Far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been defeated, with the leftist Lula da Silva returning to office. This is very good news, both for Brazil and for the world at large. For Brazil, it means that a repulsive authoritarian has been driven from office and replaced with someone who has a proven track record of improving the lives of the poorest members of society. Bolsonaro, who had embraced his brand as the “Trump of the tropics” and was openly pro-dictatorship, looked back nostalgically on the era when Brazil was ruled by the military. Disgusting Bolsonaro quotes are legion, from “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it” (to a congresswoman) to his declaration that he’d rather his son die in a car accident than be gay. Bolsonaro was corrupt, pro-torture, a COVID denier, and intimated that he might behave like Trump and deny the legitimacy of any election he didn’t win. (So far Bolsonaro has not conceded, but many of his allies have accepted Lula’s victory, making a coup attempt unlikely.) For the rest of the world, the good news is that Lula has promised to reverse Bolsonaro’s policy of allowing unchecked deforestation of the Amazon. As Vox notes, in a time period that “largely overlaps with Bolsonaro’s first three years in office,” an area of rainforest the size of Belgium has been destroyed. This is not only destructive for Brazil and all of the rainforest’s inhabitants but has critical implications outside of Brazil:
“Few political issues have higher global stakes than the conservation of the Amazon. Felling the rainforest not only erodes a critical carbon sink, which helps suck planet-warming gases out of the atmosphere, but it also fuels climate change. Ongoing deforestation could also trigger a runaway reaction that may turn regions of the rainforest into a savanna-like ecosystem, stripping the forest of its many ecological benefits and natural wonders.”
Thank God, then, for Lula’s victory. As reports come in that the world is close to “irreversible” climate breakdown and will fall far short of targets to keep warming under control unless drastic action is taken immediately, it’s crucial that the world’s largest countries not be ruled by people whose climate policy is “let her rip.”
It’s pretty alarming, of course, that Lula won by so little. He received 50.9 percent to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent, decisive but damned close. Lula can expect to be somewhat hamstrung in what he is able to do thanks to the unexpected success that Bolsonaro’s allies had in congressional races. Polls had underestimated support for Bolsonaro in the country, and especially during the early days of the race, Lula was forecast to beat Bolsonaro by a far higher margin than he actually did. (Jacobin has a good interview with Vincent Bevins with more on why “Bolsonarismo” has proven resilient.) Nevertheless: Lula made it over the finish line, it looks like there won’t be a coup, and we can celebrate.
But what we can’t do is get complacent. Like Trump’s 2020 election performance, Bolsonaro’s defeat gets an autocrat out of office, but at the same time reveals a huge popular base of support for extreme right-wing candidates. In a sane world, a repulsive clown like Bolsonaro would never have gotten close to the presidency. But just because he, like Trump, has been defeated in an election doesn’t mean his power will disappear. Joe Biden is struggling in opinion polls because, having narrowly defeated Trump, he is not perceived to have delivered on the economic issues that matter most to people right now. (Democrats made a deliberate effort to focus on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, a decision I have argued was a mistake.) If Lula’s presidency is a failure, and does not deliver for people, there is no reason not to expect the right to return to power—with devastating consequences for both Brazil and the climate.
It must be conceded that Lula’s social democratic Workers’ Party (PT) dropped the ball before. While Lula himself left office with an 87 percent approval rating and is widely considered a successful president, his successor’s approval dropped to 8 percent, the lowest of any president since the end of the dictatorship. The party oversaw an economic mess and became mired in corruption scandals. Lula himself was sent to prison on corruption charges, though it was later revealed to have been a political prosecution, with prosecutors making it clear they were trying to destroy the PT’s electoral prospects and keep Lula from returning to the presidency. (Strangely, much U.S. reporting notes that Lula went to prison and that his conviction was overturned, but does not discuss how scandalous the prosecution was, leaving readers with the impression that Lula simply got off on a technicality. He was clearly a political prisoner.)
This time around, PT cannot afford to fail, because we know what the alternative is. Lula has kept his policy plans opaque during the campaign, and presented himself as a unity candidate, including by choosing a centrist running mate. He has offered a unifying message that echoes Barack Obama’s “there are no red states or blue states, just the United States” speech, saying “There are not two Brazils,” and he “will govern for the 215 million Brazilians, not just the ones who voted for me.” Lula has, however, focused on people’s basic economic needs, telling crowds in poor neighborhoods:
“They think that the poor don’t have rights. … The right to barbecue with family on the weekend, to buy a little picanha, to that piece of picanha with the fat dipped in flour, and to a glass of cold beer.”
Lula said he wanted Brazilians to be able to be “happy again,” a charming message, but it remains to be seen how he’ll deliver on uplifting and unifying rhetoric. (My favorite bit of Lula rhetoric was when he called Bolsonaro a “one note samba” for constantly harping on Lula’s conviction, which is an amusingly Brazilian comeback.) With his return to the presidency, Lula joins the ranks of those, like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi who have gone from being political prisoners to heads of state. (Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who served after Lula, had herself been tortured and jailed by the military dictatorship in the 1970s.) It’s remarkable to go from being that powerless to being that powerful. Lula’s story is a great triumph for the international left, and should provide encouragement to those of us in the United States who are trying to keep our own far right from ascending to power. But we can also see that right-wing parties and candidates are resilient and they do not slink away quietly after losing one skirmish. We should all be hoping that Lula can somehow unify his country without lapsing into do-nothing centrism, because democracy and the climate cannot withstand further far-right rule.