Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Future of Brazilian Politics Will Be Decided in São Paulo

Lula’s Workers’ Party has never won the governorship of Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous state. This could be its year.

By , an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and PT candidate for São Paulo Gov. Fernando Haddad raise their hands during a campaign rally in Diadema, São Paulo state, Brazil, on July 9.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and PT candidate for São Paulo Gov. Fernando Haddad raise their hands during a campaign rally in Diadema, São Paulo state, Brazil, on July 9.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and PT candidate for São Paulo Gov. Fernando Haddad raise their hands during a campaign rally in Diadema, São Paulo state, Brazil, on July 9. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 2, Brazilians will go to the polls to determine whether President Jair Bolsonaro deserves a second term in office. The broad consensus, according to opinion surveys, is that he does not. The far-right Bolsonaro has trailed leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in every poll conducted this year. Barring any drastic developments between now and October, it seems likely that Bolsonaro will lose his reelection bid and Brazil will find itself under Lula’s progressive Workers’ Party (PT) leadership come January 2023 (though Bolsonaro will almost certainly try to fight it).

A much less settled and arguably more intriguing contest is taking place that same day to determine who will lead the state of São Paulo. The PT has never won the governorship there, but its candidate, Fernando Haddad, is currently leading in the polls. A Lula victory on the national level would return the center-left to power, where it was for over a decade before 2016. But a win for the PT in São Paulo—Brazil’s richest, most populous, and most powerful state—would be something entirely new, and might say far more about the country’s political future. 

Haddad is an experienced politician. He served as minister of education from 2005 to 2012, under both Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and as mayor of the city of São Paulo from 2013 to 2017. He was also the runner-up to Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election. In the race for governor, his two most credible opponents—Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas and incumbent Rodrigo Garcia—are linked, respectively, to Bolsonaro’s far-right camp and the traditional center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) that has dominated São Paulo politics for decades. A Haddad victory would position him within the PT as the indisputable favorite to succeed Lula, who has intimated he intends to serve only one term if elected this October.

On Oct. 2, Brazilians will go to the polls to determine whether President Jair Bolsonaro deserves a second term in office. The broad consensus, according to opinion surveys, is that he does not. The far-right Bolsonaro has trailed leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in every poll conducted this year. Barring any drastic developments between now and October, it seems likely that Bolsonaro will lose his reelection bid and Brazil will find itself under Lula’s progressive Workers’ Party (PT) leadership come January 2023 (though Bolsonaro will almost certainly try to fight it).

A much less settled and arguably more intriguing contest is taking place that same day to determine who will lead the state of São Paulo. The PT has never won the governorship there, but its candidate, Fernando Haddad, is currently leading in the polls. A Lula victory on the national level would return the center-left to power, where it was for over a decade before 2016. But a win for the PT in São Paulo—Brazil’s richest, most populous, and most powerful state—would be something entirely new, and might say far more about the country’s political future. 

Haddad is an experienced politician. He served as minister of education from 2005 to 2012, under both Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and as mayor of the city of São Paulo from 2013 to 2017. He was also the runner-up to Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election. In the race for governor, his two most credible opponents—Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas and incumbent Rodrigo Garcia—are linked, respectively, to Bolsonaro’s far-right camp and the traditional center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) that has dominated São Paulo politics for decades. A Haddad victory would position him within the PT as the indisputable favorite to succeed Lula, who has intimated he intends to serve only one term if elected this October.

In short: The future of Brazilian politics over the next decade or more will be deeply affected by what happens in its largest state later this year. When paulistas, as residents of São Paulo state are known, go to the polls on election day, they will choose a president, governor, and other representatives. In selecting Haddad as governor, they might also be elevating a future president.

Unlike Lula, Haddad is no firebrand and is sometimes visibly uncomfortable with the overheated nature of Brazilian politics today. Lula has long joked that Haddad is the most “toucan-like” of any PT member, a reference to the mascot of the PSDB. As minister of education, Haddad—a former professor at some of São Paulo’s most prestigious universities—oversaw an unprecedented expansion of access to higher education. As mayor of São Paulo, he embraced forward-thinking urban policies, such as creating bike lanes, reducing speed limits, and treating drug use as a matter of public health rather than crime.

In São Paulo, the conditions are ripe for a momentous shift in political orientation.

Despite winning several awards from international organizations for his leadership as mayor, Haddad was not reelected in 2016. His loss was attributable as much to the dismal standing of his party that year—when Rousseff was impeached—to criticisms that he had neglected poor and working-class regions of São Paulo city. After his defeat, Haddad met with Lula, expressing his interest in crafting the policy platform for the presidential run Lula was expected to mount in 2018. In April of that year, however, the former president was arrested on corruption charges that have since been dropped. This threw the PT’s plans into disarray, and Haddad was hastily declared the party’s nominee against the insurgent Bolsonaro.

