Do not underestimate the Brazilian left

Thomas Zicman de Barros anticipates a resurgence of the Worker’s Party in October elections

Two years ago, in the middle of a political and economic turmoil that undermined her popularity, Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from presidency. More than a hundred days ago, Rousseff’s political tutor, former president Lula da Silva, was imprisoned after a long period of judicial persecution. For some, these two events alone indicate a disaster that the Brazilian left could take generations to overcome. However, analyzing the most recent polls, we see the exact opposite: even in his prison cell, Lula is leading the presidential race, and the Workers’ Party stands as the favorite in the dispute.

In a few weeks Brazilians cast their votes. The rejection of the conservative government led by Michel Temer, together with the evidence that Lula’s trial was highly unfair, open a wide road for the left to reconquer Brasilia on the night of October 27th, the day of the second round.

Without doubt there are obstacles on the way. An important difficulty comes from the fact that the Workers’ Party continues to claim that Lula is its candidate. It makes a lot of sense: Lula would easily win if his name is on the ballot, and his popularity has increased since his incarceration. However, every political analyst knows that this is an unrealistic scenario. The law bans those who have been convicted from running, which will force the party to switch its candidate.

Anticipating the inevitable, his coalition presented an heterodox three-name ticket. Lula now has two vice-presidents: Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo who replaces Lula as the head of the ticket if his name is blocked, and the communist congresswoman Manuela D’Ávila.

Lula’s running mates are young, open-minded, inspiring, and have the potential of representing his legacy and capturing an important part of his electorate. If they inherit just a portion of Lula’s support, it would be enough to put them into the second round.

This is the ticket that unites the left. Of course, it is not the union that we dreamed of, but the one that was possible. Two other left-wing candidates are standing: the developmentalist Ciro Gomes and the social activist Guilherme Boulos, leader of the Homeless Workers’ Movement. Yet, despite their merits, these two names do not have the same force and party structure to challenge the ‘Lulist’ hegemony.

Brazilians are facing the most fragmented elections in thirty years, but in the end voters tend to divide into two blocks and place a left-wing and a right-wing candidate in the second round, as has happened in every presidential election for the last two decades. Even if what interests political theorists the most are the moments of rupture, when causal laws and patterns are broken, in a country with continental dimensions such as Brazil, it is becoming clearer that outsiders and third way candidates face a hard time campaigning against the classical polarization.

The Workers’ Party seems to have a good chance of securing the Lula-Haddad-D’Ávila ticket in the second round. The question remains open about who will be the right-wing challenger. As the political scientist Alberto Carlos Almeida predicts in his new book The Brazilian Presidential Elections (2018), the most likely contender seems to be Geraldo Alckmin, the long-standing governor of São Paulo and a prominent member from Brazil’s most traditional centre-right party. In this scenario, the left will try to depict him as someone who supported Temer’s illegitimate rise to power and helped to approve highly unpopular austerity measures. As the rule of thumb indicates, when a government is rejected, the opposition tends to win.

If Alckmin does not succeed in convincing conservative voters, the scary alternative to challenge the left in the second round is the far-right former military officer Jair Bolsonaro. This controversial candidate openly praises the military dictatorship that brutally ruled Brazil for twenty years, discriminates against minorities and social movements, and represents a serious threat to democratic institutions. Unfortunately, the frightening possibility of his triumph in the right-wing spectrum cannot be dismissed.

To use a French expression that may be misread in monarchical Britain, against Bolsonaro the Workers’ Party strategy should be the creation of a ‘Republican Front’ against fascism. The question, of course, is whether the traditional right would join the left that it cursed for years or will it abandon any democratic principle remaining among its members and rally with a dangerous candidate that may promise to save its purse.

One way or another, the left that was once proclaimed dead shows renewed strength and resilience – and, whoever the final winner, this is good news for democracy.

Thomas Zicman de Barros

Thomas Zicman de Barros is a PhD candidate at Sciences Po, Paris.