The current Brazilian elections are important also for many beyond the country’s borders. Brazil has strengthened the new left wave in Latin America and cooperation across the Global South, which now counts 134 developing countries and could represent a social alternative at a time when Western countries are facing a coming recession and crisis.
While most commentaries focus on the Brazilian elections as a national issue, they also need to be understood in the context of Latin American and global developments, as Brazil plays a vital role on a macro-regional and global scale. After the recent election of left-wing governments in most Latin American countries, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the second round of the presidential elections on 30 October with 50.9% support. He held his own against his rival, the far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who gained 49.1%, almost two million fewer votes than Lula. The runoff election was ‘just an extension’ of what had been done so far, Lula said. However, victory was not certain, as there could have been a series of manipulations or violence used by Bolsonaro to reverse the current results.
The presidential election was an event that was strongly felt by hundreds of millions of people in Brazil. Not only because Brazil is the largest country in Latin America, with more than 210 million citizens and 156 million eligible voters. Nor because elections in Latin American countries are usually more emotionally charged than elections in Europe. The main reason is that this year’s Brazilian elections were extremely polarised politically. The ideological clash between the incumbent far-right president Bolsonaro and the socially oriented Lula, who was previously president from 2003 to 2011, was strongly apparent to the citizens. Externally, Lula’s victory significantly strengthened the new left wave in Latin America and the bargaining power of developing countries in the world.
Although, for obvious reasons, the presidential elections are the most watched in Brazil as they have the greatest impact on the future government, the current election was not just about choosing a president. Along with the president, the vice-president, deputies and senators of the lower and upper houses of the federal Congress, as well as governors and deputies of the various Brazilian states were also elected. The election of the president, however, determines the fundamental political trends for the coming years.
Latin American and global impact of the Brazilian elections
As Brazil is a big country with a large population and a large economy, the elections have great significance beyond the country’s borders. Of course, Brazil plays an important role in Latin America, representing one third of the population. Lula’s victory in the presidential election must be seen in the context of the new, second wave of the left (marea rosa in Spanish, onda rosa in Brazilian Portuguese) that has gradually developed in Latin American countries since 2018. Lula was already one of the main leaders of the first left-wing wave, which began with the election of Hugo Chávez in late-1990s Venezuela and lasted symbolically until the 2016 constitutional coup in Brazil. The strengthening of the new pink wave will also affect the development of Latin American regional economic institutions, such as Mercosur and ALBA.
Brazil is also influential on a global scale. It plays a relevant role in the BRICS grouping of major developing countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and in other international institutions. As developing countries are sensitive to global economic fluctuations, BRICS also has an impact on the dynamics of developing countries’ responses to the current military conflict in Ukraine and to the anti-Russian sanctions of the United States and EU countries.
Representatives of the Latin American left have an even broader framework for cooperation among countries of the Global South. On the occasion of the UN meeting this past September, the leaders of the G-77 plus China, a grouping of initially 77 developing countries that now number 134 developing countries, two-thirds of the nations represented at the UN, chose Cuba to lead them starting in January 2023, strengthening Latin America’s influence in the world. Thus, the new left tide in Latin America, along with almost all the world’s developing countries, will have the opportunity to increase their anti-hegemonic multilateral political voice and show their social alternatives during the coming recession and crisis in Western countries. This is the great challenge within which the re-election of Lula as Brazil’s president must be understood.
Bolsonaro’s infamous legacy and Lula’s return
Bolsonaro’s government during the pandemic caused many to fall into poverty. Some 33 million Brazilians are now coping with this decay. The range of groups targeted by Bolsonaro during his presidency over the past few years is enormous. Firstly, the damage that Bolsonaro has done is anti-social in nature, harming the majority of low-income citizens and also the middle class. Secondly, the damage is violent in nature, manifested, for example, in brutal raids in the favelas, racial and ethnic discrimination against Afro-Brazilians and indigenous peoples and aggression against women. Thirdly, the damage is also dehumanising, as it deforms the political culture by declassing the poor, women, different ethnic groups, etc. Fourthly, the damage is environmental, especially in that Bolsonaro has empowered mining companies to increase their devastation of the Amazon. Fifth, many of these excesses have also begun to bother companies and harm the development of the Brazilian economy.
