Brazil’s last elections unmasked a polarized society who condemns former president Jair Bolsonaro for the major exploiting of the Amazonas and his insensitivity attitudes towards the pandemic and those who see Bolsonaro and the newly elected president Lula da Silva as a corrupt leader. It will require a healthy space to coexist both the far-right and the left in Brazil.
By Teresa Calandri*
On the 2nd of October Brazil elected Lula da Silva as its president, defeating Jair Bolsonaro on the second-round election. The results were impressively close: Lula won with 50.9 percent of the votes, against Bolsonaro holding 49.1 percent of the votes. Nevertheless, the majority of the Congress remains of Bolsonaro’s party (Gual, 2022). Brazil is the largest democracy and has one of the strongest economies in Latin America (Roy, 2022). So, what does this result mean for Brazil in the broader global context and in Latin America?
Jair Bolsonaro who represents the right-wing party is a retired military officer. As a defender of the military regime of 1964-1985, Bolsonaro’s policies are inspired by his conservative ideology. For instance, he is against the same-sex marriage and abortion rights. His policies about the pandemic made Brazil one of the worst countries in the world in preventing the multitude of the pandemic related deaths (Filho & Feil, 2021). Resembling Trump’s anti-scientific rhetoric about Covid, Bolsonaro called the virus a ‘little flu’ and encouraged Brazilians to not get vaccinated, dismissing the validity of vaccinations to the people (Phillips, 2022). His denial in the magnitude and severity of the pandemic contributed to the death of 700,000 Brazilians. When he was questioned about the number of deaths, he simply replied ‘So what? What do you want me to do?’ Such a cold-blooded and harsh rhetoric is common amongst radical right populists that in their speech exclude groups such as immigrants, minorities etc (Farias et al., 2022).
His opponent and successor, Lula da Silva, is a representative of the left-wing Worker’s Party who condemned the military regime in Brazil. He was President of Brazil twice, leading the country from 2003 till 2010. His main objective now is to protect the environment and develop new public policies to promote respecting Indigenous peoples, minorities, women’s and LGBT rights (de Almeida, 2005). In his early years in politics, his discourse was based on fighting against poverty and broader social inequalities that is endemic in Brazil and many other Latin American countries (de Almeida, 2005). During his mandate (2003-2011), he introduced several social policies to combat inequalities. For instance, his ‘Programa Bolsa Família’ (PBF) donated cash to families in need (Outlook, 2022). While progress was made in the social and economic fields, allegations of corruption began to arouse (Outlook, 2022).
The long-lasting tension between the two leaders was also evident in the debate held two days before the elections where the candidates pointed finger at each other. Bolsonaro said that his rival should be rather in prison and not in presidency competition. This was to remind the Brazilian people of the ‘Operation Car Wash’ where Lula da Silva was convicted for bribery in 2017. He started serving prison for the 12-year corruption sentence and while serving, he appealed (Phillips, 2019). Although the charges against da Silva for corruption and money laundering have since been annulled, the decision was based on the lack of jurisdiction of the Court that convicted him in the first place. The ruling was not based on the merits of the case. Therefore, the question of whether he is guilty of corruption or not has never been answered. Even today Lula is seen as a corrupt leader by those who oppose him (Watson, 2021).
In candidacy discussion, Lula described his rival’s mandate as the period in which the major exploitation of the Amazonas took place. This was a central argument in Lula’s campaign and in his victory speech, as he pronounced ‘Let’s fight for zero deforestation. The planet needs the Amazon alive.’ The Amazonas is not just any other forest in the world, but it is considered the ‘lungs of the planet,’ (BBC, 2013). Among many other world leaders, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulated da Silva and expressed that he was looking forward to working together ‘to advance shared priorities – like protecting the environment.’ The government of Norway expressed that they would resume financial aid – which was discontinued in 2019 – to help Brazil combat deforestation (Villegas & Kaplan, 2022). These reactions reflect how much international support Lula da Silva has gained, particularly due to this environmental crisis. Da Silva’s policies also encompass the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples who have been living there for centuries.
