Significance of Brazil’s Presidential Election

December 14, 2022

By: Sisters Jean Bellini and Joana Dalva Alves Mendes

Presidential candidates in Brazil traditionally come from the industrial or agrarian oligarchies. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is universally known as Lula, broke that tradition when he was elected in 2002. Lula served two terms, ending in 2010.On October 30, 2022, he was elected for a third term.

Despite beating out incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro by less than 1%, Lula’s re-election is a sign of hope for many of us who feel the changes made by the previous administration have set the country back on social issues, food insecurity, land protection and more. To better understand the significance of Lula’s re-election as Brazil’s 39th president, we share with you an overview of his political career amidst a complicated history of presidential elections.

As a child, Lula and his family lived in a small rural town in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, stricken by cyclical drought. They migrated to São Paulo in 1955 when Lula was 10 years old. At age 16, he became an apprentice to a mechanical turner, and later became a professional turner. He joined the metallurgical union and by the 1970’s, became a union leader and was elected president of the union in 1975. Lula led strikes for better wages and working conditions and helped create the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) in 1980. In 1987, he was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and participated in the elaboration of a new Constitution, which was ratified in 1988.

Lula ran as the presidential candidate of the Workers’ Party three times beginning in 1989 and became president in 2002. He was re-elected in 2006. A very capable political articulator, Lula won the approval of Congress for a wide gamut of public programs in health, housing, education, and labor. As a result, the median income rose for the vast majority of families and Brazil finally left the world map of hunger. He ended his second term of office with an 84% approval rating.

Toward the end of the dictatorship in 1980, the military government allowed the creation of new parties. Since then, the number of parties have grown from five to now 33 in 2022! In order to win a presidential election, a party must make alliances with other parties. Both Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, made alliances with several parties and chose their running mates from other parties.

The international financial crisis reached Brazil at the end of Rousseff’s first term in 2014. She was re-elected that year by a slim margin, but by 2016, sensing her political vulnerability, Rousseff appointed Lula as a minister to reinforce her cabinet. The Supreme Court refused to recognize his nomination because months earlier the public ministry had accused Lula of involvement in the corruption schemes related to a series of trials called “Petrolão.” The accusations included money laundering and corruption involving top executives of giant companies, including Petrobras, producer of petroleum, along with government officials in several states. Soon after, former “allies” of Rousseff in Congress initiated impeachment proceedings against her, claiming she had issued decrees of credits to balance the budget without Congressional approval. They also accused her of the crime of administrative impropriety. Congress revoked Rousseff’s mandate in September 2016 and her Vice-president completed her term of office.

In April 2018, Lula was convicted of passive corruption and money laundering and spent 580 days in a federal prison before being released. In 2020, the Federal Public Ministry extinguished the case against Rousseff and “verified the good faith of those involved.” In April 2021, the Supreme Court annulled Lula’s convictions, declaring that the judge who tried his case had been partial, having repeatedly oriented the main prosecutor.

The trials of “Petrolão” dragged out over several years and politicians from other parties and news media bashed the Workers’ Party for the acts of individuals, and a significant anti-PT sentiment spread through the country. Jair Bolsonaro, a mediocre member of the House of Representatives for 27 years, decided to run for president in 2018, months after Lula’s imprisonment, and monopolized on the anti-PT sentiment during his campaign.

Little known nationally before the 2016 impeachment proceedings, Bolsonaro gained notoriety when he dedicated his vote in favor of impeachment to a retired army colonel convicted for torturing suspects during the dictatorship, including the then young militant activist Dilma Rousseff.

Following the example and advice of his son Carlos, Bolsonaro began to frequent Facebook and other social media and between 2014 and 2018, the number of followers jumped from 204,000 to almost 8 million, while his main opponent had 1.7 million. Bolsonaro won the election without participating in the nationally televised debates.

Since 2018, Bolsonaro’s main campaign issues have been: the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility, repeal of the Disarmament Statute, defense of the family against the “gay kit’” and “the end of the indigenous land demarcation industry.” In the same elections, one of his sons was elected to the Senate with the highest number of votes and another to the House, also with the highest number of votes.

The three were convinced they had a clear mandate from the electorate.Immediately they set out to undo the advances made in human rights and social justice during the 13 years with the Workers’ Party occupying the presidency. Bolsonaro appointed “anti-ministers” in some of the most strategic ministries. Some examples are: the minister of agriculture and the president of the Land Agency Incra were high officials in the UDR, a movement of powerful ranchers publicly opposed to agrarian reform. The minister of the environment was a public ally of illegal loggers. Two of the three ministers of health who remained in that position for most of the duration of the Covid pandemic acted in strict alignment with Bolsonaro’s anti-scientific preferences and were responsible for the delays in acquisition of vaccines and thousands of unnecessary deaths.

During 2022, the last year of his presidency, Bolsonaro made drastic cuts (up to 95%) in the budgets of the most strategic social programs (public health, federal universities, housing). Recent surveys revealed that 33,000,000 people live in “food insecurity” (uncertainty of having three meals a day). In the last months of his presidency, Bolsonaro announced several “emergency” aid programs clearly aimed at winning votes for his re-election. He did win 49.1% of the votes.

In the three months between the final round of elections and inauguration of the president-elect on January 1, 2023, Lula and his Vice-President elect, Geraldo Alkmin, have convoked hundreds of people among scientists, former ministers, professionals in public health and education, leaders of social movements, economists, and social scientists, to participate in 37 work groups in their Transition Government. Each of these groups has prepared a diagnosis of the present situation of each area of government responsibility and in the next few days will present their recommendations for how to remedy the aberrations that exist in each area of public policy. In addition, the coalition of 14 parties that supported Lula and Alkmin’s election are negotiating with members of Congress over proposed measures to redesign the deficit budget.

Among the many challenges facing the newly elected president and vice president is that of building a strong alliance that will support and sustain the many measures necessary to bring Brazil back to a more responsible and inclusive government.

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