Lula da Silva's return to the Brazilian presidency is seen as a victory for the left. But he will have to struggle against forces who want to continue neo-liberal policies.
This article was originally published in Toward Freedom.
RECIFE, Brazil—On election night, the city of Recife erupted in cheers of joy.
In the capital of the Workers’ Party presidential candidate Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s home state of Pernambuco, the thousands roared as the vote count showed Lula overtaking his rival, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. While supporters set off fireworks over the Atlantic Ocean, others made the “L” sign with their fingers and thumbs to indicate support for Lula. When buses couldn’t get through the crowd of revelers, drivers gave up with beaming smiles, making the L as well.
Brazilians had just voted in their most consequential election since democratization.
But, just as after the first-round election, cheers soon turned into murmurs as people lowered their eyes to their phones to see if Lula would retain his lead. This was far from certain, given events earlier that day. The Federal Highway Police (PRF) had conducted over 500 operations by pulling over buses and cars. The miles of traffic jams that ensued impeded people from reaching voting booths, especially in northeastern states like Pernambuco. Then news broke that these operations were part of a plan the Bolsonarista-led PRF had hatched in the presidential palace.
While the Electoral Commission (TSE) condemned this, it did not take action to compensate for lost voting time. By contrast, in the first round, the TSE extended voting for the large Brazilian diaspora in Lisbon, Portugal, after someone wearing the green and yellow colors many Bolsonaristas adorn, broke into a voting booth to double vote, annulling dozens of votes.
“It’s as if,” Rômulo Cavalcante, a lawyer from the northeastern state of Alagoas, told Toward Freedom, ”[the TSE in the second round] was afraid of provoking some kind of conflict.” Due to the highway police’s unprecedented actions, Calvacante believes “democracy in Brazil remains more fragile than ever.”
Contrary to the TSE and PRF’s assurances, the operations stopped some people from voting. Yet, Lula retained his lead. He became the first candidate to beat an incumbent since Brazil emerged from a military dictatorship in the 1980s, but also won with the smallest margin since then (1.8 percent).
“[I] didn’t just defeat a candidate,” Lula proclaimed. “[I] defeated the entire machinery of the Brazilian state.”
Almost three weeks later, Bolsonaro still has not explicitly conceded. His supporters have staged roadblocks around the country, sometimes aided by the PRF. João, a tourist landlord in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, told Toward Freedom that he believes “the election was stolen.” That echoes a false belief still held by much of the Bolsonaro camp, said Danny Shaw, Latin American and Caribbean Studies Professor at the City University of New York. “[That camp] lives in a parallel universe of half-truths, misinformation and propaganda.”
“But,” as Shaw said, “the fact that Washington recognized [the election results] so early on, put pressure on Bolsonaro and his supporters.” The chances Bolsonaro could stage a successful coup—which his camp was “constantly measuring”—have diminished rapidly.
Talk of a Bolsonaro coup has subsided. In the last few days, he and his sons visited the Italian embassy to apply for citizenship, and Bolsonaro has told allies he may leave Brazil on Lula’s inauguration, to be held on New Year’s Day. This may be because he will lose political immunity. “I think he is planning to ask for exile in another country, like Hungary, where [President Viktor] Orbán is his friend or even Italy because he is going to be charged in Brazil,” Cavalcante predicted. That is partly because Italy’s governing party (Brothers of Italy) is far-right, and an iteration of a fascist party.
It seems more likely that Bolsonaro will flee while signaling as little clarity as he can about the result, than stage a coup. He has shown with basic questions—such as whether he’s received a Covid vaccine—that he can maintain strategic obfuscation, and observers have predicted he is likely to do the same with the election’s legitimacy.
Depending on what happens to the charges of wrongdoing that are likely to be brought against him, that could be how he hopes to return to politics in future.
And whatever happens to Bolsonaro, the right will have decent prospects at the next election. It remains to be seen how united it will be. Some elements prefer the anti-institutionalism and inflammatory cultural rhetoric of Bolsonarismo. While others prefer the more rationalized “Third Way” discourse of candidates like surprise third-placed Simone Tebet, who in this campaign was promoted by a significant section of the right-wing media. Both approaches have close ties to agro-business and prioritize what Brazil’s most-read newspaper recently called “fiscal responsibility” over reducing the country’s hunger crisis, in a recent op-ed attacking Lula for prioritizing tackling hunger. The anti-redistributive right in Brazil has been resilient, even when it had to get behind a leader who oversaw hundreds of thousands of avoidable Covid deaths.