Nevertheless, Bolsonaro managed to garner more public support than expected in the election campaign. Of course, he won the support of his Liberal Party (PL = Partido Liberal) and the right-wing governors of the various Brazilian states. At the same time, he strengthened his position as current president by abusing the state administration for his campaign. Bolsonaro also threatened a coup, saying before the first round of the elections that he hoped his supporters would be willing to sacrifice their lives. This was interpreted as a call for a violent takeover of power, a more successful version of the occupation of government offices than that which occurred in the occupation of the US Congress on 6 January 2021. This implies not only a possible occupation of government institutions by Bolsonaro supporters among the citizenry but also potential action by a section of the military with which Bolsonaro has support. However, he only has the support of part of the army, and the situation is not yet ready for such a scenario. A military coup is therefore unlikely, at least for the time being.
For Lula, success in the elections must be incredibly satisfying, as he had faced a grave injustice previously. In the last election, the right-wing government had filed a fabricated lawsuit against him to suppress his campaign, leaving him unable to participate. In 2018, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison but was freed after 19 months when the court overturned the sentence. He then managed to make a full return to the political mainstream.
In the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, 2 October, Lula of the Workers’ Party (PT = Partido dos Trabalhadores) won more than 48% of the vote, while Bolsonaro won 43%. Of the other nine candidates, only two others exceeded one percent: Simone Tebet of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB = Movimento Democrático Brasileiro) received 4.16% and Ciro Gomes, vice-president of the Democratic Workers Party (PDT = Partido Democrático Trabalhista), garnered over 3%.
Lula’s tally in the first round was expected. According to opinion polls, his support had long been just under 50% during the increasing drama and emotional intensity of the campaign. Behind Lula was a broad centre-left coalition of political parties determined to counter Bolsonaro’s re-election.
After the first round, both Simone and Ciro expressed their support for Lula in the second round. A group of former presidential candidates and former presidents also backed Lula, such as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Lula also received support from other prominent figures and left-wing political parties—in addition to his own PT party, mainly from the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL = Partido Socialismo e Liberdade) and the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB = Partido Comunista do Brasil).
Revitalising Lula’s social policy in Brazil and inspiration for abroad
The second round of elections took place on the last Sunday of October. Lula’s victory was likely, although not certain, of course. His charismatic appearances in many meetings with citizens during the campaign were very relatable and impressive. However, Brazil’s political-geographical divide remains. While the poorer northeast voted mostly for Lula, the richer southwest generally voted for Bolsonaro.
Lula’s social programmes have helped many of the poor and middle class. For example, the Family Pocket (Bolsa familia) and My House, My Life (Minha casa, minha vida) programmes were two of his most successful. During its greatest expansion, the Bolsa familia programme benefited up to 55 million Brazilians out of more than 200 million. In addition, the Zero Hunger (Hambre Cero) programme has eliminated malnutrition in almost all children.
Under Lula’s governance, Brazil achieved an average annual GDP increase of 4.1 percent. He also managed to reduce unemployment from 10 to 5 percent. He tripled the education budget and established new public universities. The national oil industry paid for much of the government expenditures. At the same time, he ensured a higher level of environmental protection, especially of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil also gained greater global influence in international politics. It has become an example worth following for many countries around the world in terms of social experiments, such as participatory budgets and the World Social Forums, which gained greater prominence under Lula’s rule.
Now Lula wants to build on his previous focus with an emphasis on social programmes and education, helping women and marginalised black and indigenous populations, eliminating violence, etc. However, his leftist influence will not be as pronounced because of the broader coalition of left and centre parties. Vice President Geraldo Alckmin, for example, may have moved partly to the left, but his position remains distinct from Lula’s.
Nevertheless, Lula’s experience will allow him to focus on key policy decisions that could support strategic infrastructure development and major social measures which will last beyond his presidency. At the same time, he could strengthen socially-focused international cooperation, particularly with developing countries in Latin American and global organisations, including BRICS and the United Nations. The new left tide in Latin America and the socially articulated grouping of most of the developing world in the G77 plus China could also be an inspiration for the developed Western nations, where economic recession and crisis are beginning to arrive. While developing countries may also be threatened by the crisis, the Global South can cooperate more fully and offer social alternatives. In Lula’s terminology, it is the return of hope: for Brazil, Latin America and many countries of the world.