By Dr Priti Singh
Luiz InácioLula da Silva, the co-founder of the Workers’ Party (PT), has won the October 30 presidential elections in Brazil by a very small margin. His promises in the election campaign included defense of the Amazon, democracy and justice for all. His supporters come from the socially and the economically weaker sections—especially from the Northeast region but also include those in power who were not very happy with the authoritarian approach of the incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro.
The slim win for president-elect Lula points to a deeply divided country supporting two diametrically opposite views and a defeat that has not been easily conceded by Bolsonaro and his supporters in the months leading up to it. Discussion on Brazil’s elections for the last few months has been on false news and misinformation on social media, social and economic policies, corruption and the pandemic.
There were reports that the highway police were involved in voter suppression by blocking roads in areas that were in support of Lula such as the Northeast. This has been a very difficult win. Lula had been arrested in 2018 on charges of bribery thus preventing him from participating in the elections that year buthe was released the next year and charges levelled against him were dropped by 2021. Ever since then, he has been slowly making his way back to the top.
What does all this mean for Brazil? Will Lula, who has been supportive of taxing the rich, attempt to redistribute wealth or maintain stability in fiscal policies as per his electoral mandate? Coming from a far-right agenda, Bolsonaro’s emphasis has been on deregulation and privatization. Lula, on the other hand, has focused on poverty, food and housing. Brazil has been struggling to recover from a deep recession which started in 2014 along with the major corruption controversy known as ‘Operation Car Wash’ which led to political turmoil and was followed by the pandemic.
Even during his first two terms, Lula introduced social welfare schemes such as the Bolsa Familia which used the concept of conditional cash transfer to link welfare payments to education of children. These innovative programmes had helped Brazil lessen its poverty figures. The Lula years had seen a rise in Gross Domestic Product by 7.5 percent in 2010 (World Bank). Scholars writing on Brazil have argued over the reasons for Brazil’s enormous growth in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
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While many pointed to Brazil’s profits due to the sale of primary commodities mainly attributed to the demand from China, others argued that economic stability, a result of Lula’s welfare policies, had also contributed to this growth (O’Neil, Lapper et al, 2012). Whatever the reason, the economy was doing well, and Brazil was politically stable. Thus, Lula’s approval ratings even at the end of his second term were very high. This had allowed Dilma Rousseff to succeed him as president once his term was over as the Brazilian Constitution does not allow a consecutive third term for a president. The economic and political decline for Brazil had already set in by then with the economy stumbling and the corruption allegations reaching its height during Rousseff’s term, resulting in her impeachment.
Ultra-conservative Bolsonaro’s election as president in 2018 has often been claimed as the result of a backlash or reaction of the people and their disappointment with the previous administrations. Described as a result of the “anger vote” and an economic recession that hit Brazil with high unemployment rates, the people chose to vote for a far-right populist, a former army captain and a firm supporter of Trump. Nicknamed as the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, Bolsonaro had appointed Paulo Guedes, a Chicago University economist as his economy minister.
His term, however, was beset with problems. The uproar over Bolsonaro’s stance on the Amazon and deforestation with his foreign minister Ernesto Araujo having claimed that the climate change assertion was part of a conspiracy by “cultural Marxists” is just one such example. While Bolsonaro’s Environment Minister Joaquim Leite announced programmes for sustainable development and conservation of forests in 2021, it was not very well received by the international community as they believed that it lacked credibility and did not confront head on the problem of deforestation. Bolsonaro’s open disdain for masks during the pandemic and his inability to handle the situation effectively also instigated a lot of criticism.
This is not to say that Lula has always been revered as a leader. The corruption scandal had really hit both Lula and his political party very hard. This partly explains the very thin margin by which Lula has won this election. In his first speech on Sunday evening, Lula was perhaps attempting to garner more support by assuring the people that he would broaden his outlook beyond his party by including centrists and right of centre views in his approach. This is a natural extension of any balanced and pragmatic politician.
Lula is known for his international activism and his contribution to multilateralism, which falls in line with the present US president Biden’s approach. He has in the past shown his inclination for market-friendly policies that support private sector growth and foreign investments. Lula’s global outreach included India and relations between the two countries had grown in leaps and bounds during his time.
He visited India thrice during his tenure in 2004, 2007 and 2008. This is also the time that the BRICS forum along with IBSA and BASIC was given form. India signed a defence cooperation agreement with Brazil in 2003 in R&D, military training and planned joint maneuvers. So much so, Brazil opened a Defence wing in its embassy in New Delhi by 2009. A proponent of Mercosur and Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), Lula’s win has raised hopes globally for environmental and indigenous rights activists as well as for advocates of South American integration. For Lula, it will be a long domestic struggle to secure his position by balancing his passion and pragmatism.
Author is Chairperson, Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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