Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro to win the 2022 Brazilian elections by a margin of just 0.8 percent. However, he has a huge task ahead of him and it is still unknown how he plans to go about confronting key challenges facing the country. What is certain is that to succeed he is required to recognise and respond to the conservative, nationalist and anti-elite narratives that still dominate public political debate in Brazil.
By Nicole McLean*
On Sunday 30th October, former President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), defeated far-right incumbent President, Jair Bolsonaro, to win the 2022 Brazilian elections by a margin of just 0.8 percent. It was a tight race, with Lula one stride ahead receiving 50.9 percent of votes and Bolsonaro close behind with 49.1 percent. Despite the socialist’s victory, Lula’s third term in office will no doubt be his toughest. It will be extremely difficult to govern a country that is completely divided.
Twelve years has passed since Lula last held the presidency. During this time, the country’s greatest corruption scandal came to light under his party, the Workers’ Party (PT), giving birth to a fierce wave of right-wing populism, nationalism, and ultra-conservatism.
Lula’s strategy was to create a ‘frente ampla’ – a vast front of support. He managed to bring together previous rivals from all sides of politics to overcome Bolsonaro. In perhaps his most tactical move, Lula secured former Governor of São Paulo and former leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Geraldo Alckmin, as his Vice President. This shocked many because Alckmin was a strong critic of Lula and the PT during the investigations into the sprawling corruption allegations. Despite all the lengths that the opposition parties went to in order to topple the Far Right, Lula only managed to win by the tightest of margins. Bolsonarism is far from over.
Bolsonarism Has Spread Across Brazil Despite Lula’s Victory
In the first round of the elections on 2nd October, Bolsonaro’s party, the Liberal Party (PL), elected 99 deputies from across Brazil. This is almost double the 52 deputies elected to his party in 2018 and can be attributed to the growth in nationalism, social conservatism and, particularly, Evangelicalism.
The federal deputy to receive the most votes (over 1.4 million) in all of Brazil was the highly conservative and religious 26-year-old Nikolas Ferreira from the state of Minas Gerais. The most voted female federal deputy was conservative and nationalist Carla Zambelli, who was re-elected in São Paulo receiving 12 times more votes than she did in 2018. Both Ferreira and Zambelli were elected to the PL party and are fierce advocates of Bolsonaro, using their various social media accounts as media vehicles to disseminate pro-Bolsonaro propaganda (McLean, 2022). They received immense public support at the polls for their role as political propagandists promoting Bolsonaro, more so than for their own policy ideas.
The state of São Paulo even elected a Carioca (person from Rio de Janeiro) as Governor, Tarcísio de Freitas who is a conservative neoliberal, over the progressive candidate, Fernando Haddad. Economic freedom and social conservatism are clearly valued more than place of origin in the state that is home to South America’s largest metropolis. To ensure the Far Right does not return to power, Lula needs to listen and respond to conservative views.
Lula Must Address Concerns of Conservatives to Overcome Far Right
If Lula fails to address the concerns of conservatives, Bolsonaro could revive his political career in four years’ time.Bolsonaristas (supporters of Bolsonaro) are for the most part ultra-conservative and are primarily concerned with the family and traditional values. Lula needs to find ways to portray his party’s progressivism that do not alienate and marginalise conservatives. There must be space in the public sphere for multiple voices and opinions along the political spectrum that are debated in a constructive manner. Otherwise, segments of society risk experiencing social marginalisation, particularly when traditional values are no longer reflected in elite discourse (Gidron & Hall, 2019: 7).
In 2018, Bolsonaro was elected on an anti-corruption and anti-elite agenda. The far-right President’s anti-elitism targeted the cultural establishment including the media, arts, and education institutions. His dissent was expressed through a discourse of us, “the good citizens,” versus them, “the corrupt elite,” and was populist in nature. The separation of society into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, where good rivals against evil, is a typical trait of populism (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017: 6). What Brazil urgently needs now is to unite as one, and not be divided into two separate camps, to overcome the severe polarisation that plagues society.
Another feature of Bolsonarism is nationalism. Certain views of deforestation in the Amazon are a good representation of this. Silvia Nobre Waiãpi, an indigenous woman, ex-army officer and proud supporter of Bolsonaro, was elected federal deputy in the northern state of Amapá for the PL party. She believes that efforts to curb deforestation in the Amazon prevent inhabitants from cultivating and making money off their land. To Silvia, these efforts are North American ideals that are intended to keep people poor. She calls for freedom to make economic profit off the land.
During the previous PT governments, between 2004 and 2012, deforestation declined in the Amazon and law enforcement was central to reducing illegal logging (Tacconi et al., 2019). These were efforts to half climate change and were supported by the Amazon Fund, to which foreign countries make performance-based payments to the Brazilian government for reducing deforestation. Under the Bolsonaro government, the idea of what the Amazon needed protecting from changed from deforestation to international interference. Addressing these nationalist views, focusing specifically on the people living in the Amazon as well as on property and land rights, should be front and centre of Lula’s mission to stop illegal deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.
Lula has a huge task ahead of him and it is still unknown how he plans to go about confronting these challenges. What is certain is that to succeed he is required to recognise and respond to the conservative, nationalist and anti-elite values of the Brazilian public.
(*) Dr Nicole McLean holds a joint-PhD from The University of Melbourne (Faculty of Arts) and University of São Paulo (Faculty of Law). Her thesis analysed the major protest movements of the Brazilian New Right and their impact on the formation of different right-wing publics. As such, Dr McLean’s interdisciplinary study covered the fields of political science, anthropology, sociology, social media and law. McLean is the author of the book entitled Protest Movements as Media Vehicles of the Brazilian New Right which was published in 2022.
Mudde, C. & Kaltwasser, C., R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Tacconi, L., Rodrigues, R. J., Maryudi, A. (2019). “Law enforcement and deforestation: Lessons for Indonesia from Brazil.” Forest Policy and Economics, 108 (101943), 1389–9341. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2019.05.029