Lula’s back

What the likely return to office of Brazil’s former president (and more recent prisoner) means for Brazil, the Americas and Canada

By: /
28 April, 2021
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former president, speaks during a press conference after convictions against him were annulled. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Brazil is going through its worst crisis in modern history. As of this writing, the pandemic has killed more than 375,000 Brazilians, with 60,000 COVID-related deaths in March alone and reaching 20,000 per week in April. Mortality is on an explosive growth path as hospitals are running out of oxygen and the painkillers needed to intubate patients. Thousands are waiting for admission to intensive care while people are treated and die on hospital floors. Bodies are piling up in morgues and cemeteries, and funeral homes are running out of caskets. Infection levels are such that the country threatens to turn into the world’s foremost incubator of COVID variants.

Meanwhile, the president who bears much responsibility for the scale of the crisis and the awful government response to it tells Brazilians to stop “whining,” complains Brazil looks like a “country of fags” and publicly mocks people gasping for air.

Incredibly, Jair Bolsonaro’s political prospects were, until recently, not that bad. The opportunism of the centre-right coalition that dominates Congress, the deep divisions that plague the opposition, the relatively good growth expectations for next year, along with incumbency and a still sizable core group of fanatical supporters gave him a solid chance to win a second mandate in the fall 2022 presidential elections.

On March 8, however, a Supreme Court judge nullified the criminal conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, ruling that the tribunal that condemned him did not have the jurisdiction to do so. His decision was endorsed in April by the full Supreme Court, which also ruled the judge who presided over his trial, Sergio Moro, had been partial and decisions he made during the proceedings were tainted. A new trial will take years to complete. In the meantime, the 76-year-old da Silva is free to face off against Bolsonaro next year.

Lula, as he is universally known, is by far Brazil’s most popular politician of the last 50 years. He ended his second mandate in 2011 with an 80 per cent rate of approval, though corruption allegations have tarnished his reputation since. He was president when billions of dollars of public monies were diverted to political parties and intermediaries in exchange for their support for his policies. Evidence that he benefitted financially is evaporating by the day, but the scale of the scandals and the involvement of several of his closest advisors make his claims to be the victim of a full-fledged conspiracy difficult to swallow.

However, out of resignation or cynicism, Brazilian voters tend to see corruption as an inherent part of their national politics, especially if it is tempered with meaningful action or change, and on this front, Lula is untouchable.

Helped by the explosive increase in China’s demand for natural resources in the early 2000s, he presided over the fastest period of growth since the mid-1960s and, crucially, the largest and broadest reduction of poverty in the history of the country. While his progressive outlook doesn’t make him the first choice of the business sector, he has proven to be remarkably pragmatic. Credible rumours already signal his interest in recruiting a centrist businessperson as candidate for vice-president. Brazil’s economic elites would not fear a radical turn to the left in the country’s economic policies were Lula to return to the presidency.

For all these reasons, he is Bolsonaro’s worst nightmare. Polls show Lula and Bolsonaro neck-and-neck when it comes to Brazilians’ voting intentions — and this is without any campaigning by Lula, or even a formally declared candidacy.

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Interesting, you might say, but why should the prospect of an electoral victory by Lula more than 18 months from now matter to Brazil, the Americas and Canada?

Lula’s return matters in Brazil because it changes the calculations of all political forces in the country. On the left, presidential hopefuls now know that they must wait until at least 2026 to even think of winning, because their current supporters will most likely vote for Lula in a polarized 2022 contest.

Things are more complicated on the right. The Brazilian Congress is fragmented, with 24 parties dividing up 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 81 in the Senate. The government’s core coalition is made up of only 150 deputies and 12 senators, while the opposition has 170 deputies and 18 senators. The balance of power is held by the so called “Fat Centre.” Members of this group have no well-defined ideology and are almost purely opportunistic. For them, their families, friends and financial backers, bargaining every one of their votes, and getting re-elected to keep doing it, is all that counts. With Lula in the picture, the price of their support for Bolsonaro’s policies will increase and he will need to demonstrate that supporting him in 2022, instead of Lula, will increase their chances of winning.

All this has shaken up President Bolsonaro’s life and weakened his electoral prospects. He’s panicking, and it shows on several fronts. One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s finally announced the creation of a committee to fight it. He’s replaced several of his ministers. He’s tried — and failed — to increase his own executive power while reducing that of Congress. He’s also tried to get the explicit support of the military hierarchy for his opposition to the restrictive COVID-19 measures imposed by some governors and mayors and in his fights with the Supreme Court. These efforts backfired, however, when the commanders of the army, navy and air force resigned following the dismissal of the minister of defense, himself a four-star general, who was resisting Bolsonaro’s pressure to involve the military in the politics of pandemic management.

“Canada should root for Lula.”

The long-term domestic effect of Lula’s return would obviously depend on how he does in the presidential elections. Were he to win, it is easy to see a period of Joe Biden-like calmness and moderately progressive policies that would help stabilize the country. Lula’s Worker’s Party doesn’t have a great reputation for competent economic management. Party member Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded Lula as president in 2011, squandered much that Lula had achieved. Still, it is difficult to imagine anything worse for the country than the utterly anachronic hyper-liberalism of Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s current finance minister, whose narrow obsession with privatization comes straight out of the 1980s.

Lula’s return clearly matters for South America. In the short term, Brazil’s numerous neighbours are bound to benefit from a more rational pandemic policy born out of Bolsonaro’s growing fear that someone will capitalize on his mismanagement of the COVID crisis. In the mid- and long-term, the prospects of Lula’s regaining power would be encouraging in a region where Venezuela remains the epicentre of the worst recorded refugee crisis in the history of the Americas, where democratic crises are multiplying and where an experienced diplomatic bridge-builder is sorely needed. Over his eight years in power, he was the linchpin of a golden age of pragmatic regional problem-solving through presidential diplomacy, and the face of a Left as committed to democracy as it is to social justice.

Canada should also root for Lula. Ottawa’s attempts to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to hold open elections and stop violating human rights, along with similar efforts directed at President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, are hampered by the presence on its side of a Brazil led by Bolsonaro, an authoritarian and overt apologist of military rule. While Lula’s diplomacy never quite aligned with Canada’s core strategic interests, his pragmatism, support for multilateral diplomacy and commitment to a humane world order certainly accorded well with Canadians’ values and international outlook. Conversely, the re-election of Bolsonaro or, worse, a coup would definitely plunge South America as a whole into a period of instability and democratic decay, an outcome clearly at odds with both Canadian interests and values.

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