bolsonaro, a reactionary mode of politics

But it was also reactionary, in the sense of a concerted effort to roll back social achievements of the previous PT governments, reign in the independence of liberal institutions such as the judiciary and the bureaucracy, unleash police forces and allied militias in fighting criminality — which more often than not means a war on favela (slum) populations — and give free reign to sectoral interests such as agro-business and its anti-environmental agenda.

The reactionary mode of politics was in full display during the campaign. There was an escalation of political violence, most of it fuelled by Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters. Social media disinformation reached new heights, with WhatsApp groups spewing an endless stream of conspiracy theories and vitriol, including claims that Mr. Lula had a pact with Satan to close churches if he came to power. Evangelical preachers openly campaigned for Mr. Bolsonaro. Militias that have ties to Mr. Bolsonaro, the federal police and right-wing businesses, were all mobilised.

Editorial | The second coming: On Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s win in Brazil

Mr. Lula’s victory was initially met by protests from Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters and calls for the military to intervene. But Brazil’s institutions have held fast and most of Mr. Bolsonaro’s political allies have publicly accepted the outcome. Mr. Lula’s return to power —his presidency begins on January 1 — bodes well for democracy. With Mr. Bolsonaro gone, the public sphere will now be spared his constant “discurso de ódio” (hate speech) and may actually get back to debates about social policies, the economy, and protecting the Amazon. Despite an adverse economic environment and a Congress and Senate that have strong representation of extreme right-wing groups, Mr. Lula will have a lot of room for manoeuvre. To begin with, he will be able to build back some of the impressive bureaucratic capacity that was built in the earlier PT period, but subverted by Mr. Bolsonaro. This will be especially critical in reinvigorating the capacity of the health and social welfare bureaucracies as well as the environmental protection agency.

Ironically, Mr. Lula will also be able to capitalise on some of Mr. Bolsonaro’s own initiatives. Though ideologically hostile to state welfare, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Mr. Bolsonaro’s hand as he ended up injecting more cash into Brazil’s cash transfer programme (Bolsa Familia), Mr. Lula’s signature achievement in his previous two terms in office. Mr. Lula will now be able to build it out again. As conservative as Brazil is, there is, as in India, broad-based support for expanding welfare measures. The difference is that while Mr. Bolsonaro tried to patrimonialise welfare, that is create direct ties between himself and beneficiaries, a PT government will push to link welfare to basic social rights, and possibly even broaden the criteria of inclusion.

An institution man

So what does this all mean? First, this is the most decisive reversal of the great wave that I have called an “Age of Reaction” — a wave that has seen reactionary regimes come to power across a range of electoral democracies, including western Europe (most recently, Italy), eastern Europe, the United States (Trumpism, which is set to make a comeback this week in the U.S. congressional elections), India and the Philippines. As in all these regimes, Mr. Bolsonaro weaponised the classic conservative call to reinvigorate church, family and nation, into a sense of existential cultural threat from various “others”, including assorted communists, secularists, human rights activists and immigrants, or in the case of India and Brazil religious or racial groups.

Second, Mr. Lula’s victory reverses the growing narrative that the checks-and-balance liberal institutions of democracy are ineffective and elite-dominated, and should be replaced by direct support for the great leader. For all his personal popularity and charisma, Mr. Lula has always been an institution man: first as a union leader, then as a builder of a party that has a strong internal democratic culture, and finally as President who has been steadfast in his support for democratic norms and practices. Third, what the PT’s return to power demonstrates is the possibility, even in a world of increasing precarity and inequality, of building a broad coalition of the poor and progressive elements of the middle class. Right-wing populists have long derided issues such as gender rights, fighting climate change, cultural pluralism and racial inclusion as the foibles of a politically correct cultural elite. Mr. Lula’s social base and his track record show that these are and must be universal concerns and that the pursuit of social justice and social equality begins with a commitment to inclusive democracy.

Patrick Heller is Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University

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