Brazil Divided: Why Lula's Stunning Return Doesn't Mean Bolsonaro Is Going Away
In Brazil, the leftist Lula da Silva's narrow victory margin in the presidential elections must be seen for what it is: a measured rejection, in hard times, of the outgoing Jair Bolsonaro's right-wing excesses, in favor of competent moderation. But it bodes for very uncertain times ahead
SAO PAULO — October 30 election marks a remarkable return to the presidency for socialist Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, and spells defeat for the sitting president, the "Trump-like" Jair Bolsonaro. And yet, October 30 also is the beginning of a period of political cohabitation between two fierce opponents.
Cohabitation is not an uncommon situation in certain parliamentary systems, though Brazil may lack the necessary shock absorbers found in other democracies. This will be Lula da Silva's third presidential term — a historic feat for the former union leader who was jailed just four years ago over the corruption scandals that stained his earlier presidencies.
Lula, the leader of the PT or Workers Party, should not however be complacent. His victory margin was notably narrow, which can be interpreted as a reward of sorts for the achievements of his earlier administrations, and a rebuke — though not as sharp as some had hoped — for Bolsonaro's antics.
It also remains to be seen how the handover of power will play out, with Bolsonaro still not publicly conceding defeat the day after final results came in.
Slowing inflation, economic growth and a fall in jobless rates played a role here, so there is a political message in the results not to be ignored.
Bolsonaro's lingering power
Bolsonaro garnered an impressive number of votes and remains in a position of force in spite of losing office. His allies won in relevant states like Sao Paulo, Río de Janeiro and Minas Geráis, and he retains control of minority blocks in the Senate and lower house.
There is no way around it: the ballots from Sunday confirm the presence of two dominant forces. One is the political Center led by Lula, which emerged from a shift away from the Left that inevitably recognized the country's profound social changes of recent years. The other is the extreme Right, which holds politicians like the former U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbàn as modelsm and repeatedly questions the republic itself. This force isn't about to disappear.
An excess of pragmatism can smack of cynicism.
Will these two sides be able to work together? There will be haggling at every turn, and the cohabitation will work in keeping in check the voracity of either side. Politicians on Lula's side are familiar with the habit of trading votes over issues or personal and political interests, which has long been customary in the Brazilian legislature, especially the lower house, and can indicate pragmatism and an acceptance of trade-offs. Bolsonaro is also well-practiced in it. But an excess of such "pragmatism" can smack of cynicism, and was also at the heart of Lula's legal problems.
And it may explain his narrow victory margin. Voters will have noted there was no self-criticism in his campaign for the corruption that became rampant in the last two PT governments led by Lula's successor Dilma Rousseff. He said nothing of the economic crises that angered the electorate and catapulted Bolsonaro, previously an obscure politician, to the presidency. Lula's reluctance to speak of the past or clarify his economic plans may have limited voter participation Sunday, and his margin of victory.
This Sunday (30) Voters of President Jair Bolsonaro awaiting the results of the 2nd round of voting on the Esplanade of Ministries in Brasilia.
Careful what you wish for
Bolsonaro has left him some gaping, political and financial challenges. There is a $70-billion fiscal deficit that will require painful spending cutbacks. Lula's former central bank chief, Henrique Meirelles, the author of a law to limit public spending, recently said the state might allow itself to spend $20 billion above the limit at most, to moderate the social impact of spending cuts.
Another explosive scenario concerns the mass of more than 30 million Brazilians living in abject poverty and threatened with malnutrition. Bolsonaro's social aid programs — launched ahead of his campaign — are unaffordable but cannot be ended.
That means Lula will have to negotiate with a ferocious opposition on every move to tackle the explosive social and economic crisis left on his plate. And this is in a part of the world that has shown there are no honeymoon periods with governments, as Colombia and Chile have shown most recently.
Farther abroad, President Joseph Biden's swift congratulations to Lula indicate the United States' keen interest in this political shift. The entire Latin American region seems to be in crisis, and the United States could lately see none of its governments as a truly reliable partner.
Bolsonaro in particular had few ties to the neighborhood, and relations with the White House were frosty. He moved closer to Russia in fact, even after the start of the Ukraine war. The United States was waiting for the elections before appointing an ambassador in Brasilia. Another issue of concern to the world, though apparently less so to the Brazilians themselves, is the fate of the Amazon. The incoming president has promised to take protective measures.
The region (and the wider world) should view Lula victory with cautious optimism, and should avoid comparisons to Brazil that never fail to disappoint.
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