An Election of Historical Significance in Brazil
ON October 2, 2022, nearly 156 million Brazilians (out of 212 million) went to the ballot box to elect a new president, new governors, and new federal and state legislatures. Thousands of candidates went from one end of the country to the other to galvanise the population to vote for different visions of the country. The divergent possibilities of Brazil’s future were captured at the presidential level, where eleven candidates from a range of political traditions vied to lead the country. Two of these candidates defined the polarity in Brazil: the neo-fascist incumbent Jair Bolsonaro had to defend his presidency from the former president and left-wing standard-bearer Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known popularly as Lula). At the end of the night, Lula won the largest number of votes (57 million against Bolsonaro’s 51 million), but he could not prevail in the first round since he did not win over 50 per cent of the total votes. Lula and Bolsonaro go to a second round on October 30, where they will face each other in a one-on-one contest.
After the results came in, Lula told a crowd of supporters in Sao Paulo that he would now go to every part of the country to fight against a torrent of fake news by talking to voters directly. Typically, incumbents lead in the first round, but this time Lula prevailed over Bolsonaro. In his two previous election victories (2002 and 2006), Lula had to go to the second round to defeat the candidate of the right. ‘We are experts in winning in the second round’, said Lula. Both Lula and Bolsonaro have indicated that the fight during October will be fierce, with a country polarised and tense over the choice before them and the possibilities that each of the options presents.
LULA vs BOLSONARO
Jair Bolsonaro came to the presidency after twenty-seven years in the Brazilian Congress, where his record was defined by erratic and offensive speeches rather than by legislative successes (only two of his bills became law). A deep reverence for military power, including for the 21-year military dictatorship (1964-1985), and an alignment with right-wing evangelical theology defines his politics. He takes pleasure in attacking all the shibboleths of liberalism, including engaging in frontal assaults on social minorities and the idea of human rights. During his presidency, he showed total disregard for the rising tide of hunger and against the claims made on the Brazilian state by the Afro-Brazilian and indigenous populations. This attitude led to charges that Bolsonaro’s policies were destroying the Amazon rainforest where he had advanced logging and mining. Bolsonaro’s cavalier response to the pandemic earned him the title of Bolsonaro Genocida, the genocidal Bolsonaro. Nonetheless, his testosterone-laden political style and his hyper-nationalistic rhetoric as well as his claim to protect Brazil from corruption earned him a mass base amongst a middle-class that has been taught to hate the regulatory state and amongst the evangelical sections that believe he will protect Brazil from important changes in society (such as around the idea of the family and sexual lives).
Lula emerged into political life as a trade union leader in the fight against the military dictatorship. A founder of the Partido dos Trabalhadores or Workers Party (PT) in 1980, Lula helped reconfigure the Brazilian Left in the last years of the military dictatorship, which had tried to destroy it by assassination and fragmentation, and he was one of the key leaders of the Left in the early years after the dictatorship ended (running unsuccessfully for president on the PT ticket in 1989, 1994, and 1998). A remarkably astute politician, Lula recognised that a hard-left agenda would not prevail at the presidential level since Brazil remains a deeply conservative country. His victory to the presidency in 2002 was shaped by this recognition, since he downplayed his more radical aspirations (such as for land reform, which had been core to his 1989 run) and highlighted his commitment to basic social welfare and to decency. His programmes against hunger (Fome Zero and Bolsa Familia) led to a decline in malnutrition across the country, while his expansion of educational opportunities brought millions of people into higher education. Deforestation decreased due to his policies to protect the Amazon. All this was accomplished with a Congress that was decidedly to his right, including people like Bolsonaro who did everything possible to block Lula’s social democratic agenda.
These are two radically divergent visions for Brazil. They reflect the deep polarisation in the society, with a core axis of this difference being around the idea of Brazil, whether the country should be rooted in conservative values of the patriarchal family and the power of money, or it should be focused on egalitarianism and social decency. The voters – by a significant margin –voted for Lula’s idea of Brazil.
A COUNTRY OF THE RIGHT
While the focus of attention was on the presidential race, the rest of the election showed the actual character of Brazilian politics. A map of the election result showed how divided the country is by region. The north-east of Brazil, with a large Afro-Brazilian and indigenous population, is a red wall for the PT, since here Lula prevailed with enormous majorities and the PT won several key governorships. One of Lula’s strategies for the second round is to increase voter turnout in these regions.
To best understand the right-ward tilt of Brazilian politics, one should look closely at the federal legislature. Bolsonaro’s Partido Liberal (PL or Liberal Party) won a majority in the Senate (14 seats to the PT’s 8) and the largest seats in the Chamber of Deputies (99 out of 513). Bolsonaro’s close allies – such as former vice president and general Hamilton Mourão and former ministers of agriculture (Tereza Cristina) and family (Damares Alves) – are now senators. Cristina is known as the Poison Muse (musa do veneno) for ending regulations on pesticide use in the country. The Chamber will welcome back Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo and – stunningly – Bolsonaro’s former minister of health, who botched the pandemic response, Eduardo Pazuello as well as Boslonaro’s former minister of environment, who opened the Amazon to destruction, Ricardo Salles. The Bolsonarista right-wing will be a major impediment to the advancement of Lula’s agenda, if he prevails in the second round.
The actual power bloc in the Congress is the Centrão, the conservative sections rooted in two dozen right-wing parties. They represent the interests of what is known as ‘Beef, Bibles, and the Bullet’ – the agro-business industry, the conservative evangelicals, and the pro-military and pro-police sections. This Centrão, despite its name, is not centrist, but a bloc of opportunistic and corrupt elected officials, whose grip on power is responsible for some of the demoralisation in the country. Lula’s selection as vice president of the centre-right Geraldo Ackmin (against whom Lula ran in 2006) was to help Lula stave off impeachment by this conservative legislature and to ensure the passage of some pro-people laws.
For the first time, several members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) ran candidates, winning in provincial assemblies from Bahia to Pernambuco, from Rio de Janeiro to Rio Grande do Sol.
LULA AND THE WORLD
Brazil has had 38 presidents since 1891, but only one of them has a name that is recognised around the world: Lula. This is because Lula, during his presidency (2003-2010), visited eighty countries and became a key advocate for various platforms of regional (such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC) and South-South (BRICS) integration. While the United States works to maintain a unilateral world order, Lula will once more push for multipolarity and multilateralism, trying to revitalise the BRICS and other regional formations. Part of this development will be – as Lula has said – to strengthen American regionalism by the development of practical means for integration. One example is by the creation of a regional currency called the sur (south) that will not only be used for cross-border trade but also to hold reserves. Since Lula left office in 2010, the mood for such alternatives to a US dominated world has only increased. Whether Lula will be able to offer the kind of leadership – absent in the Global South – to advance a necessary people-centred regionalism is to be seen.
First, of course, Lula must win the election. He is back on the streets, anticipating a decisive victory against Bolsonaro. Although, even if Bolsonaro loses the presidency, Bolsonarism is now rooted in the country’s political life (especially in the legislature).