The media will have a significant impact on Brazilian discourse over the next four years. Cavalcante explained Brazilians like himself “were successfully manipulated by the media” when former President Dilma Rousseff was deposed in a 2016 procedural coup. And he told Toward Freedom that the media will need to hold accountable politicians who espouse violence, in order to return Brazil to a time when “political polarization [didn’t involve Brazilians] being threatened by their bosses, neighbors and strangers in the street.”
Neoliberalism’s Future in Brazil
The president-elect faces significant struggles, particularly in reducing the hunger crisis. He has proven credentials, but faces a hostile climate.
Lula’s “Bolsa Família” program of conditional cash transfers during his 2003-11 presidency was cited as a major factor in the 28 percent decline in poverty rates in his first term. Bolsonaro ended Bolsa Família and, despite enacting a different cash transfer scheme, has presided over a huge increase in hunger, from 19 million in late 2020 to 33 million now. This, despite being the fourth-largest food producer in the world.
“Brazil is now back on [the United Nations’] Hunger Map,” Ediane Maria, a newly-elected Socialist and Liberty Party state legislator in São Paulo, told Toward Freedom. “People who eat breakfast today are not sure they can have dinner. Lula started the Zero Hunger programme [including Bolsa Família], which got Brazil off the Hunger Map; but [under Bolsonaro], our country is in a worse state than during the biggest hunger crisis of recent memory in 1993.”
And unlike in the 2000s, Brazil is not benefitting from a commodity boom, increasing pressure from the large section of Brazilian media who advocate smaller state expenditure.
Lula will not have the resources, power, and potentially the will, to transition significantly away from neoliberalism in Brazil. Neoliberalism is the systematic movement of public resources under private control. As Jemima Pierre, the Haiti/Americas coordinator for the U.S.-based Black Alliance for Peace (BAP), told Toward Freedom, “Even though [recent Latin American election-winners have produced] leftist governments, they’re still following the lead of the U.S. in terrible neoliberal policies. So, I think it’s a good thing that Bolsonaro lost. But I also think people need to hold Lula’s feet to the fire.” Pierre worries that “the left is so relieved that Bolsonaro lost that they’re not going to push Lula, because the fear is that if you go against Lula, then you’re going to get this right-wing government back. So, the left is really stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
As long as Lula governs effectively enough to implement key progressive policies, despite his obstacles, he could continue to increase popularity of such politics in Brazil, paving the way for further progression after his term.
Lula’s Global Moves
Advocates of multilateralism and environmentalism view this election positively.
For instance, U.S. human- and labor-rights lawyer Dan Kovalik told Toward Freedom Lula’s victory “would help bring about the multipolar world that we need.”
Lula already has touted creating a cartel of rainforest-endowed countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia, to motivate conservation.
“Lula’s first foreign policy visit will be to Argentina to increase and expand the BRICS,” Shaw said, referring to the group of states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that are trying to counter U.S. control over international finance. Lula also advocated the creation of a South America-wide currency—the Sur—during this campaign.
Like any leader, Lula will need to be held to account to meet his stated goals. As Pierre states, “We are happy that there’s a leftist president, but we also remember that it’s the same leftist president who was behind the snuffing out of Haiti sovereignty as it was trying to bring Brazil on the international stage,” referring to the 2004-17 Brazilian-led UN peacekeeping occupation of Haiti, where Brazilian troops abused their power and stayed for years after being asked to leave. Upon Washington’s re-intervention in Haiti this year, Pierre explains that the United States “has worked with leftist governments [like Mexico] to get its work done… What we’re worried about is that Lula will fall into this trap.”
Lula’s victory could probably be considered the crowning achievement of the leftist Pink Tide’s resurgence across Latin America. That’s something BAP National Organizer Ajamu Baraka believes “represents the continued shift of power away from the international colonial ruling classes”—as long as Lula has learned geopolitical lessons from the 2000s.
Inauguration is over a month away. Lula faces strong economic, political, international, environmental and societal pressures that can hinder progressive policymaking. But, just like on election night in Recife, if you’re a progressive or simply espouse democratic values, now is the time for cautious celebration.
Richard Matoušek is a journalist who covers sociopolitical issues in southern Europe and Latin America. He can be followed on Twitter at @RichMatousek and on Instagram at @richmatico.