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Geopolitics

Good Ol' Lula? Brazil's Next President Must Utterly Reinvent Himself — With Moderation

Brazil's incoming president, Lula da Silva, is unlikely to govern the same way he did 20 years ago. Socio-economic conditions will likely push him toward moderation, which will benefit Brazil and the region.

Photo of ​Lula with his former chief of staff and former President Dilma Rousseff waving to a crowd in Rio on Oct. 31

Lula with his former chief of staff and former President Dilma Rousseff in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 31

Marcelo Elizondo*

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — Political comebacks have become a habit in Latin America. It is a rarity in other parts of the world, but here there is always someone who is "back".

Chile had Michelle Bachelet, Peru had Alan García and Fernando Beláunde Terry, Bolivia had Goni Sánchez de Lozada and Venezuela had Carlos Andrés Pérez — all as presidential "apparitions". In Argentina, we have Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, though as vice-president this time after a previous presidential term.

Now Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (good ol' Lula) has returned as president in Brazil. But don't expect him to govern the same way he did last time.


This inclination for the old seems paradoxical in a region of recurring failures, and even more strange at a time of near-constant changes, disruption and innovation in the world.

The origins of nostalgia

Let us recall that the old never returns quite as we expect. Or as the playwright Oscar Wilde observed, "If you knew me based on what I was a year ago, you no longer know me."

Beyond nostalgia, the region has a crisis of politics.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera urged his readers to consider the Greek roots of the word nostalgia: nostos for "return" and algos for "suffering". Inevitably, nostalgia means suffering as an unmet desire to return to the past.

Beyond nostalgia, the region has a crisis of politics, not so much for a deterioration of its politicians as of public powers. The globalization of everything (information, viruses, capital, knowledge and customs) means national authorities have less power. It's the same people pressing the same — but they're not working properly.

It's the economy, stupid

Lula first became president almost 20 years ago. Now, at the age of 77 and after a close-cut election (with a victory margin of less than 1%), he will face a legislature where the center-right opposition holds the biggest minority block, but also the state governments of Sāo Paulo, Río de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, the country's second most populous state.

This means he will need to be agile and moderate in his politics — effectively acting as a centrist president — if he wants functionality. Nor will he enjoy the conditions of 20 years ago or ride the triple tide of booming commodity prices, unusual growth in emerging economies and markets, and financial and banking universalization.

The challenges ahead call for composure. Brazil recently implemented some valuable structural reforms (a constitutional limit on public spending increases, labor reforms, greater international integration, pension reforms and central bank emancipation).

But other remaining challenges will determine how far the world's 12 biggest economy will leap in qualitative terms. It needs better market conditions, including fewer regulations, tax reforms and more public sector transparency. Lula must also appease an anxious and polarized society.

Photo of Lula waving to a crowd in Rio on Oct. 31

Lula in Rio on Oct. 31

Official Facebook page

What does Brazil's election mean for Argentina?

For Argentina, Lula's return brings novelties. On the one hand, we can be sure that his government favors the south American trading block Mercosur (and will seek to regain its regional leadership). But as Lula himself has said, Brazil must also look further afield (attending to global environmental concerns — for example, relaunching the Mercosur-EU trade talks and, as reiterated on the night of his victory, improving ties with the United States).

Brazil is quite different to when Lula won his first presidency.

Brazil's global outlook (for itself and Mercosur) may cause discomfort in Argentina, which tends to view the world with diffidence. A new phase has begun. Brazil is quite different to when Lula won his first presidency. Its GDP is now three times ours, as are its exports, and it has attracted seven times more foreign investments than Argentina. Brazil has five times as many multinationals listed among the top 100 Latin American global firms (multilatinas) as Argentina.

Repetition is worse than the past

Brazil's workforce numbers almost 100 million and it has some of the region's best universities (Sāo Paulo University and four others being among the top 10). So let's not be blinded by our party politics: this is an opportunity for Argentina, not the other way around.

Forget the dizzy, cash-drenched days of the early millennium. To remember them is to deceive ourselves, as remembrance inevitably involves selective reconstruction, and a serving of fiction.

Likewise, forget the good ol' Lula, for we may be sure of one thing — that repetition is worse than the past.

*Marcelo Elizondo is an international business consultant and public speaker.

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