Lula overcoming tremendous obstacles to defeat Bolsonaro is a huge win for Brazil and the Left. But we should still temper our expectations for his presidency.
As of last Sunday’s election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is President-elect of Brazil. Lula’s victory over incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro is a political miracle for Brazil. Despite corruption charges authorized within a biased court, which took Lula from the presidential palace to a prison cell. Despite active attempts by Bolsonaro and his allies to decrease turnout in Lula supporting areas. Despite assassinations carried out against members of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT). Despite an opponent who romanticizes dictatorship, and uses threats of a military coup to frighten and manipulate his enemies.
Despite all this, Lula won.
In winning, Lula left behind the persona of humble president-in-exile that he has played since being released from prison three years ago, and returned to a more comfortable role: leading a socialist movement overtaking Latin America. Every recently elected Latin American leftist – Gabriel Boric in Chile, Gustavo Petro in Columbia, and Xiomora Castro in Honduras – relies on campaigning styles, platforms, and rhetoric Lula perfected during his first presidential run twenty years ago. Consistently, he has been the flag post around which South America’s pink tide ebbed and flowed. A second Lula presidency would strengthen that tide, inspire socialist organizers internationally, and have the power to disrupt our decaying economic-political order.
Lula’s return to power will have a material impact on the lives of all Brazilians. A bulk of Lula’s support came from Brazil’s indigenous population. Compared to Bolsonaro – who was open in his racist attitude towards indigenous tribes, and oversaw a relentless program of mining on their land – Lula pledged to end illegal mining and curb deforestation. At a time when the Amazon rainforest is more depleted than ever before, such policies are essential to preventing the worst impacts of climate change.
Likewise, Lula intends to replicate the social program-based economic policies of his previous presidency, restoring a safety net destroyed by Bolsonaro’s hyper-capitalist regime. Few presidents rivaled Bolsonaro in his abject homophobia, including his family ties to the murder of LGBTQ rights activist Marielle Franco. Lula – who regards homophobia as a “perverse disease” – will offer protection for Brazil’s queer community.
Regardless of these accomplishments, complacency is dangerous. Bolsonaro still attained 49.1 percent of the vote, and multiple Bolsonaro-backed governors and mayors were elected. The Right controls Brazil’s Congress and is already promising to block Lula at every turn. Throughout Brazil, Bolsonaro’s supporters blocked highways and bridges in response to their loss.
Jana Silverman – a DSA International Committee Member member who observed the first round result in Sao Paulo – spoke about a contingent of “loose cannons,” so fanatical that “Bolsonaro himself can’t even control it.” As such blockades continue, and participants speak of how the Brazilian people “will not accept the thief coming back to power,” it appears her analysis may have been correct.
Bolsonaro’s speech on Tuesday was a feeble concession. A man struggling with the inescapable reality that he will no longer be president. Not even a coup attempt is tenable anymore, since the military never overtly expressed support, and Congress has already begun moving on. World leaders congratulating Lula for his victory undoubtedly stifled Bolsonaro’s plans too. But the violence, paranoia, and racism that Bolsonaro championed during his tenure as president will plague Brazilian politics long after he fades into irrelevancy, and make the interregnum between Lula’s election and his swearing in a dangerous period.
Even after the immediate threat of political violence has lifted and Lula takes power, his presidency may surprise, and disappoint, international observers on the Left. Lula is no longer the radical who helped found the PT, but an elder statesman. One treated with reverence by the media and business power brokers who once ostracized him. Lula’s winning coalition was broad, coalescing around him as the defender of democracy against Bolsonaro’s raving authoritarianism.
Inside that coalition are center-right parties who fundamentally oppose a socialist vision for Brazil. Lula’s vice president is Geraldo Alckmin, a former opponent described as the “pro-business candidate,” by Bloomberg in 2018. To win approval from evangelicals, Lula took an anti-abortion stance, saying he was opposed to legalizing abortion in a statement sent to the nation’s religious leaders. Publishing an open letter to the Brazilian public just before the election, Lula reiterated his commitment to “fiscal responsibility.” Facing inevitable legislative gridlock, a portrait begins to emerge of a more centrist Lula presidency.
Yet only a misanthrope would say these issues eradicate the importance of Lula’s victory. Lula’s administration will likely be an unwieldy assortment of conflicting interests, ideologies, and perspectives on governance. Such an outcome is exceptionally better for Brazil – and its black, LGBTQ, and indigenous population – than the unending campaign of terror during Bolsonaro’s reign.