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What next for the Brazilian left (or why Brazil's troubles aren't over yet)

On Sunday 30th October Lula, the leader of the Brazilian Workers' Party, marked a remarkable political comeback, winning a third term as Brazilian president over the right-wing incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro. But as Oliver Basciano writes, the Brazil Lula will now lead is a very different one from that of his first term in 2003, with fresh challenges ahead for the Brazilian left.

Oliver Basciano 4 November 2022

What next for the Brazilian left (or why Brazil's troubles aren't over yet)

The streets of central São Paulo were subdued at Sunday lunchtime. Despite the heat of the spring, the bars were half full and the markets sparsely populated. Only the polling stations provided pockets of energy, as the city’s residents, like the rest of the country, went out to vote in Brazil’s presidential election runoff.

That nervous tension erupted a little after 7pm as Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva edged into the lead over Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right incumbent. Victory was soon confirmed with 50.9% of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. An ocean of Lula supporters poured through the city, bedecked in colour of the Workers’ Party (PT); a red tide heading towards São Paulo’s central Avenue Paulista, whose chants, fireworks and the brisk trade of the beer hawkers was replicated in cities across the world’s fourth largest democracy. Despondent Bolsonaro supporters, meanwhile, organised an evangelical prayer vigil outside government buildings in Brasilia.

In the hours before Sunday’s vote the worst fears of many, that Bolsonaro might try to mount some kind of coup to stay in office, looked like they could come to pass. The president has repeatedly questioned the validity of Brazil’s electronic voting system (that has had virtually no cases of fraud in its twenty-two year history). In the end however, the only indication of impropriety was from federal highway police instigating over 500 operations, the majority of which were in the Lula-leaning northeast of the country, stopping buses and cars, and creating traffic jams of 30 kilometres in some cases, in order to suppress voters from turning up to specific the polling booths at which they were registered. With up to three million voters potentially affected, the supreme court ruled that the traffic stops must cease: an order the police chief complied with only after several hours of chaos.

Not even that could propel Bolsonaro into a second term, with international leaders, from Biden to Macron, congratulating Lula’s victory with notable speed. No such message from Bolsonaro, or his usually social media addicted sons, who for forty hours did not acknowledge the defeat. His eventual 90 second address made no concession, but his chief of staff and vice president have said handover proceedings would begin.

Assuming Lula takes the green and yellow sash on 1 January in an orderly fashion, it will mark a remarkable new chapter in the politician’s rollercoaster life. The seventh of eight children, born to desperately poor working-class parents, he started shining shoes aged 12 before moving on to work in factories and beginning his ascent through the country’s trade union movement. One of the founders of the PT in 1980, in 2003 Lula was elected Brazil’s president, going on to serve a second four-year term from 2007 until 2011. In that time, he lifted millions out of poverty; invested huge sums into improving housing conditions in the country's favelas; and oversaw the creation of conservation areas and indigenous reserves leading to massive decreases in deforestation. Yet, after his successor, Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, Lula was jailed on dubious corruption charges that prevented his running in the presidential election of 2018. These were later quashed on appeal, with the presiding judge of his original conviction, Sergio Moro, found to be in communication with his prosecutors.

The Brazil Lula is set to take over now it is not the country of 2003. Unlike twenty years ago, when a commodities boom put wind in his sails, this time the president-elect inherits an economy in the doldrums, with 33 million regularly going hungry and Brazil no exception to the economic troubles affecting the world at large. The small margin of his election will also be a major worry for supporters. On paper Bolsonaro should have been an easy defeat. His mishandling of the pandemic, with his rhetoric against vaccines in a country that has previously had very little anti-vax movement, saw 688,000 people die. It’s no exaggeration to say most people know at least a few people who succumbed to the virus. Such wanton disregard for the lives and safety of a country’s citizens isn’t an obvious vote winner. But it was not this that would prove to be the incumbent’s undoing however. Instead, it was, somewhat ironically, his anti-democratic rhetoric. In this young democracy many who might normally be allergic to Lula’s reforming agenda threw their lot in with the candidate. Bolsonaro’s failure to condemn his supporters who after his defeat, again with the acquiescence of the Federal Transport Police, blocked highways throughout the country, will have only alienated more since election day.

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Lula’s vice president elect, Geraldo Alckimin, is a right of centre former rival; Lula received endorsements from free marketeers including Simone Tebet, who was knocked out of the first round presidential vote, finishing third. Another conservative politician, as Bolsonaro’s hints towards a coup continued, spoke for many when he noted that Lula was a politician he could at least be in opposition to. Leftist politicians making concessions to the centre for votes is common, but it's testament to Lula’s political prowess that his grand coalition was just that: for every figure on the right he brought into the fold, there were equivalents to his left. Guilherme Boulos of PSOL, the party that split with PT in 2004 over its previous overtures to the right, proved to be a major draw at Lula’s rallies. It was support that PT did well to cultivate: Boulos won the most votes of any congressman in the first round. For every celebrity endorsement (from Anitta to winning over Caetano Veloso), there were thousands of small events and speeches, coordinated by organisations such as the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), in favelas and poorer communities across the 26 states.

