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Lula’s challenges

Jair Bolsonaro, a typical populist leader, was not expected to cool down so quickly after his defeat in the second round of the Brazilian presidential elections.

It was being anticipated that Bolsonaro would not accept his defeat calmly and his supporters would resort to a massively violent agitation. Ever since the second round of the presidential election campaign in Brazil kicked off, Bolsonaro – sensing his possible defeat – had been talking about possible fraudulent manipulations by his opponents to keep him from retaining the top slot. Bolsonaro has repeatedly sought to cast doubt on the integrity of Brazil’s electoral process and made unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the electronic voting system and questioned the validity of opinion polls that have consistently placed him in second position.

Brazilians were expecting a sudden eruption of violence just after the election results, but surprisingly, despite countrywide protests by the Bolsonaristas and workers of the conservative Liberal Party (PL) who practically paralyzed the country with roadblocks and processions, the protest campaign did not acquire the intensity to be classified as violent.

Bolsonaro, whose role model is Donald Trump, repeatedly bragged about being “unflappable” during his campaign days, and though he has not yet customarily accepted his defeat and congratulated his opponent Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, it seems he has made up his mind to accept the reality and prepare himself to assume the role of a fierce opposition leader with the 2026 elections in mind. Bolsonaro appealed to all his supporter truckers, who had blocked the roads across the country after his defeat, to clear the roads. This signals a change in his game plan. A day earlier, he also reportedly threw in the towel after telling the members of the Supreme Court: “It’s over.”

The election results, however, show that Bolsonaro lost with a very thin margin, and he still commands a formidable popularity. The leftist president-elect, popularly known as Lula, came out on top with 50.9 per cent of the vote, while the rightwing incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, grabbed 49.1 per cent of the vote. So, there is a very thin difference between the two, and Bolsonaro has an advantage of using his formidable propaganda machinery to unsettle Lula’s presidency in the coming days. Jair Bolsonaro.

A former army captain and congressman, Bolsonaro won the 2018 presidential election campaigning as a right-wing, socially conservative nationalist. He pledged to control crime and corruption and boost economic growth. However, his tenure has been laced with many controversial decisions, including cutting funding for federal education, relaxing gun ownership laws, and weakening LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. During his term in office, Bolsonaro earned the nickname ‘Captain Chainsaw’ as deforestation in the Amazon surpassed historic records. He also drew international criticism for his treatment of indigenous communities, as well as for his management of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 680,000 people in Brazil. But, despite such a dismal performance, he has been able to give Lula the toughest electoral competition of his political career by obtaining 51 million votes, two million more than in the first round of the 2018 presidential election.

In the parliamentary and governor elections, which also took place on October 2, the right-wing parties and, in particular, the far right, performed much better than forecasts showed. They won more representatives in the two houses of parliament than PT and its allies. Now this will create huge problems for Lula in passing his desired legislation to implement his agenda. Bolsonaro’s conservative party has demonstrated unexpected performance in congressional elections, gaining at least seven additional seats and earning a majority. That would certainly encourage Bolsonaristas to generate momentum and make it more difficult for Lula to implement left-wing policies. A conservative majority parliament will certainly dissuade Lula from implementing his progressive agenda – and so a persistent headache is waiting for Lula in the coming days. This corroborates the fact that the extreme right is definitely very strong across Brazil.

On the other hand, Lula tried to present himself as a Brazilian Biden to muffle Bolsonaro’s Trumpist module. He adopted a different campaign theme and avoided any clash with the elites – despite his pro-poor rhetoric. This time around, Lula projected himself as the candidate of the system to expunge an ‘outsider’ Bolsonaro. He formulated an extraordinarily broad front, almost the entire Left opposition, but also cobbled together a club of representatives of economic power from various sectors, social democrats, conservative liberals, former bureaucrats and others. He clearly desisted from street mobilization or sharp factionalism. Throughout the campaign, Lula carefully nurtured an image as a sincere promoter of peace, indicating the need to resolve the conflicts that are aggravating division between different social segments.

The positive thing is that, despite Bolsonaro’s incitements and the heightened threat of violence, it is unlikely that the military would intervene. Clear signals are emanating from the Brazilian army’s top brass that they will remain neutral. At the same time, the international community, which is already wary of Bolsonaro’s populist belligerence in the domain of foreign policy, will surely discourage any anti-democratic ventures in Brazil.

In view of the dominance of the Right in parliament, it will be difficult for Lula to push through progressive policies. Lula’s Workers Party (PT) and its supporters will face a radicalized and armed opposition from the extreme Right under the leadership of a wounded Bolsonaro who is committed to defending ‘true Christianity’, ‘family values’ and traditional gender roles. The only plausible solution to the deep economic – and now political – crisis that Brazil has plunged into in the last decade could be a Brazilian New Deal that encompasses much-needed structural changes in labour law and market, encourages the contributing role of minorities, and sticks to the centrality of the global environmental agenda.

Lula is a seasoned and pragmatic politician, and he also understands that Brazil desperately needs reconciliation – as evident by his strict instructions to his supporters to avoid physical clashes with opponents and rather downplay the red colour traditionally used for the branding of his party. In order to break the spell of extreme political polarization in Brazil, Lula should act as a bridge between the polarized segments of society. He has the capacity and political will to do so, but he also needs a supportive parliament, which is perhaps the trickiest part of the whole equation.

Dr Imran Khalid, "Lula’s challenges," The News. 2022-11-15.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political will , Foreign policy , Elections , Democrats , Corruption , Jair Bolsonaro , Donald Trump , Brazil , LGBTQ , P&L