Brazil polls: Lula can win but 2023 to be difficult for country, say experts

The erstwhile Lula administration’s successful welfare and cash-transfer policies from 2003-2010, are the former president’s greatest asset in the presidential race, experts say

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 24 September 2022
Photo: @LulaOficial / Twitter

Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president of Brazil and challenger in the polls scheduled for October 2, 2022, is well-positioned to win the race, experts have told Down To Earth. But the Western Hemisphere’s third-largest country will face a tough 2023, regardless of who wins, they added.

Lula was president of Brazil from 2003-2010 and is still remembered for his welfare schemes that lifted thousands of Brazilians out of poverty.

Latin America’s largest country is in a mess after two years of COVID-19, in which thousands of its citizens died and several went back into poverty. They would likely favour a Lula presidency, the experts said.

But, they added, Lula needs to win in the first round itself or his re-election bid would suffer.

Brazilians will vote in the first round October 2 to elect a president, 27 of 81 senators, all 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies and all 27 governors and state legislatures.

A second round will take place October 30 if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential poll.

Guilherme Casarões, professor of political science at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a Brazilian institution of higher education and thinktank in Sao Paulo, told Down To Earth that the Lula administration’s successful welfare and cash-transfer policies were the challenger’s greatest asset in the presidential race.

“It has allowed Lula to tap into voters’ affective memories of a prosperous past and secure his popularity despite major corruption scandals and the backlash suffered by the Workers’ Party since at least 2014,” Casarões said.

Lula is still remembered for his cash-transfer policy of Bolsa Familia or ‘Family Allowance’. It was a central part of his Fome Zero or ‘zero hunger’ campaign.

Bolsa Familia provided financial aid to poor Brazilian families. In order to be eligible, families had to ensure that children attended school and got vaccinated. It substantially contributed to Lula’s re-election in October 2006.

In 2010, Bolsa Familia covered 12.4 million families, up from 11 million in 2006. Conditional cast-transfer policies helped in 21 per cent of the reduction in income inequality between 2000 and 2007 in Mexico and Brazil, according to the World Bank.

“The fact that so many Brazilians are living in a state of food insecurity reminds people of the value of social welfare programmes, especially those implemented by the Workers’ Party.

“Lula’s campaign has focused on this and his programme details the type of policies that need to be introduced or re-established to deal with hunger, poverty and homelessness,” Sabrina Fernandes, an ecosocialist activist from Brazil, told DTE.

‘Tropical Trump’

Lula is up against a formidable opponent. The incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro, has led a populist, far-right government in Brazil from 2018-2022. He has been dubbed as the ‘Trump of the Tropics’.

“Bolsonaro was an unremarkable and controversial Congressman who rose to prominence after 2014, when he began positioning himself as (former) president Dilma Rousseff’s (and the Workers’ Party’s) fiercest critic,” Casarões said.

He noted that the popular support enjoyed by Bolsonaro, could be explained by three factors.

The first was Bolsonaro’s embodiment of conservative values — summarised in his campaign slogan “God, nation, and family” — as opposed to the Brazilian left’s ever-more progressive approach to politics, which includes sexual diversity, women’s rights, and racial equality.

A second factor according to Casarões was Bolsonaro’s self-construction as an outsider (despite his 28 years in Congress) who would root out corruption and take down Brazil’s rigged political system, thus allowing him to run on an anti-establishment platform.

Third, Bolsonaro’s early and effective use of digital communication strategies, mostly on social media and Whatsapp, had captured voter support through fake news and conspiratorial narratives.

“He has subverted the traditional class divide in Brazil, reaching out to the poor, especially Evangelical Christians and urban voters, through religion and promises that he would be tough on crime,” Casarões said.

According to Fernandes, Bolsonaro came into power due to a mix of elements in the Brazilian political conjuncture:

  1. Economic crisis
  2. A re-organisation of the Right
  3. Crisis of representation
  4. Lower levels of mass mobilisation by the left
  5. Depoliticisation and resentment towards social policies of inclusion
  6. Outspoken conservatism in Brazilian society

“Bolsonaro represents a very elitist perception of the economic system, even though he portrays himself as a simple man of the people. He communicates values around meritocracy and prosperity gospel that resonate with a neoliberal agenda,” Fernandes said.

However, both experts said Lula was poised to win if he could secure victory in the first round. Casarões said many Brazilians saw Lula as the only candidate capable of defeating the incumbent president.

“Lula is well positioned to win the election if he maintains current levels of support. There is actual hope that he might win in the first round. If he doesn’t, October will be a tough month of campaigning against Bolsonaro, who’s issued threats of a coup before and often spreads fake news that if he doesn’t win it means the elections are fraudulent,” he said.

Feranandes said Bolsonaro’s populist economic measures had failed to produce the desired effect on three key groups of voters: the extremely poor, women and the young.

“This meaningful share of Brazilian society is mostly leaning towards Lula and will likely decide the electoral results,” she said.

Both observers added that 2023 would be a ‘tough year for Brazil’, regardless of who won the polls.

“Lula’s election doesn’t mean everything will work out perfectly come January 2023. He’ll have a tough journey ahead to rebuild the economy, implement social programmes and re-position Brazil in the region and the world,” Fernandes said.

“Regardless of who wins the presidential race, 2023 will be a difficult year for Brazil. We will probably have a fragmented and conservative Congress, which has hijacked some presidential powers in recent years thanks to a legal manoeuvre that gave lawmakers unprecedented control over the federal budget,” Casarões said.

He added that a Bolsonaro win would mean the Tropical Trump could attempt to grab power by further hollowing out democratic institutions and civil society organisations, along the lines of Viktor Orbán’s (or Narendra Modi’s) models of illiberal democracy.

Brazil’s electoral results would also define the future of South American politics, according to Casarões. If Lula won, it would further advance the region’s ‘pink tide’ of newly-elected left-wing presidents (as in Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina). A Bolsonaro win, on the other hand, could frustrate the expansion of left-wing politics in the region.

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