Brazil’s new president begins stitching the country back together

  • Jeremy Browne

On Sunday, an election that gripped Brazil long before official campaigns started came to a dramatic close. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, beat the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. He now faces the mammoth task of reuniting this fractured nation.

Brazil’s new president begins stitching the country back together

Reading time: 5 mins approx.

On Sunday, an election that gripped Brazil long before official campaigns started came to a dramatic close. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, beat the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro with 50.9% of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. Both candidates harbour genuine hatred for each other, and the bruising campaign has left the country more polarised than ever. Lula now faces the mammoth task of reuniting this fractured nation.

The face of Brazilian left-wing politics for over three decades, Lula served as president from 2003 to 2010, his social policies helping tackle Brazil’s acute inequality and lifting millions out of poverty. He left office with sky-high approval ratings, however the Workers’ Party (PT) he founded became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals, eventually resulting in his imprisonment in 2018 (although his conviction was overturned in 2019).

Bolsonaro rose to power in 2018 after a long career as a fringe politician. His anti-establishment, socially conservative messaging struck a chord with a population exhausted by economic stagnation, widespread corruption and the inefficiencies of PT rule. He is a highly divisive figure due to his inflammatory rhetoric targeting minorities and political opponents, his supposed mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, and his pursuit of economic development of the Amazon rainforest, despite the environmental damage it causes.

While many pollsters predicted a comfortable lead for Lula in the first round, with some even declaring the former president would win an outright victory, the result was much closer than expected, with Bolsonaro finishing just 5% behind Lula. Furthermore, many of Bolsonaro’s allies were elected to Congress, the Senate, and governorships around the country, potentially inhibiting Lula’s ability to govern effectively via coalition. The results from both rounds of voting throw up several interesting questions about Brazil’s political future.

The first point to mention is that although Lula has won, Bolsonaro, and more widely bolsonarismo, is going nowhere. Bolsonaro’s party, the Liberal Party (PL), is the largest in Congress and the Senate, while bolsonaristas won governorship of the key states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and seven other states. This was achieved in spite of an unfavourable economic climate, widely-perceived mismanagement of the pandemic, and what is undoubtedly an anti-incumbent wave throughout Latin America (Bolsonaro’s defeat constitutes the 15th consecutive electoral defeat of a sitting president in the region).

The movement that Bolsonaro spearheads is highly sophisticated, effectively utilising social media and fake news campaigns to communicate with supporters and discredit opponents. Due to the strong political representation of the right and hard right, Lula will likely be forced to dilute some of his policies that are unpalatable for the opposition, such as increasing environmental protections, or state-funded infrastructure projects.

Bolsonaro’s message, combining anti-establishment sentiment, social conservatism, and family values, has clearly resonated with a large part of Brazilian society. His incessant attacks on the Left have found a receptive audience with the many Brazilians who view Lula and the PT as unpalatable, blaming their corruption and incompetence for the economic crisis that began in 2014 and from which Brazil has never fully recovered.

Bolsonaro has also understood that the Evangelical Church and agribusiness barons hold the keys to Brazil in 2022. Around a third of Brazilians are now Evangelical, up from a quarter just two decades ago, while agricultural exports are the largest part of Brazil’s economy, equivalent to $125 billion per year. He has formed a sizeable base with their support, not least in Congress, where Evangelical and agribusiness interests are two of the strongest voting blocs.

The continued appeal of bolsonarismo inevitably brings into question the role of the Left in Brazil. Without the figurehead of Lula, it is likely that the Left would have struggled even more in this election. In many ways, Lula is both his party’s worst enemy and its greatest asset. His charisma and strength of character, as well as his undoubted political nous, have brought him back to the presidential palace. However, the allegations of corruption that have plagued him and his party have permanently tarnished his reputation among many Brazilians, leading to rejection rates almost, but not quite, as high as those of Bolsonaro. His victory does not change the fact that almost half of the country does not approve of him. Over the next four years, the Left must find a new figurehead to unite around, not only because Lula is divisive, but due to the more practical reason that he will not be standing for a second term.  

As well as negotiating political agreements and coalitions, Lula faces the even greater task of uniting a country that has torn itself apart over the last four years. Both sides of the battle are deeply entrenched, with little to no room for the middle ground (centrist candidates won just 7% of votes in the first round).

To win re-election, Lula asked Brazilians to remember what life was like the last time he was president. But Brazil, and the world, was completely different in 2010. In 2022, Lula will have to deal with a war in Europe and a stagnating global economy, while domestically he must address an economy plagued by an overcomplicated tax system and chronic low productivity, as well as levels of polarisation in Brazilian society that have spilled over into violence in recent months. It is no small task; Brazil needs Lula to be up to it.

Jeremy Browne is the CEO of Canning House and a former Foreign Office Minister for Latin America.

Canning House is the UK’s leading forum on Latin America. We are a global forum for thought-leadership and pragmatic debate on the region’s political, economic, social, health and environmental trends and issues - and their implications for business risks and opportunities.

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