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Brazil elections: Lula has struck a blow against the far right

The narrow victory of the left-wing veteran in Brazil caps a year of major victories against the far right across the continent
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva holds the hand of his wife, Rosangela 'Janja' da Silva, after winning the presidential run-off election, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 30 October 2022 (AFP)

The victory in Brazil of left-wing candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva over incumbent far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is a historic turnaround in South America’s largest country, of 216 million.

A collective sigh of relief could be heard among progressive commentators that accompanied the celebrations on the streets of Sao Paulo and other cities in Brazil, even as Bolsonaro failed to recognise his defeat. The one-term president “apparently isolated himself in the presidential palace, refused to speak with his ministers, and went to bed”, according to reports.

Given how close the vote was, with a 51-49 victory to Lula, Bolsonaro's base remains very much intact, and may yet cause serious problems for Lula

He may be waiting to see if the result will stick. Following the vote, pro-Bolsonaro truckers blocked highways in protest at the result in a warning that the election will not be accepted by hardcore partisans of the president.

Lula, a veteran trade unionist before he entered politics, was imprisoned in 2018 in a controversial corruption case that earlier brought down his successor, Dilma Rousseff. She was impeached and removed from office in 2016, a ruling that critics saw as a form of so-called lawfare - the reversal of the popular vote by use of the courts.

After serving two years in prison, Brazil’s Supreme Court overturned Lula’s conviction in November 2021, opening the way for him to stand as president again, aged 76 (he turned 77 three days before his victory on Sunday). 

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Lula’s first election win in 2002 saw a rapid expansion of welfare payments to millions of poor Brazilians, enabling him to serve two terms before Rousseff won for his Workers’ Party in 2010. He also curtailed the destruction of the Amazon rain forest by loggers, miners and ranchers, a policy overturned by Bolsonaro, whose conservative base included many from the vast agricultural states of Brazil’s interior.

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro, mainly truck drivers, block the Via Dutra BR-116 highway between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, in Barra Mansa in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, on October 31, 2022
Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro, mainly truck drivers, block the Via Dutra BR-116 highway between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, on 31 October (AFP)

Given how close the vote was, with a 51-49 victory to Lula, that base remains very much intact, and may yet cause serious problems for the new government. As Ahmed Said Mourad, the former deputy of Sao Paulo's parliament, told Middle East Eye before the election: "We also can't ignore the fact that right-leaning parties allied with Bolsonaro control the parliament with 99 seats and the Senate with 13 seats. This strengthens his conservative movement even if he does not win."

In his victory speech to a mass crowd of supporters, Lula promised to eliminate hunger, slash waiting lists for medical services, and build affordable housing for millions of Brazilians. He said: “If we are the world’s third biggest producer of food and the biggest producer of animal protein … we have the duty to guarantee that every Brazilian can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.”

Left sweeps continent

Lula’s victory in the second round of the presidential vote marks a year and a half in which the left has swept to power across the continent, from Honduras to Chile. A map of Latin America today shows left, or left-of-centre, governments in power in all but a handful of countries. 

The significance of this change is nowhere more apparent than Colombia, where a 50-year civil war between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries and the army, aided and trained by the United States, formally came to an end six years ago. The violence did not end. Activists and former guerrillas were murdered in their hundreds, while some armed groups such as the ELN refused to disarm.

Then in June 2022 a former guerrilla, and later mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, won the presidency. Previous attempts by the left to win democratic elections in the country had been drowned in blood.

In June, Colombia’s Truth Commission produced an exhaustive report on the conflict. Between 1985 and 2018, the worst years of the civil war, 450,664 people were killed, and 121,768 people disappeared, 90 percent of them civilians, a death toll similar to the invasion of Iraq and Syria’s war. The commission’s president, Francisco de Roux, a Jesuit priest, described the accumulated pain as unbearable.

And yet, following a popular uprising in 2021 against the far right government’s austerity policies, a new openness to the left enabled Petro to sweep to victory.

Uncle Sam's shadow

The kind of austerity policies seen in Europe over the past 15 years were pioneered in Latin America in the 1980s and 90s as the continent emerged from dictatorship. One result of these policies was the gradual death of moderate, social democratic politics as ever-rising inequality and poverty opened the way for left populists to achieve political success. 

The United States waged a 50-year war against the left on the continent, a policy originating in the 1950s cold war. However, with its wars in the Middle East and focus on central Asia since the 1990s, Latin America gradually prised itself out from underneath Uncle Sam’s shadow. In a mirror of the way Russia lost its former satellite states as they embraced the EU, Nato and capitalism, Washington failed to stem the tide towards the left in Latin America. 

The impression may be that the US now accepts that socialism via the ballot box is permissible, or at least can’t be stopped by the CIA campaigns, or coups. Yet this is belied by its support for the destabilisation of left-wing regimes, not just in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, but also those elected in the recent pink tide, including Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who was overthrown in 2019, and Pedro Castillo, the union activist turned elected president of Peru, now facing a concerted campaign to remove him from office.

Europe’s doldrums

In the age of social media, political polarisation has infected every continent, but has also turned the political events of seemingly faraway countries like Brazil into important bellwethers for domestic politics in Europe and the US.

The sustainability of tinkering at the edges of neoliberalism faces a major test in the US mid-terms

Despite flatlining living standards and gaping inequality in the US and Europe, centrist social democracy has made something of a comeback, if one includes Joe Biden’s stuttering presidency, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and centre-left governments in Spain and Portugal. Elsewhere the reconstituted far right has made the most out of the cost of living crisis, making huge gains in France, and helping form new governments in Italy and Sweden.

The sustainability of tinkering at the edges of neoliberalism faces a major test in the US mid-terms, and unlike Brazil’s Lula, American voters have been offered nothing substantial, such as the non-delivered hike in the minimum wage, that might galvanise working-class voters to support the Democrats.

Rebel filmmaker Michael Moore, who called the 2016 election for Donald Trump when few believed he could win, is defying the wisdom that the Republican right will storm the polls next week; with a nation in shock over the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v Wade, he says the Democrats will win. We'll soon know if he's right.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joe Gill has worked as a journalist in London, Oman, Venezuela and the US, for newspapers including Financial Times, Morning Star and Middle East Eye. His Masters was in Politics of the World Economy at the London School of Economics. Twitter @gill_joe
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