Brazil’s Most Popular Politician Might Dial Back Bolsonaro’s Legacy—but Won’t Take the Country Into the Future

Lula may offer the strongest alternative to Bolsonaro, yet his policies for Brazil won’t fully address the country’s challenges.

By Beatriz Della Costa, co-founder and director of Update Institute, a civil society organization that studies and fosters political innovation in Latin America.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former president
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former president, speaks during a press conference after convictions against him were annulled in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, on March 10. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Following the surprise March 8 annulment of his corruption convictions, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gave a political comeback speech on March 10 in which he lambasted current President Jair Bolsonaro for his chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic. The same day, Brazilians were greeted with a strange about-face: Bolsonaro, known for refusing to wear a mask and downplaying the impact of the virus, appeared with a mask on. His son Flávio Bolsonaro, who had often dismissed the virus in the past, asked his social media followers to share a post featuring an image of his father that read, “Our weapon is the vaccine.” It was an astonishing turnaround for a president who had proudly affirmed that he would not be vaccinated.

The episode reflects the political earthquake that Lula’s restored eligibility to run for office represents. The image Lula presented in his speech, that of a conciliatory statesman, is the strongest alternative yet to Bolsonaro in elections next year. While the candidates in that race will only officially be defined next year and Lula himself has yet to confirm he will run, instead choosing to say he will not rule it out, no other prospective opposition figure has anything close to Lula’s continued popularity. And Bolsonaro knows it: Previously, he largely ignored pressure from such potential candidates as São Paulo Gov. João Doria, television host Luciano Huck, and former judge Sergio Moro to reassess his approach to the pandemic.

When Lula spoke out, though, it was different. According to a recent poll, the former president leads Bolsonaro by 12 percentage points in potential voter support. Meanwhile, Lula is working to overcome the strong sentiment against his Workers’ Party, associated with numerous corruption scandals, that helped elevate Bolsonaro to the presidency.

Still, while Lula may offer an alternative to Bolsonaro, his politics fail to fully address Brazil’s 21st-century challenges, particularly on the environment. Rather than transforming Brazil to meet those challenges, Lula simply proposes to transition away from Bolsonaro’s authoritarian political and cultural style. While Bolsonaro would likely seek to turn the increasingly likely runoff between himself and Lula into an epic clash of ideologies of “liberty against socialism,” Lula’s strategy so far suggests he will seek to move to the center and project a more subdued style.

According to a recent poll, the former president leads Bolsonaro by 12 percentage points in potential voter support.

Indeed, Lula’s current strategy appears not entirely unlike that of U.S. President Joe Biden, who projected himself as a centrist elder statesman to unite the country after a period of destructive polarization. In his long speech after his charges were overturned, Lula outlined his political vision and described how he would have reacted to the pandemic: by creating a national task force made up of policymakers and specialists and closely working with governments around the world. The contrast to Bolsonaro’s denialist pandemic response and growing diplomatic isolation was notable. Lula’s pitch to Brazilian voters seemed to be, above all, a return to normalcy.

But Lula’s normalcy harks back to 2010-era Brazilian political thinking: economic development based on oil and car factories. He made not one mention of the environment or of climate change, in a country that is home to an accelerating deforestation crisis in the Amazon. The absence of attention to environmental issues is par for the course in 2021 Latin America, where high-level political leaders have, for the most part, failed to take serious approaches to climate change. Historically, figures on the left, including Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, have had a tense relationship with environmentalists.

In a subsequent CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, Lula did, somewhat vaguely, speak about environmental concerns, but he still defended some of his own controversial environmental policies such as the construction of the Belo Monte Dam in the Amazon, a project criticized by Indigenous leaders and environmentalists for flooding 260 square miles of forest and other land, imperiling biodiversity, and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The dam also generated less energy than initially promised.

Another Lula presidency in Brazil would probably not see strong climate leadership, but it does offer a crucial opportunity: a chance to build a viable political alternative to Bolsonarism, the retrograde, conservative anti-intellectualism that goes beyond the figure of the president himself and has seeped into Brazilian society. Doing so would require reconstructing the Brazilian social fabric, through listening and coalition-building. Lula is one of the few high-profile politicians in the country with the political talent to do this—if he chooses to. Using language and narratives to appeal to more conservative voters may be realistic even from a politician associated with the left, due to Bolsonaro’s historic unpopularity: His government is rated negatively by 60 percent of Brazilians, according to a recent poll.

Yet Lula will have to contend with a divisive legacy, too. While he largely governed as a centrist from 2003 to 2010, Brazil’s economy collapsed under his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and numerous corruption scandals tainted the reputation of his Workers’ Party. Overcoming these concerns, particularly among swing voters who have voted for both left-wing and right-wing candidates in the past, will be one of Lula’s greatest challenges.

The 2022 election has all the potential to become one of the most acrimonious campaigns in Brazil’s history

Given the strong divisions in Brazilian society, the 2022 election has all the potential to become one of the most acrimonious campaigns in Brazil’s history, involving an avalanche of misinformation and mutual recriminations, which may make reconciliation more difficult. The Workers’ Party embraced a controversial strategy in 2014, when Lula’s former environment minister, Marina Silva—at one stage leading in the polls as part of a rival party—was targeted with an avalanche of attacks from the left. As it did back then, a polarized election campaign could lead to continued division among society in the presidential term that follows.

Brazil could look to Chile for inspiration on how to rebuild. After a profound social rupture in 2019, leading to unprecedented protests, Chile promoted nationwide discussion groups. While dismissed by critics as too unwieldy at the time, the process eventually contributed to voters pushing for a referendum-mandated constitutional convention, which has a gender-parity requirement. While Brazil does not necessarily require a new constitution, a Chile-like approach, with strong engagement by civil society, would help the country reestablish a constructive dialogue about the kind of society it would like to be—and how thorny issues such as environmental protection can be integrated into Brazil’s strategy for the 21st century.

Bolsonaro’s reelection is still a real possibility. Much could change between now and late next year. His disapproval rating—now towering as the pandemic’s worst wave yet hits Brazil—could recede once vaccination rates pick up. Despite the health system’s collapse and international investors’ skepticism about Bolsonaro’s stewardship of the economy, a post-pandemic recovery prior to the elections cannot be disregarded, especially with commodity prices on the rise. In part thanks to being able to strategically dedicate state funds and thus ensure support of powerful political allies, no sitting president since democratization in the 1980s has ever lost a reelection bid.

For now, a Lula candidacy could allow Brazil’s political discourse to return to the realm of ideas and proposals, rather than a constant outrage cycle. After all, while politics is mostly about managing pressing national challenges and compromising around how to distribute scarce resources, it must also provide an opportunity to debate where the country is headed and what citizens want their country to look like in the future.

Beatriz Della Costa is co-founder and director of Update Institute, a civil society organization that studies and fosters political innovation in Latin America. Twitter: @beatriz_biro