Lula can set the bar higher for a new presidency

Lula's challenge in Brazil: To be successful with proposed reforms, he’d need to take back the anti-systemic appeal stolen by the far-right.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Image credit Jeso Carneiro via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Lula da Silva (known commonly as Lula) from the moderate left Workers’ Party (PT) held two presidential terms in Brazil between 2003 and 2010 and is still considered the best president in the country’s history. Even the judicial persecution against him and the constant media attacks have not been enough to dissuade large portions of the working class that long for his return. The fragmented Brazilian left has failed to produce another leader and name that could match Lula’s, so after almost four years of the disastrous Jair Bolsonaro government, most leftist parties and movements have united behind Lula’s 2022 presidential bid.

The process is bittersweet since the PT chose the former right-wing governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, as his running mate. Lula is a firm believer in the need to negotiate between different stakeholders, even if it means juggling support for landless workers with programs that ensure sky-high profits for big agribusiness. This practice is referred to as “class conciliation,” but in the PT this is justified as a way to ensure governability. A leftist president in Brazil cannot gather enough support in Congress without making alliances with the center and even the right, they argue, and Lula will need all the help he can get in order to undo the damage since the 2016 parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff. This, of course, is a contradictory take, since it was PT’s previous practice of broad alliances with the center-right that led Rousseff’s VP, Michel Temer, to be so well-positioned as to orchestrate the coup, become interim president, and set off a new stage of crisis that favored Bolsonaro’s rise to power.

Brazil is going through high unemployment and inflation rates, new records of mass incarceration and police violence, with more people living on the streets and/or in food insecurity. The impacts are very racialized and Brazil’s Black and Indigenous communities are direct targets of Bolsonaro’s blatantly racist politics. This dystopia is mediated to the Christian population through the influence of fundamentalist evangelical pastors and their mega-churches that warn of the dangers of a leftist government and spew anticommunist discourse through moral panics. Overall, the situation is so bad that undoing recent damage is already quite a task for a future Lula mandate. The collective traumatic state that Brazilians are under makes it seem like anything that is slightly better than Bolsonaro is enough of a remedy.

If Lula returns, there is no question that he will live up to this hope. First, Bolsonaro has set the bar so low that almost anyone that is not the far-right could already bring improvements. Second, and most importantly, because Lula actually has a left-leaning program for fighting hunger, creating jobs and stabilizing Brazil’s liberal institutions. The Bolsonarista danger of violence and a possible coup lie in the air, which makes a Lula comeback and the implementation of such a program look radical by current standards. But, Lula also has the option of taking advantage of growing popular support and new regional forces to actually make it radical.

The return of progressive governments to other Latin American countries provides a welcoming scenario for Lula’s presidency with possibilities for alliances and integration that can support bolder action in the region and stave off the right. A clear example lies in the environmental agenda—a point of leftist convergence over the last years. Bolsonaro has become an anti-ecological pariah, with record levels of deforestation combined with bogus carbon offset schemes that benefit the rich.

In response, Lula has already promised environmental responsibility, but he should offer leadership on the matter too. His national sovereignty angle is compatible with the conversation over the nationalization of resources underway in Chile and Mexico and can be strengthened by a perspective of energy transition and fossil fuel phase-out, as proposed by Colombia’s Gustavo Petro. The sheer size of Brazil’s population, territory and economy make the country indispensable to any plans for a green deal in the region. So, rather than simply being better than Bolsonaro, Lula holds the responsibility to secure a stable presidency and reach high levels of public approval by other means; he could either attend to the electorate’s nostalgia for the good old days of his former mandates or he could ride the tide and choose to outdo himself. The latter is riskier, but can finally take back the anti-systemic appeal the far-right took from the left years ago.

The election manifesto released by Lula’s campaign thus far stresses the need for tools of participatory democracy alongside a political reform of the institutions. Yet, changing course towards more radical politics is not simply a matter of more participation. Politicization is a principal issue, especially considering the context of a crisis of representation that visibly erupted in the large protests of June 2013 with mass calls for rejecting politics as a rotten system.

The deterioration of living standards under Bolsonaro could be enough to push people toward Lula, but it does not mean they are moving toward the left. The challenge, then, is at least threefold: to elect a progressive government and maintain power, to fix recent losses in a short amount of time, and to propose more ambitious politics that can win the people over. This is only possible if the Brazilian left does not restrict itself to the election of a new president.

For decades, leftist fragmentation could be summed up as one side claiming there are limits to working-class victories and the other talking socialism to small crowds. This mismatch left the door open for Bolsonaro to jump in and answer the crisis of representation by saying that he too was against “everything out there.” This version of anti-systemic appeal, however, only works for the right to disguise its actual deepening of the system. Lula’s flirtation with post-politics, when saying that his campaign is not a leftist campaign, but rather belongs to Brazilian society, may get votes but will not work to implement the share of his proposals that are progressive in their nature. The only way to answer the anti-systemic call in ways that actually benefit the working class now and in the long run is to tackle the root causes of the crisis. His campaign is forged through broad alliances. The program, on the other hand, is influenced by leftist debates. If the goal is to win this struggle, moderation is a weakness, radicalizing is a strength.

Further Reading

AMLO’s way

Mexico’s president has a mandate for radical change, but this change must be negotiated within a context of limits produced by the neoliberal period itself.