Brazil gives Lula another chance

The leader of Brazil’s left-wing Workers’ Party – who served as president from 2003 until 2010 – takes office this Sunday, bringing an end to four years of right-wing rule under Jair Bolsonaro

Lula da Silva among his supporters, the day after his release from prison, in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, on November 9, 2019.Pedro Vilela (Getty Images)
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

Four years after electing a far-right populist who filled his administration with military officers, Brazil will return an old leftist to power. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – popularly known as “Lula” – will succeed Jair Bolsonaro as president.

This will be Lula’s third term in office, having previously served as president from 2003 to 2010. Now 77, he returns to the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, promising to make his fellow citizens happy again.

Lula has many priorities. He wants to kickstart the lagging economy and tackle the rising poverty rate, all while making Brazil a respected global power again. While he managed to narrowly defeat Bolsonaro in the second round of the presidential elections in October, with right-wing majorities in Congress it will be tough for him to keep all his promises regarding education and environmental conservation.

Tens of thousands of supporters of Lula’s Workers’ Party have been bussed into the capital from across Brazil. They wear red banners, t-shirts and caps, eager to welcome 2023 and celebrate their victorious candidate, who brings the left back to power for the first time since the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

The Bolsonaro era has now come to a close, in an undignified fashion. Just before inauguration day, the outgoing president flew to Florida with his wife, Michelle, to stay in the mansion of a retired Brazilian martial arts fighter – and possibly to reunite with his political ally, Donald Trump.

During his administration, the 67-year-old Bolsonaro – a former army captain and congressman – systematically dismantled social programs and gun control policies. He also accelerated the deforestation of the Amazon and elevated Evangelical Christian doctrine.

Supporters of Lula camp out next to the Mané Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia ahead of Sunday's inauguration.
Supporters of Lula camp out next to the Mané Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia ahead of Sunday's inauguration. Lela Beltrão

Massive security deployment in Brasilia

The security operation in Brasilia will be immense on January 1, 2023. It will include snipers, drones, a deployment of 8,000 members of the security forces and a ban on civilians carrying weapons. Police officials have recommended that the future president wear a bulletproof vest and attend his parade in an armored car. Lula, however – a former steel worker who enjoys brandishing his populist credentials – enjoys the adoration of the masses. He is reluctant to take extra precautions.

Outgoing Vice President Hamilton Mourão has given a televised speech in his capacity as acting president in the absence of Bolsonaro. Mourão – a retired general – has accused his former boss of “creating a climate of chaos.” He will be present at the peaceful transfer of power.

The leader of the Brazilian left will host a large delegation of foreign leaders, including almost twenty heads of state, such as the King of Spain and the presidents of Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Germany and Portugal. Lula’s team is also making every effort to ensure that Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro – whom Bolsonaro banned from Brazilian soil – can attend.

Parallel to the solemn ceremony, there will be a monumental party with music for all tastes, organized by the future first lady, Rosangela Silva, Lula’s third wife.

As the inauguration approached, chants in favor of Lula increased in the hotel district of Brasilia. “No one steals 60 million hearts,” a supporter yelled from a balcony. This was in reference to the 60 million votes that Lula got in the October 30 runoff. Bolsonaro secured 58 million. This narrow victory was very different from the two comfortable margins that Lula managed to win by in 2002 and 2006.

The outgoing president has not acknowledged his defeat. Several protests are still ongoing across the country – Bolsonaro’s supporters are calling for a coup. One member of the right was arrested and accused of terrorism for trying to cause a large explosion, intended to create chaos and trigger a military intervention. Before taking off for Florida, Bolsonaro condemned the attack and strove to distance himself from his most radical support base.

Lula’s Workers’ Party has many supporters, who recognize how much was done to reduce poverty and increase educational opportunities in the 2000s. But the political organization also has many critics, who see it as a symbol of corruption. At one point, the former president himself spent 500 days in jail over corruption charges (which were eventually dismissed), while his successor, Rousseff, was impeached as a result of the scandals.

Lest anyone forget that he was a worker, Lula has converted his missing finger – which he lost while working in a factory – into a personal brand. After serving as a popular union organizer, he made the leap into politics. Under his tenure, the most underprivileged Brazilians were able to send their children to university, buy a fridge, or even travel by airplane for the first time. Many marginalized citizens – especially Indigenous and LGBTQ+ Brazilians – have high hopes that Lula will not only jumpstart the economy, but also dispense with the homophobia, misogyny and racism which were part of Bolsonaro’s harsh rhetoric.

Lula will have to balance the concerns of his base with the prevalence of military officers in the state bureaucracy and the dominance of pro-Bolsonaro parties in the legislature. A phrase which is often repeated is that “this is not a victory for Lula, nor for his party… it is a victory for democracy.” And democracy requires compromise, as the incoming president expressed in his campaign.

The first adversary that Lula has turned into an ally is the new vice president, former governor Geraldo Alckmin, 70, a conservative and a Catholic. To direct key ministries, Lula has appointed a handful of old technocrats from the Workers’ Party, who mostly hail from his stronghold in the poorer and more diverse northeast of the country. But of course, there are centrists and center-right politicians here and there. The president’s diverse cabinet will have 37 ministers – a huge group, by modern political standards – hailing from nine parties. One-third of the cabinet will be female, more than in any previous administration in Brazilian history.

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