Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been elected Brazil’s next president, in a stunning comeback after a tight second round on Sunday. His victory announces a political about-face for the largest country in Latin America, after four years of far-right administration of Jair Bolsonaro.
The 76-year-old politician’s victory represents the left’s return to power in Brazil and concludes a triumphant personal comeback for Lula da Silva, after a series of corruption allegations led to his 580-day imprisonment. The sentences were later overturned by the Supreme Court, clearing the way for his candidacy for re-election.
Lula da Silva, who is expected to take office on January 1, will take the reins of a country plagued by strong inequalities which is still struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. About 9.6 million people fell below the poverty line between 2019 and 2021, and literacy and school attendance rates fell. He will also face a deeply fractured nation and pressing environmental issues, including rampant deforestation in the Amazon.
This will be his third term, having led Brazil for two consecutive terms between 2003 and 2010.
The former leader’s victory on Sunday was the latest in a political wave across Latin America, with victories by leftist politicians in Argentina, Colombia and Chile. But Lula da Silva – a former labor leader of working-class background – has sought to reassure moderates throughout his campaign.
He has built a broad alliance comprising several center and center-right politicians, including historical opponents of PSDB, Brazil’s social democratic party. Among these politicians is its vice-president, the former governor of São Paulo Geraldo Alckmin, who has been cited by the Lula camp as a pledge of moderation in his administration.
During the election campaign, Lula da Silva was reluctant to show his cards when it came to defining an economic strategy, a tendency which earned him strong criticism from his competitors. “Who is the Minister of Economy of the other candidate? There isn’t, he doesn’t say. What will be his political and economic path? More state? Less state? We don’t know…,” Bolsonaro said during a YouTube live stream Oct. 22.
Lula da Silva said he would push Congress to approve a tax reform that would exempt low-income people from paying income tax. And his campaign received a boost from centrist former presidential candidate Simone Tebet, who finished third in the first round earlier this month and backed Lula da Silva in the second round. Known for her ties to Brazil’s agricultural industry, Tebet told a press conference Oct. 7 that Lula da Silva and her economic team had “received and incorporated all the suggestions from our program into his government’s program.”
He has also received the support of several renowned economists who are very popular with investors, including Arminio Fraga, former president of the Central Bank of Brazil.
Lula da Silva’s biggest challenge may be to unify a politically fractured country, having won by an extremely narrow margin. With 99.96% of the votes counted, Lula da Silva obtained 50.90% of the votes, according to the Brazilian electoral authority. Incumbent Jair Bolsonaro received 49.10%.
Lula da Silva will have to continue dialogue and rebuild relations, said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper, a university in São Paulo. “The president can be an important instrument for that as long as he’s not just concerned with addressing his voter base,” he said.
With millions of votes cast for his rival Bolsonaro – who had been backed by former US President Donald Trump – Lula da Silva will have to form “pragmatic alliances” with center and right-wing parties that have embraced the politics of his predecessor, adds Thiago Amparo, professor of law and human rights at the FGV business school in São Paulo.
At the same time, he will have to meet the expectations of the fans, added Amparo. “Many voters went to the polls hoping for this, not just to get rid of Bolsonaro, but with memories of better economic conditions under previous Lula governments.”
Many will be watching for potential changes to the Labor Reform Act 2017, which made more workers’ rights and benefits subject to negotiation with employers and made union dues optional. Lula da Silva had previously said he would revoke the law but recently changed the verb to “revise” following criticism from the private sector.
He may find implementing his agenda an uphill battle, Amparo warns, especially with a hostile Congress. Seats that belonged to the traditional right are now taken by the far right, which is not open to negotiation and not easy to deal with, Amparo points out.
In the last elections, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party increased the number of its representatives in the lower house from 76 to 99, while in the Senate it doubled from seven members to 14. Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party also increased its number of MPs from 56 to 68 and senators from seven to eight – but overall Conservative politicians will dominate the next legislature.
This friction will require compromises, underlines Camila Rocha, political scientist at the think tank Cebrap. “[Bolsonaro’s] The Liberal Party will have the greatest number of representatives and important allies and will make a real opposition to the government, [Lula da Silva’s] Workers’ Party will have to sow a coalition with [traditional rightwing party] União Brasil to govern, which means negotiating ministries and key positions,” Rocha told CNN.
Meanwhile, environmentalists will be watching Lula da Silva’s administration closely as it assumes governance not just over the Brazilian nation, but over the largest forest reserves on the planet.
As the destruction of the vast Amazon rainforest reached record levels under President Bolsonaro, Lula da Silva has repeatedly said during his campaign that he will seek to curb deforestation. He argued that protecting the forest could generate benefits, citing the beauty and pharmaceutical industries as potential beneficiaries of biodiversity.
In an interview with the foreign press in August, Lula da Silva called for “a new global governance” to fight climate change and stressed that Brazil should play a central role in this governance, given its natural resources. .
According to the head of Lula da Silva’s government plan, Aloizio Mercadante, another tactic will be to create a group including Brazil, Indonesia and Congo before the November 2022 UN-led Conference of the Parties. The group would aim to pressure wealthier countries to fund forest protection and develop strategies for the global carbon market.
Several experts told CNN they believe his stance on the environment and the climate issue could represent a new start in Brazil’s international relations.
For Amparo, environmental protection could indeed be a stepping stone for Brazil’s global leadership, a major shift after Bolsonaro warned the world not to intervene in the destruction of the Amazon. “Lula would try to reposition, almost like a rebranding, Brazil on the international stage as a power to be reckoned with,” he said.
“We can expect a government that starts talking to the world again, especially with a new stance on the environment,” said Melo, the Insper researcher.