If he wants to leave a long-standing legacy to Brazilians in this third (and possibly final) term in office, Lula will have to restore Bolsa Família and make it a platform for making Brazil united and prosperous again
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s victory in the 2022 presidential race in Brazil was nothing but heroic. Despite being Brazil’s most popular politician — and the most successful president of the last half century — Lula had to fight two almost unsurpassable obstacles.
The first one was the persistent rejection of his party, the Workers’ Party, a sentiment that has driven Brazilian politics since at least 2016, when Lula’s successor and ally, Dilma Rousseff, was ousted following a contentious impeachment trial amid several corruption accusations that tainted the party and her administration.
The second obstacle was, of course, the incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro. Finishing the elections with more than 58 million votes (against Lula’s 60 million) was in itself a demonstration of Bolsonaro’s unparalleled capacity to mobilise the masses. With the help of organised groups, from rural landowners to Evangelical pastors, he has put together a strong and cohesive far-right supporting base.
But it was not just about ideology. In his reelection bid, the president deployed every single state resource down to the last penny, from lowering fuel prices to expanding access to the emergency cash transfer programme to allocating federal budget to benefit his own party.
Not to mention the series of potential electoral crimes that have been committed on Bolsonaro’s behalf, which include accusations of vote buying and voter suppression in broad daylight.
Yet, even if by a narrow margin, Lula got elected on October 30. How did that happen? I believe there are three elements that explain the former president’s persistent popularity and staying power.
First of all, it is important to look back into Lula’s track record as president in the early 2000s. His flagship social programme, Bolsa Família, is still considered the landmark of poverty reduction in Brazilian history — and even beyond Brazil.
Despite its small budget, 0.5 per cent of Brazil’s gross domestic product, the conditional cash transfer policy has allowed the Lula and Rousseff administrations to reduce poverty by 15 per cent, extreme poverty by 25 per cent, and inequality by 10 per cent.
The successful combination of targeted social policies, rise in real wages and credit expansion has taken more than 36 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty and 32 million into the lower middle class.
Bolsa Família, in particular, has had a significant impact across the least developed regions of the country, particularly in the north and northeast, where child mortality rates dropped, and female school attendance rates increased consistently.
That explains why most northern states have been the Workers’ Party stronghold since the mid-2000s — and why Bolsonaro did not hesitate to abolish the Bolsa Família programme in 2021, changing it to an unregulated, emergency cash transfer programme amid the pandemic.
Secondly, we may not downplay Lula’s charisma and his ability to speak directly to the poor and marginalised populations.
When former metalworker and union leader Lula founded the Workers’ Party in 1980, he was able to put together grassroots movements from all over the country.
These were labour unions, which had grown in size and importance as Brazil became an industrialised country, and basic ecclesial communities, small and widespread Catholic groups that professed the pro-poor, socially-oriented liberation theology across Brazil and Latin America.
Forty years on, Brazil’s social reality has surely changed. Labour unions have given way to an ever more precarious working class, who lack job security and who increasingly depend on the state for basic goods such as healthcare and education.
The social work of the Catholic Church has been replaced by the appeal of Pentecostal churches that preach an individualistic and profit-driven gospel. But Lula has still been able to tap into people’s hopes and dreams for a better future, in the context of rising inflation and slow recovery from the pandemic, which has taken a toll on the country’s poorest citizens.
The third aspect of Lula’s victory was his unique ability to bring together political forces from across the political spectrum.
Rather than running a left-wing campaign centered on the Workers’ Party, Lula has somehow managed to build an overarching front against Bolsonaro — and in favour of a pluralistic form of democracy that had been undermined by the Brazilian far-right in power.
His first and most consequential move was to pick former opponent and long-time São Paulo state governor, Geraldo Alckmin, to the vice-presidential ticket. Having a vice-president who sends a message of credibility to the business community and to conservative voters was just the first step.
Since elections were deeply polarised between the former and the incumbent president, with little room for a third way, Lula has made a decisive move towards the centre, offering a moderate, pragmatic, and conciliatory platform that even attracted liberal economists, businesspeople, and landowners. Most of them have backed Lula and the Workers’ Party for the first time ever.
President Lula’s electoral triumph, however, is just the beginning. He is yet to face the two most daunting challenges of Brazil’s young democracy: rebuilding the country’s political institutions and policies, that have been undermined by the Bolsonaro administration, and healing the wounds of a country sorely divided along class, regional, and value lines. Along the way, the next government is poised to face several obstacles.
Transition will of course be the immediate issue. Even though Bolsonaro has authorised his ministers to kickstart the two-month-long transition to the new administration, he himself has not officially conceded and does not seem to be willing to cooperate.
In the week following Lula’s victory, fanatical Bolsonaro supporters, who believe elections were stolen, have blocked roads with the shocking complicity of the pro-Bolsonaro federal highway police and have called on huge protests across the country, causing massive economic losses and even some deaths.
They have been energised by Bolsonaro’s irresponsible silence after the elections.
Lula will also have a tough time forming his cabinet. His administration must reflect the mosaic of political forces that have supported his candidacy in this national unity front.
At the same time, Lula will have to strike a balance between sound policies and urgent reforms, on the one hand, and his ability to build a majority coalition in a highly fragmented Congress, on the other, without being hijacked by clientelistic politicians, patronage practices, and corruption.
These are not impossible tasks for a seasoned and popular politician like Lula. But he will have to make difficult choices in times of scarce resources, growing recession, and divided politics.
The one thing he cannot fail to restore is people’s trust in the government as a provider of social policies and as a force for reducing inequality. If he wants to leave a long-standing legacy to Brazilians in this third (and possibly final) term in office, Lula will have to restore Bolsa Família and make it a platform for making Brazil united and prosperous again.
Guilherme Casarões is a professor of public administration, political science, and international relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas School of Business Administration, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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