Brazil is back, but Lula faces big challenges and threats to democracy remain

By Dr Luís Bogliolo
Postdoctoral Fellow, Melbourne Law School

On October 30th, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) and the Workers’ Party won a runoff election against Brazil's incumbent far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

This was the closest election in Brazil’s history, with Lula winning 50.9% of the vote against Bolsonaro’s 49.1%.

Despite the close margin, this was a momentous win for Lula. Having governed Brazil between 2003 and 2010, Lula left the Presidency with record-high popularity.

In the following years, he was imprisoned under corruption charges by a judge who went on to lead the justice ministry in Bolsonaro’s government. Brazil’s Constitutional Court later quashed the convictions following revelations of bias and collusion between judges and prosecutors.

Lula had famously said that in prison he’d become a hero; if he died, a martyr; and if released, he’d become president again. He has now been elected with the highest number of votes – 60.3 million – in the country’s history.

A huge win

The recent elections marked several other firsts. Lula is the first person to have been elected three times as President.

It was also the first time that opposing parties from left and right united under Lula to face off Bolsonaro’s alliance of far-right candidates, fundamentalist churches and armed forces. Further, Bolsonaro was the first President to have failed to win re-election as an incumbent.

A man sits in front of several flags, smiling
Bolsonaro has tried to undermine faith in Brazil's electoral system. Pic credit: Palácio do Planalto/Flickr

Winning against an incumbent in Brazil is a difficult achievement. Bolsonaro went on a spending frenzy, lobbing billions of dollars of public money during the campaign in an attempt to woo voters. His government also relied on ‘secret budget’ payoffs to gain support from lawmakers.

Bolsonaro has long tried to raise doubts about Brazil’s electoral system – one of the most efficient in the world. This was followed by attempts of voter suppression during election day.

The federal highway police (PRF), an organisation close to Bolsonaro, set up roadblocks in areas where support for Lula was strongest. This was in breach of court orders prohibiting inspections during election day.

It took a huge effort of coalition building to overcome Bolsonaro’s advantage. This involved incessant campaigning, and bringing together social movements, minorities, disgruntled voters and democratic-minded politicians.

Hardly anyone but Lula, with his charisma and cunning, could have accomplished such a feat.

A cursed legacy

Many in Brazil and around the world are relieved after four disastrous years under Bolsonaro.

During this time, Bolsonaro treated Covid-19 as a “little flu” leading to one of the worst pandemic responses in the world. With a death toll close to 700,000, Bolsonaro delayed vaccines, snubbed public health measures and insisted on using drugs proven to be ineffective.

The Amazon rainforest was ravaged by illegal ranching, mining and logging.

After a significant decrease in previous governments, widespread hunger will be one of Bolsonaro’s main legacies. Some 33 million Brazilians (15% of the population) currently suffer from food insecurity.

On the other hand, Bolsonaro’s government encouraged a boom in firearm ownership, with numbers increasing three times in just the last three years.

During Bolsonaro’s administration Brazil also saw a surge of political violence, often directed against the LGBTQ community, Indigenous Peoples, leftists and minorities.

Fighting poverty and climate change

In his victory speech, Lula announced: ‘Today we say to the world that Brazil is back. That Brazil is too big to be relegated to this sad role of the world's pariah’.

The new government will have to work hard to win back credibility and trust. Bolsonaro repeatedly insulted Brazil’s closest Latin American neighbours, distanced itself from its biggest commercial partners and cast doubt over US elections.

It is no surprise that world leaders rushed to congratulate Lula on winning Brazil’s election.

The next government has its work cut out for it. Its focus will be on fighting climate change and reducing poverty. Crucially, Lula has emphasised the connection between the two.

While Bolsonaro has been silent and reclusive since the election, Lula has been welcomed as a ‘rock star’ to the COP27 climate talks.

Speaking as President-elect, he highlighted that fighting global warming is inseparable from fighting poverty and vowed to bring environmental justice back to the top of Brazil’s political agenda.

Challenges to democracy remain

For months before the elections, open talk of a military coup unsettled Brazil. While these concerns have mostly died down since the election, threats to democracy remain.

Dealing with the military will be one of Lula’s biggest challenges. The armed forces influence and participation in Bolsonaro’s administration was elevated to levels reminiscent of the military dictatorship.

Putting the generals back in the barracks will be difficult. This should start with the nomination of a civilian as head of the Ministry of Defence. However, it will take longer to unwind the central role played by the military under Bolsonaro. They have mostly remained loyal to him despite his defeat.

The military’s attempt to interfere in the electoral process has only heightened the sense that further political instability cannot be ruled out. A “parallel audit” of the recent election by the army has lent further ammunition to coup plots.

Following the election results, antidemocratic protesters blockaded numerous roads in the country.

Police has been slow to clear the blockades, as many policemen are Bolsonaro supporters themselves. At the same time, protestors have shifted focus from Bolsonaro and have been calling for a military coup.

It is unlikely that calls for a coup will be heeded. Yet Brazil remains a deeply divided country.

Bolsonaro has lost his hold on state power and on the country’s agenda. His personal influence will be weakened once he leaves the Presidency. Many lawmakers have already started to negotiate support for Lula’s future government.

Bolsonaro has been defeated, but Bolsonarism remains strong. Lula will face an opposition that is far more conservative, religious, antidemocratic and illiberal than ever before.

One of the less-discussed stories of the election is that Brazil’s new Congress will have a much larger number of far-right members, many of whom took part in Bolsonaro’s government.

If Lula is to achieve his aims, he will have to battle a hostile Congress and rebuild a broad coalition of progressive forces.

Banner image: Lula celebrates being elected the 39th president of Brazil. Source: Flickr/Mídia NINJA


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