Tuesday, May 21, 2024
 
 

Lula squeaks out a victory in Brazilian runoff

Wikipedia via Agencia Brasil

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In Brazil’s recent election cycle, one that included two brutal rounds of contentious polls, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the 77-year-old leftist, narrowly defeated the country’s incumbent right wing leader Jair Bolsonaro by less than 2 percent of the vote – 50.9% vs 49.1%).

Lula’s victory confirmed what was already visible across Latin America in recent elections, a strong drift towards the far left. 

 

Early opinion polling had suggested that Lula would win the election, but when his lead in the first round came out much narrower than predicted, many started to doubt the polls’ accuracy.

No easy path forward

While Lula built a broad alliance for this campaign, including picking a vice presidential running mate who had previously run against him, the road forward will be challenging. Pro-Bolsonaro conservative candidates secured a strong majority in Brazil’s Congress. This almost guarantees that Lula will find that governing Brazil this time round will be far more difficult than when he last occupied the chief executive office a dozen years ago.

A remarkable comeback after 19 months in prison

Lula’s two terms as Brazil’s president from 2003-2010 are widely regarded as a golden era for the country’s poor, most of whom benefitted from Lula’s massive government handouts and social service packages that resembled similar Socialist programs that were implemented in Venezuela and Bolivia. When he left office, his popularity amongst those who were directly affected by his leftist policies made Lula a near-godlike figure as his signature achievement as president was the lifting of millions out of poverty by using state-run economic structures as his primary instrument during a period of strong commodities-fueled growth.

Things quickly turned sour, however, as his designated successor, Dilma Rousseff, then presided over a significant economic retrenchment while Lula himself was later convicted for corrupt activities while in office, involving a state-owned company.

Lula could not run in the previous presidential election in 2018 because he was in jail and thus banned from running for election. He had been found guilty of receiving a bribe from a Brazilian construction firm in return for contracts with Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras. Lula was jailed for a total of 580 days before his corruption conviction was annulled, allowing him to return to political life.

On the campaign trail, Lula, who by now was championing himself as a champion of freedom and framed the election as a choice between “democracy and fascism.”

Bolsonaro tries Trump-style campaign messaging

Taking a page out of the failed 2020 US Trump campaign, Bolsonaro persistently argued in the run-up to the election that Brazil’s electronic voting machines were vulnerable to fraud. Some feared Bolsonaro would reject a losing result. He had also claimed that China’s electoral court had prejudiced his campaign.

In terms of policy, Bolsonaro unsuccessfully tried to raise the specter of a Lula-led Brazil being turned into a Venezuela-style Marxist-Leninist basket case to generate additional votes. The tactic of using Venezuelan refugees as campaign props has generally failed in recent elections across the region. For example, in the cases of Peru, Chile and Colombia, the threat of a new deluge of Venezuelan refugees used by right-wing candidates failed to prevent leftist opponents from emerging victorious.

Global reactions have been generally positive

Leaders interested in promoting free democratic elections globally responded to the Brazilian outcome in a positive tone, despite Lula’s leftist outlook. Mindful of Brazil’s important strategic location and regional role, even those countries that play little or no part in Brazil’s economic life offered the standard supportive commentary, even if nobody was actually listening.

As the world leader with perhaps the most at stake, US President Joe Biden did congratulate Lula for winning a “free, fair and credible” election and said he “Looked forward to working together to continue the cooperation between our two countries in the months and years ahead.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also congratulated Lula, saying “Brazilian citizens went to the polls to elect their new president in a peaceful and well-organized election.” 

The EU is hopeful, if not ecstatic, that Lula will be able to quickly reverse Bolsonaro’s intentional neglect of the uncontrolled Amazon deforestation. which appears to have actually accelerated in the pre-election period, according to the Brazilian media.

Lula’s victory and his campaign commitments to halt deforestation will go a long way towards unblocking the ratification of the 2019 EU-Mercosur trade agreement, partially held up within the EU by Bolsonaro’s unwillingness to guarantee a halt to deforestation.

The world’s authoritarians are happy to see Lula return

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close ally of Lula’s during his first two terms as president, also offered his support.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “We are willing to work with the new Brazilian government led by Lula to take the China-Brazil comprehensive strategic partnership to a new level, and better benefit the two countries and two peoples.”

Not to be outdone, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro offered staunch support to Lula, saying in a tweet: “Long live the peoples determined to be free, sovereign and independent! Today in Brazil democracy triumphed.” 

Concerns about another radical leftist South American leader

Lula will return as Brazil’s leader to a vastly changed world from the one he left behind when he exited the presidency 13 years ago. While he helped guide Brazil through a decade of economic growth, his orthodox South American brand of populist Marxism and his staunch support for Putin – as well as his leftist Latin American brethren that include Nicaragua’s Communist regime led by Daniel Ortega, Argentina’s double-headed, populist Left-wing Hydra of Alberto and Cristina Fernandez and Venezuela’s Chavista dictatorship; none of whom have contributed to economic growth or the promotion of core democratic values in their respective countries – will have Lula immediately at odds with both the United States and the European Union.

In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the international sanctions that have been imposed on Moscow as a result, this will be a major challenge for Lula moving forward as he seeks to reinvigorate Brazil’s crumbling economy. Lula does not have a track record as a strong foreign policy leader and has, at times, shown a lack of understanding and very little geopolitical acumen when confronted with international affairs. 

Earlier this year, just a month after Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine, Lula was quoted by Time magazine, saying:

“I see the President of Ukraine speaking on television, being applauded, getting a standing ovation by all the European parliamentarians. This guy is as responsible as Putin for the war. Because in war, there’s not just one person guilty … Putin shouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. But it’s not just Putin who is guilty. The US and the EU are also guilty.”
 
Lula’s anti-Western positions date back to his initial time in office. He openly backs Iran’s right to a nuclear program and has opposed to the imposition of further sanctions on Tehran. As president and, in the years since, Lula has cultivated a close personal relationship with Iran’s former hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 
 
A challenging road ahead
 
Regardless of what Lula does over the next several years, he must reassure his own citizens and the international community – the latter of which he’ll have to court to help deal with Brazil’s increasingly perilous economic situation as it comes out of the Covid haze – that his manner of government will not be a repeat of the corrupt cronyism that flourished under the near-dictatorship of his Worker’s Party in the 2000s. Rather, Lula will need to learn to govern by compromising with his political opponents.

If he cannot or is not willing to do so, Lula will risk being lumped in with the far-left despotism of Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela. 

 

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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