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Brazil: Lula Returns in Triumph

By Asad Ismi

In what Time magazine called “the comeback of the century,” leftist Luiz Inácio
Lula da Silva, Brazil’s most popular president (2003-2010), returned to power by winning the October 30, 2022 elections. Lula takes office this January. He defeated his neofascist opponent, incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, by more than two million votes (50.9% compared to 49.1%), a narrow margin. Lula’s victory is crucial not only for Brazilians but for the whole world which stands on the brink of climate catastrophe. Brazil contains most of the Amazon rainforest known as “the world’s lungs” because it produces 20% of the Earth’s oxygen.

For four years Bolsonaro has been burning down the rainforest causing an unprecedented environmental disaster. Deforestation in the Amazon reached its highest level (since 2012) in 2021, an increase of 57% over 2020. This has dangerously speeded up global warming. In contrast, during Lula’s two tenures as president, deforestation was reduced by 80%.

Bolsonaro has also caused the deaths of close to 700,000 Brazilians who died from COVID-19 because of his refusal to take measures to counter the pandemic. Brazil’s COVID-19 death rate is second only to that of the U.S. and actually higher on a per capita basis. Bolsonaro equated COVID-19 with the flu, connected it to AIDS, told Brazilians to “stop whining” and spread misinformation about the virus on social media. In October 2021, the Brazilian Senate voted to charge Bolsonaro with “crimes against humanity” for his mishandling of the pandemic.”

A fount of hatred, Bolsonaro constantly attacked women, Indigenous people, Black and 2SLGBTQQIA+ residents while militarizing the government and freeing the police to carry out extrajudicial executions in marginalized communities. Bolsonaro’s shocking and disastrous record as president caused Mark Weisbrot to call him “a monster”. Weisbrot is co-director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

So why did this monster get 49.2% of the vote? (A rather alarming situation). Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party also won the most seats in the Brazilian Congress. Does this mean that Brazil is now a deeply divided society with a very big neofascist bloc of voters who can prevent Lula’s progressive policies from being carried out?

Helder Ferreira Do Vale is Visiting Professor at the Federal University of Bahia’s (UFBA) graduate program of international relations. Bahia is a state in the northeast of Brazil. Do Vale explained to me that Bolsonaro got a high number of votes partly because he “has been able to fill the lack of leadership amongst right-wing politicians. Since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1995 and before Bolsonaro’s rise to power, right-wing voters were not politically ‘represented’.

“Political analysts in Brazil have identified this phenomenon as being part of the existence of an ‘ashamed right-wing’, which was the result of right-wing parties’ attempt to dissociate themselves from the dictatorship and hide their conservative political preferences. This phenomenon had a demobilization effect on right-wing voters. Bolsonaro activated this dormant right-wing electoral base that identified with his authoritarian leadership style. This activation gained traction and these right-wing voters remain very active.”

Marcos Napolitano agrees with Do Vale. Napolitano is professor of history at the University of São Paulo. He told me that “Bolsonaro brought together a large part of conservative voters (right and center-right), in addition to his loyal political supporters of the far-right (10 to 15% of the Brazilian electorate). He captured the feeling of ‘antipetismo’, which is very strong in the Brazilian lower and upper middle classes (that make up almost 50% of the electorate). In addition, Bolsonaro had extensive support from evangelical (Pentecostal) leaders who have a lot of influence in the lower middle classes.” Antipetismo refers to those Brazilians who oppose Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT).

Evangelical voters make up more than 30% of Brazil’s electorate according to Alexander Main who went to Brazil as an election observer. Main is director of international policy at CEPR. He told me that a large majority of evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro this time because their leaders (many of whom had supported Lula in the past) urged them to do so. “It is believed that Bolsonaro helped channel state funds to key evangelical churches before the election.” explained Main.