Throughout the campaign, there were rumors of backstage disputes within the PT. Personalities and agendas reportedly clashed around key issues, such as how to handle relations with Venezuela. Bolsonaro’s campaign stoked virulent anti-leftist sentiment among his supporters, warning that a PT victory would lead Brazil down the path of Venezuela under former President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro. Haddad was reportedly critical of the PT’s traditionally close relationship with the two leaders and later told El País he did not consider the “atmosphere” in Venezuela to be democratic. During the campaign, some speculated that important voices in the PT were not really invested in a Haddad victory, though this has never been confirmed. On Oct. 28, 2018, he lost to Bolsonaro by more than 10 million votes.

Four years later, much has changed. Bolsonaro has presided over a catastrophic response to COVID-19 that critics say amounts to a form of genocide, accelerated deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, and launched endless threats to Brazil’s constitutional order. In 2018, candidates aligned with Bolsonaro won in major states, including São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro. Even former São Paulo Gov. João Doria of the PSDB, who was elected that year, rode the reactionary wave sweeping his state by informally aligning himself with Bolsonaro, though he would later become one of the president’s most vociferous critics. Now, however, Gomes de Freitas—Bolsonaro’s former infrastructure minister and handpicked candidate for the São Paulo governorship—is polling at a mere 17 percent against Haddad’s 32 percent. Garcia, the PSDB incumbent who took office when Doria launched his own ill-fated presidential run this year, stands at just 10 percent. Garcia has failed to excite voters, who know him only as Doria’s successor, and the fact that he is barely breaking double digits is a fire alarm for his party.

Haddad is both benefiting from and driving a political shift in São Paulo, positioning himself as the antidote to voters’ exhaustion with a listless center-right administration at the state level and the radical-yet-inept Bolsonaro administration in Brasília. He is helped by the fact that former São Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin—Doria’s former mentor who ran for president against Lula in 2006 and against Haddad in 2018—is now in Haddad’s corner. Alckmin, a deeply conservative Catholic who governed the state of São Paulo from 2001 to 2006 and again from 2011 to 2018, left the PSDB this year to join the Brazilian Socialist Party and serve as Lula’s running mate. To have a figure like Alckmin support Haddad in a race against Garcia, who only recently joined the PSDB, is a major boon to the PT. It demonstrates to more conservative voters that Haddad handles political differences well and can communicate beyond a devoted core of ideological sympathizers.

This is not to say that Haddad’s election is a done deal. Although he is leading in the polls, he also has the highest rejection rate of any candidate in the race. Among those surveyed, 32 percent of voters said they would not vote for Haddad under any circumstances. In recent years, Brazilian politics became consumed by anti-PT sentiment, or antipetismo, that fueled Rousseff’s downfall and Bolsonaro’s rise. Lula’s lead in national polls would suggest that this fever has mostly broken, though there are lingering pockets of antipetismo in the south and southeast of Brazil—where São Paulo lies. Neutralizing this aversion to the PT is the major hurdle Haddad must clear if he is to solidify the PT in the political landscape of Brazil’s most prosperous and influential state.

On Aug. 7, during the first debate of the governor’s race, Gomes de Freitas sought to remind viewers of the criticism Haddad faced as mayor: “I’m going to ask a question,” Gomes de Freitas said, “but now for the audience. I’m going to ask everyone to Google and type ‘worst mayor of São Paulo.’ Then tell me the answer.” As soon as it was his turn to speak again, Haddad responded in kind, urging viewers to Google the term genocida or “one who commits genocide.” In doing so, Haddad drew cheers from the crowd and tied his adversary to Bolsonaro, nationalizing the race in a way that works in his favor.

In São Paulo, the conditions are ripe for a momentous shift in political orientation. Factors at both the federal and state levels have collided to make Haddad competitive—and his reputation as an affable and thoughtful politician and scholar could make him the first PT governor in the state’s history. If Both Lula and Haddad win—and the former decides not to pursue another presidential term in 2026—it is hard to imagine anyone else being better positioned to serve as the PT’s next standard-bearer than the man who finally cracked the code in São Paulo.

Andre Pagliarini is an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College, a columnist at the Brazilian Report, and a faculty fellow at the Washington Brazil Office. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, New Republic, Jacobin, Dissent, Folha de S.Paulo, and Piauí, among other outlets. He previously taught at Dartmouth College, Wellesley College, and Brown University, where he received a doctorate in modern Latin American history. He is currently finalizing a book manuscript on the politics of nationalism in modern Brazil. Twitter: @apagliar

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.