Brazil’s Donald Trump has a challenger. Jair Bolsonaro is preparing to take on his predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in what will be the socialist’s sixth run at office. But if the flamboyant Bolsonaro is Trump, does that make Lula the Brazilian Biden?
Part of the reason Trump lost was his erratic response to the Covid crisis. In Brazil, Covid policies are mostly set at the local level. But Bolsonaro has been pilloried in the press for opposing shutdowns, appearing at rallies without masks or social distancing, and promoting chloroquine and Ivermectin as treatments. He refuses to get vaccinated. He has also done himself no favours with impatient and petulant answers to journalists’ questions about the pandemic. He comes off sounding uncompassionate.
Lula is eager to capitalise, calling Bolsonaro an ‘agent of genocide’ in a recent interview. However, the average Brazilian voter may not care much about this issue. Bolsonaro reached the highest approval rating of his presidency (41 per cent) in the autumn of 2020, when the pandemic was raging. He had started handing out emergency subsidies to the poor. When the government ran out of money and the subsidies stopped, Bolsonaro’s approval rating dropped again.
Moreover, Brazil has now achieved a respectable vaccination rate — despite Bolsonaro’s public refusal to get jabbed. Clearly, his views on the topic don’t have much sway.
Lula, who was recently released from jail, was born into poverty but rose to prominence in the 1970s as a radical trade union leader. He unsuccessfully ran for president in 1989, 1994, and 1998. Tired of losing, he underwent a makeover. Lula adopted a more business-friendly tone and finally got elected. He appointed orthodox economists to influential positions in his government and engaged in a fair amount of privatisation.
His presidency coincided with a boom in commodity prices that bolstered the Brazilian economy. This allowed him to spend big on programmes like cash handouts to poor families. He left office in 2011 with an 85 per cent approval rating. Brazil’s constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, thus Lula had an eye on running again. In the meantime, his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, won easily.
Rousseff was politically inept and could barely utter a coherent sentence without the aid of a teleprompter. But this may be part of the reason Lula chose her. Perhaps she was his Kamala Harris, as unlikeable as she was ineffective? But then Lula couldn’t risk an heir who might eclipse him. Commodity prices crashed soon after Rousseff took office, but she tried to keep spending as though they hadn’t. The result was a massive financial crisis in 2015. Rousseff was impeached in 2016 and remains deeply unpopular.
Now Lula has to introduce himself to a new generation of voters. Some of them may associate him more with corruption scandals of his own than the generous social welfare spending of his presidency. Lula’s time in office was marred by several scandals, notably Mensalão (‘Big Monthly Payments’). In 2005, an investigation revealed Lula’s Workers’ Party was taking money from state-owned companies to pay members of Congress for their political support. Many elected officials and members of Lula’s staff resigned or were imprisoned. It was a billion dollar scheme, set up and run by the party Lula co-founded and dominated. It strains credulity to think he didn’t know what was going on. But he successfully dodged the blame — both in the legal courts and in the court of public opinion.
After Lula left office, however, Operação Lava Jato (‘Operation Car Wash’) rocked the Brazilian political landscape. Car Wash is the largest corruption scandal ever uncovered in any country and many of the alleged crimes took place under Lula’s presidency. Lula himself was charged with taking bribes from big construction companies in the form of a beachfront apartment and free renovation work on a country house. He had intended to run for president in 2018, instead he was convicted and imprisoned. This cleared the way for Bolsonaro to win on an anti-corruption ticket.
Corruption is nothing new in Brazil’s history. However, the billions stolen in the Big Monthly Payments and Car Wash took corruption to a whole new level. Brazil only transitioned to democracy in 1985 after 21 years of military dictatorship. These scandals, which all come back to Lula in one way or another, did enormous harm to Brazilian’s faith in their new democratic institutions.
Bolsonaro and his family are currently facing some low-level corruption investigations. His opponents are blowing this out of proportion. For Brazilian voters who are concerned about corruption, Bolsonaro remains the clear choice. One middle-class Brazilian friend texted me: ‘I know people have some reservations about Bolsonaro, but I really prefer him as president over the thief Lula!’
In March, the Supreme Court vacated Lula’s convictions on technical grounds. He was released and is now free again to seek office.
The first round of the presidential election isn’t until October 2022 and a lot can change before then. Current polls show Lula defeating Bolsonaro, but early polls are unreliable. Moreover, Lula is 76. He appears healthy, but it’s not impossible old age will prevent him from running. No doubt he is motivated by a very human desire for revenge, but there is also a sense in which running for president is the only thing he knows how to do.
There are now calls for a ‘third-way candidate’ who can chart a moderate path between Lula and Bolsonaro. But Dawisson Belém Lopes, a professor of international politics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, believes most Brazilians aren’t holding their breath for a third option. ‘This is mostly coming from people in the media who work for mainstream outlets,’ he says. ‘The bulk of the Brazilian population would be comfortable with either Lula or Bolsonaro.’
The media, who tend to be socially liberal, also fail to understand how important issues like abortion are to Brazil’s large evangelical population. This group is mostly staying loyal to Bolsonaro. He has positioned himself as the defender of their values — even though, with his three marriages and regular use of profanity, he does not embody those values in his own life.
In general, Bolsonaro is a much better politician than people give him credit for. In the 2018 election campaign, he circumvented the media and took his message directly to voters. Brazilians are voracious users of social media and he had a successful strategy for reaching them.
Maybe Bolsonaro is the Brazilian Trump, but don’t be surprised if he breaks the comparison and wins a second term.