By Ana Garcia
Two words defined the collective feeling expressed by thousands of people on the streets last Sunday: relief and joy. Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential election against Jair Bolsonaro with only a 0.9% difference, or 2 million votes.
Brazil has lived the last four years with a fascist in power. Bolsonaro did not implement a dictatorship, but he managed to keep the fascist movement energised with slogans such as “God, homeland, family”, “Brazil above all, God above us all”, and “Our flag will never be red”.
Over the past four years, Bolsonaro systematically confronted the judiciary, and in particular the Supreme Court. The legislative branch, on which Bolsonaro depended to approve his policies, was co-opted through an indirect bribe: the release of funds to members of Congress without any obligation to account for them – the so-called “secret budget”.
Since March 2020, almost 700 000 people have died of Covid-19 in Brazil – one of the world’s highest rates. Aligned to former US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro denied the seriousness of the new coronavirus, did not implement a national lockdown, disseminated conspiracy theories, discouraged the use of masks, delayed the purchase of vaccines, and dissuaded a large share of the population from being vaccinated.
But Bolsonaro went beyond this: he made jokes about those who couldn’t breathe as a result of the disease, and said he “wasn’t a mortician” to comprehend dead bodies. At the most acute moment of the pandemic in the city of Manaus, capital of Amazonas, he delayed sending oxygen, leading hundreds of people to die unnecessarily. This can never be forgotten. To avoid widespread chaos caused by hunger and unemployment during the pandemic, Bolsonaro implemented a social aid programme that briefly violated the “spending cap” – a law that froze public spending for 20 years, approved in 2017 during the prior government of Michel Temer.
However, Bolsonaro faced an opponent, Lula, who had created the social programmes and comprehensive policies that had improved the lives of the working masses in Brazil. They included a substantial minimum wage increase, a popular housing programme, expanded access to university education, the direct income transfer programme “bolsa familia”, among others.
When Lula’s trumped-up corruption conviction was overturned and he was released from prison in 2019, he was positioned as the only candidate capable of defeating Bolsonaro. Lula prepared for this: at the age of 77, he took care of his health, remarried, and rebuilt and expanded alliances from the left to the centre-right camps. As his vice-president, Lula chose the former governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, a figure of the neo-liberal establishment.
Despite alliances drawing together centre-right, neoliberal, and left forces, Lula’s victory was much more difficult than initially expected. Bolsonaro maintained his capacity to mobilise his social base through especially the Pentecostal evangelical churches. He did this through invoking a fake threat to them he attributed to Lula: “gender ideology” – that is, feminism and support for LGBQTI rights.
Bolsonaro maintained strong support from Brazilian agribusiness, gaining votes in regions that export soya beans and other commodities. His discourse criminalised the landless movement, allowing a rapid increase in weapons purchases.
He also maintained the support of the small and medium bourgeoisie, self-interested professionals, and those in the retail sector who were particularly affected by the lockdowns determined by provincial governors and mayors (not by Bolsonaro) during the pandemic.
On top of this, Bolsonaro had the machinery in his favour, and the permanent spread of fake news through social media. Remarkably, in spite of his enormous errors, he received more votes in 2022 than in 2018.
Thus, the wide front supporting Lula won the election, but did not defeat “Bolsonarism”. In the days after Sunday’s election, the fascist forces closed more than 300 roads and highways across the country. They had ample support from the police.
Bolsonaro himself took two days to make a public speech after the election. In his two-minute speech, he did not explicitly acknowledge Lula’s victory, but instead reaffirmed the motto “God, Homeland, Family and Freedom”. He called on supporters to unblock roads (that would be the left’s method, he said) and hold peaceful demonstrations. Until Lula takes office next January 1, Bolsonarism will question the election result with street mobilisations.
What will the left do to position itself for Lula’s renewed mandate? The government will be more aligned with neoliberalism than during his 2003-2010 reign. He will be compelled to pacify a temporarily supportive financial, mining, fossil fuel, construction and banking elite. He will also seek to win back agribusiness, guaranteeing a range of subsidies and international markets, as he did in previous terms.
Lula did not promise his own base he would reverse the 2017 labour reforms, which removed rights. Nor is he expected to undo the Eletrobras power company’s privatisation. Lula will be scrutinised, more than ever, regarding public spending, job creation, welfare policies, workers’ rights, investments in universities, science and technology, and development projects that meet the dispossessed masses’ needs. His supporters will be told to respect fiscal restraint, transfers of state resources to business, market liberalisation, and even the state-owned Petrobras’s fuel price hikes. Lula will invoke what Britain’s Tony Blair termed the “Third Way”.
In foreign policy, Lula will return to regional integration, facilitated by left-leaning governments in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, even stretching to Mexico. Regional infrastructure will be better integrated, yet will often be tempered by increasingly important indigenous and environmental values.
Lula intends to revive Brazil’s leadership role within multilateralism: climate negotiations, the G20 powers, and the World Trade Organization. He will accelerate ratification of a free trade agreement between Mercosur and the EU, despite its harmful effects on less efficient local producers.
Furthermore, he will return to a close relationship with US leaders from the Democratic Party (as long as it remains in power), making himself Latin America’s most credible interlocutor.
As South Africa will see when it hosts the Brics summit in 2023, and as is evident from Brazil’s relations with China, Lula will prioritise diplomacy. In 2024, Brazil will host both the Brics and the G20 summits, a key moment for reviving Brazil’s visibility in the international arena.
In his previous terms, Lula sought a profile as a mediator in international conflicts, such as that now under way between Russia and Ukraine, which is not only killing tens of thousands, but could result in a nuclear confrontation. If Lula can rescue this role, becoming a mediator (perhaps joined by Turkey or other Brics countries), he could regain international prestige, which would be advantageous also in his domestic struggles.
There is no doubt that Bolsonaro’s fascist movement will remain in the streets, the churches, social media, business associations, alliances with the international far right, and US Trumpist forces.
On the left, mobilisations and neighbourhood committees will resume their own struggles and will need to build popular leadership of the oppressed black, women, and indigenous groups. They must become capable of winning elections and building alternatives to Lula’s compromised rule. The election is over, but the struggles are just beginning.
* Garcia is Professor of International Relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro