Michael McEwen | PantherNOW Staff
On Sunday, Jan. 1 Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was inaugurated as Brazil’s 39th President following a contentious campaign that pitted him against the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who did not attend the ceremony as is custom and instead departed for Florida.
Best known as Lula, the former trade unionist previously served two consecutive terms as president between 2003 and 2011 and was often grouped into the regional “pink tide” phenomenon that defined the political landscape of South America at the time.
After he left office, however, da Silva was charged and later imprisoned in a corruption scandal with its roots in Brazilian politics but impacting elected officials across the continent.
In 2018, amid a wave of populist and anti-corruption sentiment sweeping through Brazil, Bolsonaro rose from the rank of a meddling lower-deputy to a conservative icon lauded throughout the hemisphere for his “tough on crime” bravado and promises to bring development to the Amazon rainforest.
As Bolsonaro’s campaign gained momentum and entered the final months, Lula was imprisoned on charges of corruption and money laundering and was barred from running for president until 2021, when his original conviction was annulled and all charges dropped.
For Brazilians, the two options in the 2022 election could not have been more different from the other. Where Lula’s leftist Worker’s Party invested heavily into social programs as well as the environment, Bolsonaro’s was defined by record-setting fires in the Amazon and a botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the second round run-off concluded on Oct 30, Lula had won his third term as President by less than 2 percent.
Shortly before Lula’s inauguration, PantherNOW spoke with Latin American and Caribbean Center Director Anthony Pereira about Bolsonaro, corruption and how Lula’s victory may alter the future of the hemisphere’s second-biggest economy. The following is a transcript of the interview in full.
Anthony Pereira has been abbreviated to AP and Michael McEwen has been abbreviated to MM.
MM: To begin, what do you think led voters to choose Lula over Bolsonaro?
AP: I think there were a lot of reasons why Bolsonaro was the first incumbent president running for election who didn’t actually succeed in getting re-elected. One important factor was the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; some people called it negationist and some people called it denialist, but it was definitely unorthodox and it frustrated a lot of people. If you compare 2018 to 2022, Bolsonaro lost a lot of support in the big cities I think in part because of his handling of COVID.
The way that the government responded to criticism about increasing rates of deforestation also disappointed people who felt that the government could have at least acknowledged the climate change issues more. There’s also a gender gap where some women felt that the government was sort of hostile to gender equality and had a traditionalist view of gender relations.
One of the immediate results in the election shows that the biggest margin of support for Lula is in the category of people who earn two minimum-wages or less, so they’re in households earning more or less $450 or less based on the current exchange rate, and that’s why you get the geographic polarization. He does so well in the northeast because that’s where a disproportionate amount of poor people live, and he doesn’t do as well in the south and the southeast which are more affluent. So there is some class polarization in this election and that’s been part of Brazilian Presidential elections since 2006.
This was a strange election in that both candidates had high negatives. It was two people both widely rejected by big chunks of the population, and the person with the lower negatives won. Something I said before the election was that we won’t know what the result will be, but that about half the electorate was going to be extremely disappointed with the result, and that’s what we saw.
MM: What difficulties might Lula face in trying to carry out his proposed agenda of sweeping change in Congress?
AP: I don’t think forming a working majority will be a problem, but in Brazil a lot of important changes need to be constitutional changes, and you need three-fifths of each house in two separate votes. I think that will be more difficult because Bolsonaro’s party has the biggest bloc of seats in the lower house, and in the Senate there’s been a big increase in the amount of seats held by right wing parties and a shrinking of the center-right.
So constitutional changes will be more difficult, but I think Lula has more experience dealing with congress than Dilma Roussef and Bolsonaro, although Bolsonaro did improve at it during his term. So Lula will be constrained especially with constitutional change, but ultimately I think they will be able to maneuver.
MM: How do you see Brazil’s role in the region and the world stage changing between the administrations?
AP: I think we’ve already seen the change. If you look at Lula going to Sharm El Sheikh and taking part in COP27, I think climate change diplomacy is going to be a big push and this new government is going to engage in it. It doesn’t split his coalition like other issues do, such as social or industrial policy. They want to host COP30 in 2026, and they want to have a G20 and a BRICS meeting. They’d also like to revive UNASUR and make it more vibrant, so I think they see Brazil’s importance in the climate change issue as a way to make Brazil more prominent regionally and globally.
The Amazon Fund, I think, will be revived. You may get the U.S. or other members of the European Union putting into that fund or into similar funds, so I think they’re going to want to push the idea that Brazil can do more, but people are going to demand accountability; if you look back at Lula’s first term it took a couple of years for deforestation to go down.
I recently looked at a policy document on environmental diplomacy and the one area that could be controversial, at least when it comes to the U.S., is that it’s very much based on this idea of south-south diplomacy and creating a more multi-polar world and working through not just the E.U. and the U.S., but the BRICs countries and other Asian, African and Latin American countries. So there could be some tension there between Brazil and the U.S. if Brazil is not fully onboard with the U.S. approach to China, which is increasingly adversarial.
MM: Bolsonaro was one of the most active South American leaders in his opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. How do you see relations between Brasilia and Caracas changing under Lula?
AP: I would expect a Lula government to go back to the traditional foreign ministry approach in Brazil, which is much more cautious on Venezuela than the Bolsonaro government was. He and his first foreign minister Ernesto Araújo were very aggressive in denouncing Maduro and supporting Juan Guaido. I don’t think they would have committed Brazilian troops to any military action but they were just short of that in terms of the level of belligerence. So it’s likely to sound a lot more traditional about the respect for sovereignty and the need for negotiations, and it’s likely to disappoint a lot of people in the United States who want a more aggressive posture against Maduro.
One interesting thing is that if you go back to the 2000’s, the Brazilian economy had a big trade surplus with Venezuela and so there was some economic logic for Lula to be soft on Hugo Chavez and then Maduro. That economic incentive doesn’t really exist now because with the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, that trade has dried up. So there’s not necessarily a hard geoeconomic reason for them to want to work with the Maduro regime, but there may be this lingering ideological commitment to traditional notions of sovereignty.
MM: With Lula ascending to the presidency once again, observers in the region have claimed that this is perhaps the ushering in of a second “pink tide”, especially in combination with other election victories for leftists in Colombia, Mexico and Bolivia. Would you agree with this analysis of a second regional shift to leftism, or is it more a referendum on incumbents?
AP: I lean toward the latter interpretation. Incumbents have a hard time, and regardless of ideological background, have tended to lose recently in Latin America. I also think if you go back to the Pink Tide era when there was a commodities super-cycle and there was quite a bit of money for social policy and inclusion, it was easy for those governments to benefit the poor, and it’s going to be a lot harder now.
The space for making change now is difficult; geopolitically there’s more tension between the U.S. and Europe on one hand and Russia and China. It’s harder for Latin American countries to navigate and make friends with everyone, and they’re going to have to take sides on issues in ways they didn’t in the 2000’s. There’s just less surplus because these economies are paying more for a lot of imports and aren’t making as much from exports, so I think it’s different from that Pink Tide period.
Relating it to the Brazilian case, it’s not really a left-wing government. Lula has ten parties in his coalition, and he has Geraldo Alckmin, who’s a traditional center-right politician, who is his vice-president. That’s the makeup of the government; it ranges from the left to the center-right, so I would say it’s a left president but it’s not a left government.
MM: Was that broad coalition building a decision Lula and the PT made for political expediency?
AP: It was a conscious decision; they said, “Look, we’re not going to defeat Bolsonaro unless we have a really broad front, so we need to go beyond what we did in the 2000’s.” This time, they were able to get a lot of their traditional enemies to support them on the grounds that, “We’re better than Bolsonaro, anything but Bolsonaro.” So those electoral choices will constrain them now, because they need to have a government that includes a lot of those folks that supported them who are not in the party.
Dr. Anthony Pereira. Photo via FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs.
MM: How much is the Lava Jato scandal hanging over Lula and his party today?
AP: It’s probably the single biggest factor people would give as a reason not to vote for Lula, especially the scale of it. The big impact in the private sector is that companies are much more conscious now that they have to abide by the Clean Companies Act and other legislation, and that they can’t get involved in bribery scandals.
In the public sector I’m not sure the disincentives are serious enough yet. We know that corruption carried on even after the Lava Jato investigation started. Ultimately I think it’s still a factor in people’s minds and it’s why Lula had high negatives, and I think the Workers Party has to show now that it’s in the game of presidential politics that it’s going to do due diligence and not let that kind of corruption scandal happen again. The perception that it’s just a PT problem is somewhat misguided, and if you look at the indictments there were actually more filed against non-PT politicians, most of the parties were implicated.
MM: It’s no secret that Bolsonaro and former United States President Donald Trump are if not political allies, then leaders with a well-developed mutual admiration for each other. Do you think Trump’s attempts to discredit election results in the U.S. in 2020 served as a blueprint for Bolsonaro’s own attempts in this election?