Bolsonaro's campaign, which in the last few weeks looked increasingly triumphant as he closed in on his rival, also suffered some unpredictable last-minute setbacks (even if surrounding yourself with volatile maniacs is likely to have predictable consequences). Six days before the election, one Bolsonaro ally, former deputy Roberto Jefferson, under house arrest for alleged coup mongering, fired shots and threw a grenade at military police as they arrived at his house. day before the vote, a congresswoman from the president’s party drew a gun out on a Lula supporter, chasing him down the street in the broad daylight of São Paulo’s upscale Jardins neighbourhood. Both were Black Swans to the campaign, galvanising a fear of chaos among many undecided voters.

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A large proportion of Lula’s support is predicated on an opposition to Bolsonaro rather than a shared ideology. It is unlikely therefore to hold. Bolsonaro allies did remarkably well in last month’s senate and congressional elections, with five of the outgoing president’s former ministers elected, not least Moro – the judge who ran Operação Lava Jato into alleged corruption and who was responsible for jailing Lula in 2018, and who inevitably became an acolyte of Bolsonaro’s – and former health minister Eduardo Pazuello. Eduardo Bolsonaro, Jair’s son, returned to congress too (Flávio, Jair’s oldest child, is a senator). Lula will have a tough time getting legislation through. To achieve any of what he promised the electorate, Lula will to need to reach out to beyond the 120 of the 513 deputies that are of left-wing parties. The horse trading that is likely to mark the next four years has already begun, with reports suggesting that politicians from the ideologically amorphous (but neoliberal in bent) centrão parties have offered support on the condition that bolsonarista president of the chamber, Arthur Lira, is kept in place. Lula’s campaign held a notably Green tinge, at odds with the powerful agribusiness lobby. He has promised to reign in illegal mining in the Amazon (there was a 3,350% increase in invasions of Yanomami land between 2016 and 2020 for example); designate protected status to half a million more square km of forest; and subsidise sustainable farming. This all sits at odds with romanticisation of the outlaw miner and farmer that Bolsonaro has encouraged. Lula has promised to remove income tax for those who make R$5,000 (£865) or less per month (currently the limit is R$1,900) and guarantee government social security payments and child benefits to the poorest. Any tax increases for the rich will be fiercely contested. While he has promised a Ministry for Women (and to reinstate the disbanded Ministry of Culture), Lula’s core supporters, and those further to the left, are likely to be disappointed that the radical social agenda that marked his first years in power could well be absent. When challenged by Bolsonaro on abortion during a televised debate, Lula blinked, took an electoral calculation, and said it would remain illegal. These will be the painful concessions to be weighed up.

The outgoing president won't stop needling his successor either, ever ready on Twitter and his sprawling WhatsApp groups to exploit any controversies or missteps by the new regime. While the left’s political energy is being spent firefighting, they will urgently need to be working on a succession plan. Lula will be 81 by the end of his term and has ruled out another run. Even if Jair doesn’t attempt to regain power (held back by whatever legal proceedings are likely to come his way), his sons have enormous political capital. On the other hand, the other big beasts of Lula’s Workers’ Party have never inspired voters to the extent of their leader. Fernando Haddad, who stepped in as candidate in 2018 after Lula was jailed, failed in his run for São Paulo state governor this time around, beaten by a far right candidate (while likeable, Haddad's campaign was hardly inspiring, not least the tone-deaf radio adverts in which a samba singer encouraged the often precariously employed listener to vote for the candidate because he was a university professor ).

Then there is the figure of Justice Alexandre de Moraes, the unappealing head of the supreme court who has often naiviely been regarded as an ally by some on the left (and hate figure by the right.) It wasn’t always so. De Moraes was a member of the supreme court that initially rejected Lula's appeals. More recently however the former colleague of VP-elect Alckmin has been cracking down on any hint of insurrection (leaked WhatsApp messages of various businessmen, which spoke favourably of dictatorship, led to raids, though it was probably more braggadocio than serious coup mongering) and leading a crusade against fake news (ordering the removal of YouTube videos, ordering the arrest of Bolsonaro-supporting perpetrators). In doing so Moraes has effectively become one of the most powerful political operators in the country. Some fear that the real coup won’t come in the form of the military, but will prove judicial. That’s a less sexy drama, but could be just as dangerous.

It’s not hard to see why every article I’ve written an article, however tangential, about Brazil in the previous four years has had the president’s name placed somewhere in the headline – sometimes with an obligatory ‘Trump of the Tropics’ moniker added for good measure. The challenges facing Brazil now will be more complex, harder to parse into this one click-inducing demonic figure. Attentions will shift. Lula provides inspiration. Indigenous communities will be able to breathe a little easier. Those on the periphery of society can afford a little more hope, the left is right to celebrate, but the good days are not guaranteed. For many, the glow from Sunday's celebrations has since dimmed by the realisation that another gruelling four years likely lie in wait.

Oliver Basciano is a journalist and critic based in São Paulo. He is working on a book about leprosy and exclusion.

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