Despite the leftist candidate's first-place finish, the voter mood in Brazil's presidential campaign is clearly conservative. So Lula will have to move clearly to the political center to vanquish the divisive but still popular Jair Bolsonaro. He also needs to send a message of contrition to skeptical voters about past mistakes.
The first round of Brazil's presidential elections closed with two winners, a novelty but not necessarily a political surprise.
Leftist candidate and former president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, was clearly the winner. His victory came on the back of the successes of his two previous administrations (2003-2011), kept alive today by the harsh reality that large swathes of Brazilians see no real future for themselves.
Lula, the head of the Workers Party or PT, also moved a tad toward the political Center in a bid to seduce middle-class voters, with some success. Another factor in his first-round success was a decisive vote cast against the current government, though this was less considerable than anticipated.
The other big winner of the day was the sitting president, Jair Bolsonaro. For many voters, his defects turn out to be virtues. They were little concerned by his bombastic declarations, his authoritarian bent, contempt for modernity, his retrograde views on gender and his painful management of the pandemic. They do not believe in Lula, and envisage no other alternative.
The PT candidate garnered 48% of all votes cast, and the president a little more than 43%. Even if he came in second, Bolsonaro also came close to convincing half the electorate. All he had needed to win were those votes cast for Lula in protest.
Dubbed the "Tropical Trump," the Brazilian president was showing signs of political resilience even in recent polls that showed him trailing behind Lula with a mere 37% of intended votes. Clearly, even if he lost, Bolsonaro had the necessary elements to make him a buoyant opposition leader. This position will become markedly clearer after the run-off to be held on October 30, when the two candidates will battle over the few votes that went to other candidates.
This tie-break situation is in fact an indicator of the socio-political direction Brazilian society has chosen.
Center-right senator Simone Tebet came in third, ahead of the social-democratic Ciro Gomes. The range of the top three is notable: one leftist ex-leader moving to the Center and winning by four points; a conservative president sticking to his radical views; and a conservative stick to his conservative views, but with a more polished profile.
Taken together, it expresses what Brazilians are expecting from power. This is not specific to South America's largest country, but is a regional trend as was seen in Chile, with electors voting down a proposed, radically progressive new constitution. Much the same could be said of our country, Argentina. There is a message here to be considered.
It is about the end of what one perceptive analyst called "ideological necrophilia." This was a reference to the dead ideas to which so many mainstream politicians are still clinging.
Bolsonaro may be tempted to repeat the Trumpist ploy.
Lula has always been a pragmatist. We need only remember his proximity and comprehensive attitude to then U.S. President George W. Bush - considered a hyper-conservative before Donald Trump appeared - when other regional presidents like Néstor Kirchner or Hugo Chávez publicly repudiated him. Lula may have sensed the public mood this time, but should have made it clearer. He will have to do that ahead of the second round.
Will Lula's pragmatism help him convince the few voters he needs to be elected?
Waiting for the Mea Culpa
One of the obstacles to his victory so far and a grave failing of this political veteran, is his failure to utter a mea culpa over the massive corruption that marked his latter years as president. People were expecting it. That, alongside a recession, became a springboard for Bolsonaro's victory; so again, he may decide to acknowledge this before the next round.
Even before the elections, Bolsonaro and his antics were pointedly compared with the politics of the last U.S. president Donald Trump. They are indeed similar in their opinions, methods and indifference to established practices or manners.
The Bolsonaro team might even be tempted to repeat the Trumpist ploy of rejecting the results.
But clearly, unless he ditches the rogue methods, moderates his language and shows a measure of tolerance and maturity, he will be unable to beat Lula. Such a change of conduct seems implausible, if not impossible - and that is Lula's best hope.
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