AP: Bolsonaro clearly looks to Trump and bases his own strategy on Trump’s. The fact that Trump won in 2016 emboldened him and helped him win in 2018. He was very reluctant to acknowledge Biden’s victory in 2020, waiting until December. Bolsonaro had already said in 2019 that there was fraud in the election of 2018, and that he should have won in the first round, which he kept repeating. They didn’t refuse to concede to Lula and file a complaint with the electoral court because they thought overturning the election was a plausible outcome; they wanted to energize the base and tell them, “Look, we believe that we won, you should believe that we won and this is the basis on which we’ll fight the election in 2026.” And they’ll be watching the 2024 election with a lot of interest.
MM: Is there a precedent for election denial in Brazil predating Bolsonaro?
AP: No, and that’s what’s interesting. Before electronic voting was introduced in the 1990’s, the electoral system was notoriously corrupt. It was open to all kinds of fraud and so there was a lot of pride in people within the electoral system when this improved. After the 2000 election in the U.S. there were all sorts of questions surrounding vote counts, especially in Florida. There was a New York Times op-ed that asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if the states had an electronic voting system like in Brazil?” and that was a source of pride for Brazilians.
What I think is telling is that in 2021, Bolsonaro lobbied the congress to try and change the system to allow for a paper ballot and the legislation didn’t pass. Even lawmakers affiliated to his coalition didn’t feel a pressing need to change the system, so I think it’s safe to say there’s still majority support for it although the level of skepticism has probably grown. Even if you look at Bolsonaro’s party’s complaint, they said that the machines that were an issue in the second round were fine in the first round, because the PL got the most seats in the lower house that round.
MM: What is the true value of Bolsonaro and his supporters’ references to Brazil’s military dictatorship? Is it simply a form of populist grandstanding or is there legitimate concern over the role of the military in politics post-Bolsonaro?
AP: I think there was more concern right before the election about whether he would try to mobilize parts of the military to maybe justify the suspension of the election or the suspension of the count. But the movement is split: there are some hardcore Bolsonaro supporters that represent maybe 30 percent of Bolsonaro’s voting bloc that really believed the military should step in and have authoritarian rule.
In the ‘60s, the military dictatorship stepped in because they felt they somehow had to save Brazil. I think a lot of the younger officers today don’t feel the need to do that, and the evocation and praise for the dictatorship is very much a minority view in Brazil and maybe even in Bolsonarismo. But it is worrying because Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons, was giving a speech to accept a gift he was given by the Sao Paulo legislative assembly, and he started out his speech by praising and commemorating the memory of a former military officer who was convicted in a civil court of torture. In a democracy that’s an odd thing to do.
At the very least, what this election showed was that the military high command were not willing to go along with an adventure with Bolsonaro. The most he got out of the state apparatus was some support from the federal highway police to stop people going to the polls, and that was kind of a half-hearted or indirect attempt to influence the election result. But the military stayed out of it and I think that was a good sign.
MM: Are you at all surprised that Brazil’s institutions held up against the claims of electoral fraud levied by the Bolsonaro campaign and his supporters?
AP: I wouldn’t say surprised, but it went better than a lot of people were afraid it was going to go. I think the more people wrote and talked about the possibility that Bolsonaro would try to overturn the result, the more unlikely that outcome became. It was almost as if this was an antidote to the worst case outcome.
One of the aspects that probably needs to be researched more was how aggressive the Supreme Electoral Court was in shutting down disinformation in traditional and social media. A radio station in Sao Paulo was stopped from spreading some disinformation, as well as some social media networks, and the Bolsonaristas were alarmed by this and claimed it was a violation of freedom of speech. I think that decision can be defended on the grounds that false information spread on a large scale days before a democratic election can really have a bad impact on democracy, and freedom of speech is not an unlimited right.
So I think this is an aspect of the election that deserves some scrutiny and discussion over whether what the electoral court did was legitimate and if it should be done in the next election. There were even agreements between the electoral court and social media platforms like Facebook and Telegram over how they would police their own content.
MM: Do you foresee Bolsonaro running for the presidency again?
AP: I could see him running again. I think his strength is actually campaigning; I would say he’s a better campaigner than he is a person who governs. As President he kept complaining on social media and at events, and that’s what he was known for as a legislator. He’s very good at communicating with his base, and I think his turnout in the 2022 election surpassed a lot of people’s expectations.