What Lula’s victory in Brazil means for the world


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Less than three years ago, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva was in prison. On Monday, he awoke on his way back to Brazil’s presidency after securing a narrow victory in Sunday’s runoff election. The leftist defeated incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a bitter contest shaped by ideological animosity and personal enmity. His victory represented one of the most spectacular political comebacks of this century.

Lula served two successful terms as president from 2003 to 2010, when he tapped into an epochal commodity boom to lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty through sweeping social programs. But the years following his presidency saw an economic downturn, while a massive corruption scandal implicated much of Brazil’s political establishment – ​​and led to Lula himself being jailed in 2018, only for the country’s Supreme Court to order his release in 2019 and later dropped the charges against him.

Bolsonaro has occupied the far-right fringes of Brazilian politics for most of his political career, known for his tendency to make misogynistic and bigoted remarks, as well as nostalgia for the years of military dictatorship. He rode a wave of popular discontent as an anti-establishment candidate and won the presidency in the 2018 election. His turbulent four years in power were marked by scandals, a poor response to the coronavirus pandemic and a form of polarizing, hard-right politics that critics they feared it was severing the ties that bound the fledgling Brazilian democracy.

Lula, a true working-class hero who lost a finger in a factory accident, was perhaps the only figure with enough popular appeal to oppose Bolsonaro’s movement. Now he has little time to bask in his triumph.

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“Brazilian Biden” defending democracy

At the time of writing on Monday, Bolsonaro had not conceded defeat, although election authorities had confirmed the results on Sunday evening and many world leaders, including President Biden, had congratulated Lula and hailed the passage of free and fair elections in Brazil. Bolsonaro had said nothing publicly at all (although one of his sons did somewhat cryptic tweet urging supporters not to “give up on our Brazil”).

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For months as president, Bolsonaro has questioned the integrity of Brazil’s electoral processes despite scant evidence to support his claims. Now mired in defeat, he can take another page from former President Donald Trump’s book, point to the narrow margin of Lula’s victory as a reason to question her legitimacy and spend the interim period leading up to Lula’s inauguration complicating of the political transition.

“This is the Trump model,” Marcos Nobre, a political analyst and author, told my colleagues. “This means whoever won the election fair and square is illegitimate. Bolsonaro will seek to weaken Lula in any way possible.

“Is he holding firm, asking for an audit of the vote, and causing a constitutional crisis à la Trump in 2020?” my colleagues asked. “Or, because his conservative movement has fared much better than expected, has he cemented a strong position as Brazil’s most powerful opposition leader since the return of democracy – using his massive social media platform as a pulpit to complicate Lula’s job?” Or, as some have suggested, is he leaving Brazil to avoid the possibility of prosecution?”

Lula, on the other hand, presented himself as a conciliatory figure, eager to represent the entire nation, revive confidence in its civil institutions, and return the country to a degree of calm and democratic normalcy. As the Brazilian essayist Bruno Cava put it, he “presented himself as the candidate of the system, as a ‘Brazilian Biden,’ so to speak, ending the Trumpist interlude.”

Lula’s election campaign attracted a broad coalition of parties and politicians, including former political opponents. After the election, a number of key Bolsonaro allies also called on the incumbent to accept the result for the good of the country. “It’s time to disarm the spirit, reach out to your opponents,” said House Speaker Arthur Lira.

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But, like Biden, Lula must contend with significant legislative and political opposition from a emboldened right that will feed its discontent over this lost election. The tailwinds of the global economy – and the maelstrom of misinformation on social media – will thwart his agenda.

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In his first stint in power, Lula appeared to be the most prominent and beloved left-wing leader in South America. He was the titan among the “pink” wave of elected leftist governments across the continent, and his relative pragmatism contrasted him with more autocratic and demagogic leftist regimes in places like Venezuela and Cuba.

Now Lula is returning to power at another such moment in the continent’s politics. As of 2020, left-wing governments have taken power in Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Colombia — the latter long ruled by the right. There is no simple narrative to tell their rise, but it all happened in the shadow of the pandemic, which exposed the underlying social inequalities in many countries, especially in Latin America.

“It’s more of a rejection trend than anything else … people looking for an alternative,” Michael Shifter, former president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, told AFP. “We’re at this point in Latin America where a lot of the governments that are being rejected are right-wing or center-right.” And the pendulum can swing the other way pretty quickly if voters feel those governments have failed to achieved in the coming years.

In terms of foreign policy, it’s hard to see Lula presenting himself as an ideological companion for Biden, as Bolsonaro did for Trump. He may repeat the position his government took more than a decade ago, touting Brazil’s role as a champion of the global south while keeping its distance from the West and taking independent positions on a host of thorny geopolitical challenges.

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Like Bolsonaro, Lula may have reservations about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — he even said in an interview earlier this year that leaders of both countries shared blame for the war. Unlike Bolsonaro, Lula is unlikely to please evangelical voters by embracing Israel and cozying up to right-wing demagogue Benjamin Netanyahu, who could return to power after Tuesday’s election.

Lula swore to protect the Amazon. After Bolsonaro, it will not be easy.

Under Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Amazon region – described for years as the “lungs” of the world – has accelerated sharply. He slashed environmental protections and undermined the government agencies tasked with enforcing them. An estimated 2 billion trees were cut down or burned during his tenure as his administration quietly worked to advance the interests of Brazilian agribusiness. Between the summer of 2019 and 2021, a forest larger than the whole of Belgium disappeared. According to a study published by the journal Nature last year, parts of the Amazon rainforest have gone from being a net carbon sink to another source of emissions.

This is alarming for all those concerned about the planetary effects of global warming and the international community’s struggle to combat climate change. Lula has vowed to turn back the page and curb deforestation, as he did before in office. One analysis predicts that a Lula victory could lead to a nearly 90 percent drop in Amazon deforestation over the next decade.

“Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon forests,” Lula said after his victory.


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