What a difference a president makes: Lula’s election in Brazil

Lula was elected president with a tight result in a divided and polarised Brazil, along […]


Lula was elected president with a tight result in a divided and polarised Brazil, along with the most centre-right Congress since 1988. The economy is stagnant and expectations are high. His challenge will now be to stabilise democracy, build economic credibility, put Brazil back at the international stage and reconstruct the environmental and social agenda that was under attack with President Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s democracy is a young creature – we have had it between 1945 and 1964, and since 1988. In the 34 years of the recent democratic period, two presidents have been impeached and one, Bolsonaro, has governed by attacking all basic principles of modern democracy: the checks and balances system, human rights, the press, and even science and reason. His government was a mix of authoritarianism and militarism, traditionalism and religiousness, unable to accept that we all live in interdependence on the same shared and challenged planet. Indeed, Bolsonaro had a nationalist and self-sufficient view of the country, and ran the government by attacking the state’s institutions, but also opponents, in a brutal and macho way. 

With Lula’s election, this will change: he will introduce a different presidential role model, point to new directions and a new coalition will be in place. Hope is back to the game. But not without hurdles: “Brazil is not for amateurs”, as the great Brazilian musician Tom Jobim once said. Lula’s first challenge will be building bridges with other political agents, such as governors and, even more importantly, building a sound coalition in Congress.

And he will face powerful opponents: Bolsonaro has still obtained 49.1 per cent – or 58 million – of the votes, showing how powerful incumbency can be in Brazil. During the electoral period, he used budgetary powers wherever he could, and issued an economic package that favoured at least 17 different economic sectors with tax benefits and subsidies, from energy to the show-business. He also pumped up cash transfer programmes and used social media extensively, with abundant fake news. Bolsonaro was not re-elected, but helped to elect some of his sons – let us remember: it is a family dynasty. His political spectrum also managed to get 14 state governors (out of 27) elected, including the one of Sao Paulo, a state that produces a third of the Brazilian GDP. In the multi-level Brazilian system, state governments deliver security, education, and health policies. And they have some ascendance over their local member of Congress.

But most importantly, a coalition in congress must be built. In Brazil, no president’s party has ever elected more than 20 per cent of the seats in parliament, so coalitional-presidentialism is the default way of governing. But the newly-elected Congress will be far more to the right than the one Lula negotiated with during his previous tenures from 2002 to 2010. Lula’s party – the Worker’s Party (PT) only managed to get 69 MPs elected (representing 13 per cent of the votes). Bolsonaro’s party – the ‘Liberal Party’ (PL) received 19 per cent of the votes, and manged to send 99 MPs to parliament. Together with the centre-right MPs, they hold around 60 per cent of the seats in Congress.

In Brazil, Congress holds a very important agenda and veto power. The Chamber of Deputies’ Speaker has gatekeeping power on impeachments, for instance, and Senate approves loans, debt levels, and nominations of, among others, Supreme Court judges and ambassadors. Internal rules favour minority rights and individual action of MPs. Lula will have to use all his talents to put together a centre coalition, capable of approving constitutional amendments (60 per cent needed), as relevant policies are constitutionalised in Brazil. And he can surely expect fierce and well-articulated opposition. But he has a centre-leaning Vice President. And, between the two rounds of the presidential elections, he has received support from centre and right-wing politicians and intellectuals who wanted, as they said themselves, to ‘put democracy first’. That also indicates a government obliged to lean to the centre. 

The new president has a reconstruction agenda, which he will try to pursue. On the economy, not much was said during the campaign about policy choices. More than about policies or personalities, this election was about social values and democratic principles. 

Economically, in the last decade, Brazil has accumulated zero growth. This has mainly been the effect of the recessions in 2015, 2016 and the consequences of the pandemic in 2020. It has a large debt stock, high interest rates and low growth expected for the next year. Besides, next year’s budget, although already in Congress, is not realistic and will need to be amended, as it excludes important programmes like cash transfers and the effects of the minimum wage raise on pensions. The new President has some urgencies: to fix the budget, push reforms that will find fiscal space, and promote other policies to tackle the low growth and high debt ratio problem, not forgetting to present a new framework to limit spending discretion. 

On the social agenda, the challenge is even bigger. The federal government has an essential role in designing guidelines and coordination. Bolsonaro not only disregarded this role but openly opposed it – and Lula will need to re-establish it. Education in Brazil has not performed well for years, but during the last four years, improvement programmes were on hold or cut back. There is a lag to catch up after the Covid-19 impact, especially for more vulnerable children who could not attend school. The national health system (SUS) must be strengthened after four years of military management. This management, during the pandemic, openly despised scientifical evidence and discouraged vaccination. 

In Brazil, 60 per cent of hospitalisations are due to water-related diseases. Water infrastructure is poor, and millions of people do not have access to safe drinking water. A big push in infrastructure is needed, as public investments, today around 2 per cent of the GDP, are largely insufficient to cover the country’s needs.

Lula’s election also means a significant change in environmental policies. It is enough to compare the data –deforestation in the Amazon went down by 67.7 per cent under Lula’s previous government, and up again by 73 per cent during Bolsonaro’s. Lula has promised to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and to support the energy transition, with all his ministries incorporating the fight against climate change in their portfolio in a transversal way.

Bolsonaro’s cuts on science, technology and innovation had reached 90 per cent. Gender, race and minorities agendas had been cut. There is huge hope that all these policies will be back on track, and that controversy can be solved through dialogue. And there is hope that Brazil will find its voice again on the international stage: all local politics are also global politics.

What was at stake in these elections was much more than policy preferences. Lula’s election is a commitment from different sectors of Brazilian society to support a young and bumpy democracy, not a one-party regime. The four years ahead should reflect this: a delicate work of collectively rebuilding trust and dialogue, strengthening democratic institutions and pursuing the dearest values that support the realisation of real public goods

Photo credits: Shutterstock/Yuri Murakami

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