This was only one part of Bolsonaro’s use of the state to influence the vote result. As Do Vale points out “in recent months, the ministry of economy increased social benefits, granted special credit for the beneficiaries of social assistance and decreased taxes to reduce the price of gasoline and electricity. Bolsonaro has used public funds, approximately 41 billion reais [the Brazilian currency–this amount equals about Can$10.2 billion], and state institutions such as the police to support his campaign and gain votes.”

Then there is the rich and powerful agribusiness lobby, a strong backer of Bolsonaro and for whose benefit he has been torching the Amazon. According to Do Vale “most businesses related to the agribusiness sector, whose chain production accounts for 27% of the Brazilian GDP as of 2021, openly supported Bolsonaro. In effect, in the states in which this sector is strong such as in Goiás, Paraná and Mato Grosso, Bolsonaro won by many votes.”

The fifth reason for the large voter turnout for Bolsonaro was his “well funded fake news campaign” says Main “that primarily targeted Lula. Among the many lies that appear to have taken hold in the electorate was that Lula was a satanist and was planning on closing churches and imposing unisex bathrooms – blatant falsehoods that were frequently repeated on social media and that generated widespread fears in Brazilian society, much of which is quite socially conservative.”

Do Vale adds that “Bolsonaro’s fake news machine has proven to be highly effective in deconstructing his political opponents.” Bolsonaro used Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Kway and Gettr to spread fake news “criminalizing Lula.”

Given the closeness of the election result, Napolitano agrees that now Brazil is a deeply divided society with a very big neofascist bloc of voters who can prevent Lula’s progressive policies from being carried out. However, he emphasizes that “Lula is very skilful at negotiating with the Brazilian Congress, in addition to having great support (at least at the beginning of his government), from centrist parties and the liberal press (which was heavily attacked by Bolsonaro).”

Napolitano explains that Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party is not neofascist but rather a “venal” party and the link between the two is “just a marriage of convenience”. This is one of the weaknesses of Bolsonarism: “the absence of qualified political cadres and an organized party with clear ideological foundations. His supporters are fanatics and extremists.” adds Napolitano.

Do Vale agrees saying “The Liberal Party and several other parties, known as centrão (the big center), are pragmatic office-seeking parties that are likely to grant support to Lula’s government if the new president offers them some political benefits (such as appointments to public offices) and/or distributes annual budget funds to projects located in the electoral base of the relevant members of congress.”

Going forward, the priority for the new Lula government should be the cash-transfer program known as Bolsa Família, believes Do Vale. Lula started this program in his first presidential tenure and it proved very popular and highly effective, lifting more than 40 million Brazilians out of poverty. Do Vale argues that emphasizing Bolsa Familia “will have positive side-effects in different areas: the fight against hunger, improved public access to health and education, the defense of minorities, and stimulating economic growth.”

Do Vale explains that “the fight against hunger is urgent in a country where there is an increase in child malnutrition and 33 million Brazilians are food insecure.” Lula’s first priority after his election has actually been expanding the cash transfer program. In November 2022, he started negotiating with other parties in Congress for the approval of a constitutional amendment which would let his administration increase the money given by Bolsa Familia and allow him to exceed the legal limit of the annual budget.

Lula made his next priority clear at his first international speech in Egypt on November 16 at the Conference of Parties (Cop) 27 summit for the environment. The president-elect declared that “There is no planetary security without a protected Amazon. We will do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation and degradations of our biomes. For this reason, I would like to announce that efforts to fight climate change will have the highest priority in my next government. We will prioritize the fight against deforestation of all of our biomes and reverse damage done in recent years by the previous government.”

Lula emphasized that his government “would go further than ever before on the environment by cracking down on illegal gold mining, logging and agricultural expansion and restoring climate-critical ecosystems.” To be a significant agricultural producer, “Brazil did not need to clear another hectare of rainforest” Lula said. He also demanded that rich countries deliver the $100 billion in climate money they pledged to developing nations in 2009 and set up a fund for loss and damage caused by the climate crisis.

Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor (CCPA Monitor), January/February 2023. Go to page 30.