Lula’s return

Photo: Casa de America (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Richard Lapper says Lula da Silva will find enacting progressive policies harder this time round following Bolsonaro’s regime and economic crisis 

The electoral triumph four months ago of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has marked one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in contemporary politics. Back in the 2000s, Lula, as Brazil’s president is commonly known, presided over eight years of steady expansion, rising prosperity and social and environmental reform. When he left office in 2010, the former trade union leader was lauded both at home and abroad, famously being praised by Barack Obama as “the most popular politician on earth”. 

But his designated successor, Dilma Rousseff, presided over a dismal six-year period, with growth turning to recession and the entire political class discredited by a huge corruption scandal. Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and within two years, Lula himself was in prison. The election in 2018 of Jair Bolsonaro, a maverick former army captain and right-wing populist, seemed to mark a complete shift in the Brazilian political climate. 

Fast forward four years, though, and the political pendulum has swung back. Lula’s convictions on corruption charges were annulled early in 2020, leaving him free to re-enter politics, and at the end of October 2022, the crowds were out in force on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista to acclaim the return of Latin America’s most prominent left-wing leader. Hopes for the new administration are high. But it will not be easy. Now aged 77 and a survivor of throat cancer, Lula is beginning his new mandate in much more difficult circumstances than those he faced 20 years ago.

Back in the 2000s, economic trends were moving in Brazil’s favour. Lula was helped by a sharp rise in commodity prices triggered by China’s entry into the world trading system. Brazil is a competitive producer of soya beans, sugar, coffee and other farm products, and is one of the world’s biggest producers of many metals, particularly iron ore. And since the discovery in 2006 of new oil fields offshore from Rio de Janeiro, the country has become a major oil power. 

China’s demand for all these things grew like Topsy in the 2000s. Brazil saw its exports boom, and the country – which had struggled to pay its foreign debts in the 1980s – started to build up its reserves. Having been something of a basket case 20 years before, suddenly, Brazil was being seen as a new economic power, one of the so-called Brics (along with Russia, India, China and South Africa), whose emergence seemed to be changing the international economy. 

The international outlook now is far less positive. China is growing more slowly. The world economy has been hit by the war in the Ukraine. At home, too, there are pressures. Bolsonaro spent heavily, first to offset the impact of the Covid pandemic, and then in an unsuccessful effort to bribe voters and essentially buy last year’s election. Brazil’s fiscal deficit is running at about 8% of GDP, so Lula’s government has relatively little room for manoeuvre. 

The main problem, though, is that Brazil is both a more conservative and a more divided country than it was at the beginning of the century. Lula won October’s election by only a few hundred thousand votes. Bolsonaro – who has been nursing his wounds in Florida since the beginning of the year – performed far better than opinion polls had predicted. In congress, Lula’s PT (Workers’ Party) and its left-wing allies won only about one fifth of the seats. Several of Bolsonaro’s most controversial ministers won seats in congress. His far-right Liberal Party won more seats than any other. To approve legislation, Lula will need the support of a group of unpredictable and self-serving centre-right politicians who in the last two years were allied with Bolsonaro.

Support for the outgoing president and his brand of right-wing populism is also evident at the grassroots. Bolsonaro won in 14 of Brazil’s 27 states. Lula was dominant in the poorer north-east, but in the wealthier south and south-east and in the agricultural heartlands of the centre-west, Bolsonaro swept the board. As one local commentator put it, Lula’s presidential success was like “a left-wing island in a right-wing sea”. 

Brazil’s business groups, middle class and even many working-class people remain hugely suspicious of Lula and his left-wing Workers’ Party. The big conservative farming, evangelical and security interest groups – the so-called beef, bible and bullets lobbies that, as I point out in my book, played such a big role in Bolsonaro’s election victory of 2018 – remain hugely powerful. 

True, a military coup seems unlikely, not least because Brazil’s US and European allies would be completely opposed, but Lula cannot take the loyalty of the military and police force for granted and will need to tread carefully. At the beginning of January, for example, policemen in Brasilia simply stood aside when Bolsonarista demonstrators invaded and vandalised Congress and the Supreme Court buildings in Brasília, Brazil’s modernist capital. Many of the protesters come from the small towns and cities of Brazil’s interior states – what Brazilians call the interiorzão or outback – that is similar, in some respects, to the redneck territories of the US where Donald Trump enjoys such strong support. 

Just as it does in the US, religion plays a big role in Brazil. Socially conservative evangelical churches that rail against liberal social policies, such as gay marriage and sex education in schools, are influential. And their numbers are growing. Back in 1980, when Lula’s Workers’ Party was formed, about 7% of Brazilians were Protestant. By 2010, the number had increased to more than 20%. Now, roughly one in three are members of these churches. 

Brazilian farmers tend to be very conservative too. In the vast territories of the Amazon, many people survive by cutting down rainforest, selling or burning the wood and then using the cleared land for pasture. Many also prospect – illegally – for gold on land that is theoretically protected by the state but in practice is like the Wild West. 

During his first two terms in office, Lula was able to defend the rainforest. By 2012, the amount of deforested land had fallen to 4,400km2, down from 27,700km2 in 2004. Over the last ten years, though, the rate has been climbing again, increasing back to 11,568km2 in the 12 months to 31st July 2021. Under Bolsonaro, funding for the government agencies responsible for previous successes was reduced and staff demotivated. Bolsonaro’s ministers and pro-Bolsonaro state governors offered tacit support for clearances. “The Bolsonaro regime was a forest-burning machine,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, an NGO. 

But here, perhaps, there is some early cause for optimism as the new administration begins its work. Partly, that is because Lula’s government enjoys strong international support because the battle in the Amazon is so central to the effort to tackle global warming. Within days of taking office, Lula had revived the $630m Amazon fund set up in 2008 but frozen by Bolsonaro for the past four years. Germany’s centre-left leader Olaf Scholz has already announced additional new contributions. Joe Biden, the US president, may well follow suit. And there have been some good signs. 

Funding for agencies such as the environment ministry’s Ibama agency (that polices deforestation) and the Chico Mendes Institute (that looks after national parks) has been increased by nearly 60%. Late last month, Ibama agents combined with police units to force out thousands of illegal miners from the Amazonian territories of the Yanomami, one of the country’s largest indigenous groups. It represented quite a change. As the interim president of the agency put it: “It’s been difficult, but Ibama is back.”  

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