Now going back to the results, the impact of the small difference in votes between such antagonistic candidates will be reflected in the next four years of mandate. Although a left-wing president will lead Brazil, the conservative right holds the majority in both the upper and lower houses in Congress. Furthermore, between these new legislators, many of the ministers that served during the Bolsonaro’s mandate were also re-elected – amongst them the former environment minister (Nugent, 2022).
A fundamental pillar of Lula’s campaign, such as the protection of the Amazonas, could end up being just a promise while the environment continues being in danger. Although it will not be an easy task for Lula da Silva to govern with no majority in the legislative power, it may provide an interesting opportunity to demonstrate that both parties can reach an understanding and fight for what is best for the people and natural resources of Brazil. It would even revive the words that Lula da Silva gave in his winning speech as he called Brazilians to reunite again, by saying:‘There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.’ It seems that to protect the ‘lungs of the earth’ it would require a better domestic and international control mechanisms preventing corruption and offering a healthy space for both the far-right and the left in Brazil.
(*) Teresa Calandri is a lawyer and graduate of Public International Law from Utrecht University, specialized in International Human Rights Law. Her master thesis examined why media pluralism is fundamental for every democracy and how it is regulated in international law. Her research was based on a comparative study between European States.
— (2013). “Amazon: Lungs of the planet.” BBC. February 26, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20130226-amazon-lungs-of-the-planet (accessed on November 9, 2022).
— (2022). “Brazil Election: Who Is Lula Da Silva, The Leftist Former President Who Defeated Jair Bolsonaro?” Outlook.October 31, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/international/brazil-election-who-is-lula-da-silva-the-leftist-former-president-who-defeated-jair-bolsonaro-news-233773 (accessed on November 23, 2022). The conditions for receiving the PBF were vaccination of children, pregnant women, education for children, avoiding child labour.
de Almeida, Maria Hermínia Tavares. (2005). ‘The social policies of Lula’s administration.” Novos estud- CEBRAP, vol 1, 1, 6.
Farias, Deborah Barros Leal; Casarões, Guilherme & Magalhães, David. (2022). “Radical Right Populism and the Politics of Cruelty: The Case of Covid-19 in Brazil Under President Bolsonaro.” Global Studies Quarterly, 1, 2. This type of speech in shared with Trump in the United States and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, both belonging to radical right populisms.
Filho, Alfredo Saad & Feil, Fernanda. (2021). “Covid-19 in Brazil: how Jair Bolsonaro created a calamity.” King’s College University. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/covid-19-in-brazil-how-jair-bolsonaro-created-a-calamity (accessed on November 8, 2022).
Gual, Joan Royo. (2022). “El bolsonarismo exhibe su fortaleza y el Congreso de Brasil seguirá con mayoría conservadora.” El Pais. October 3, 2022. https://elpais.com/internacional/2022-10-03/el-bolsonarismo-exhibe-su-fortaleza-y-el-congreso-de-brasil-seguira-con-mayoria-conservadora.html (accessed on November 8, 2022).
Nugent, Ciara. (2022). “How Lula Won the Most Crucial Election in Brazil for Decades.” Time Magazine. November 2, 2022. https://time.com/6226269/how-lula-won-brazil-election/ (accessed on November 9, 2022).
Phillips, Tom. (2019). “Brazil’s former president Lula walks free from prison after supreme court ruling.” The Guardian.November 8, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/08/lula-brazil-released-prison-supreme-court-ruling (accessed November 23, 2022).
Phillips, Tom. (2022). “Police call for Bolsonaro to be charged for spreading Covid misinformation.” The Guardian. August 18, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/18/jair-bolsonaro-covid-misinformation-charge-brazil-police (accessed on November 23, 2022).
Roy, Diana. (2022). “Brazil’s Global Ambitions.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 19, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/brazils-global-ambitions (accessed on November 8, 2022).
Villegas, Paulina & Kaplan, Sarah. (2022). “Lula vowed to safeguard the Amazon. After Bolsonaro, it won’t be easy.” The Washington Post. October 31, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/31/lula-brazil-amazon/ (accessed on November 9, 2022).
Watson, Katy. (2021). “Lula: Brazil ex-president’s corruption convictions annulled.” BBC News. March 9, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56326389 (accessed on November 9, 2022).