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Lula’s victory in Brazil shows how authoritarianism can be defeated

Jair Bolsonaro’s election loss demonstrates what a united opposition can achieve.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In what must be one of the most remarkable comebacks in modern political history, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva narrowly won the runoff of Brazil’s presidential election. On 30 October, the leftist former steelworker – who led the country from 2003 to 2010 and spent from April 2018 to November 2019 in prison, before his corruption convictions were overturned – took 50.9 per cent of the vote to the far-right Jair Bolsonaro’s 49.1 per cent. The result ends an extraordinarily ugly campaign in which the incumbent Bolsonaro repeatedly insinuated that he would not accept defeat and might instead attempt a Trump-like bid to overturn any such outcome.

Speaking in São Paulo following his victory, Lula referenced the narrow result and the urgent need to reunite a polarised country: “From January 2023, I will govern for 215 million Brazilians, not just those who voted for me. We are one people, one country, one great nation,” he said. At the time of writing, Bolsonaro has not yet commented. It’s unclear whether he will accept the result or attempt to stir up his supporters in revolt. Clearly in anticipation of this danger, world leaders were quick to acknowledge Lula’s legitimate win as soon as it was confirmed. Joe Biden tweeted: “I send my congratulations to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on his election to be the next president of Brazil following free, fair, and credible elections.”

Part of Lula’s allure is the fond regard in which his initial two terms as president are still held by many Brazilians. That was a time of rapid economic growth on the back of the commodities boom, prosperity that he channelled into welfare programmes helping the country’s poor, which elevated millions into the middle class.

Now Lula will be governing in much tougher circumstances. His Workers’ Party remains heavily tarnished by the corruption scandals in which it became mired after he left office. Growth in Brazil has stagnated. These circumstances brought Bolsonaro’s win in 2018 and with it four years of assaults on the institutions and norms of Brazil’s democracy; a catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic leaving more than 700,000 dead; accelerated deforestation in the Amazon rainforest; and a political landscape stricken by disinformation, rage and division. Lula still inspires idealism and passion among millions of his keenest supporters, but many of those who voted for him on 30 October did so not out of enthusiasm, but as the lesser of two unappealing options.

Even then, it was much closer than widely expected. Lula led Bolsonaro by only 48 per cent to 43 per cent in the first round of voting on 2 October, tighter than the comfortable double-digit leads he had sustained in most opinion polling ahead of the vote. The final result, a swing of under one percentage point away from a Bolsonaro win, is much too close for comfort. Furthermore, Bolsonaro’s allies now represent the largest force in Brazil’s Congress and hold the governorships of the country’s three most economically powerful states. The defeated president’s electoral formula – a coalition of evangelicals, rural voters, gun owners, military and police types and business interests in the country’s richer south – remains a formidable presence in Brazilian politics.

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[See also: Brazilian election: Future of the Amazon rainforest rests on presidential run-off]

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But still, a win is a win. On a gloomy world stage, Lula’s success is a rare beacon of good news. Brazil’s democracy and civil rights framework have avoided the potentially terminal damage of a second Bolsonaro term (international precedents such as Hungary and Turkey show that populist authoritarians tend to become more radical once emboldened by re-election). There is now hope of saving what remains of the Amazon: an analysis for the website Carbon Brief shows that, with Brazil’s Forest Code once more enforced under Lula, deforestation could be reduced by 89 per cent. Despite the straitened economic circumstances, Lula remains committed to helping the millions of Brazilians who live in poverty – those who have suffered most under Bolsonaro.

The question of how Lula secured his win is one that should interest defenders of liberal democracy everywhere. He built a broad united front of all those opposed to Bolsonarismo and overcame the many internal differences within that coalition. Yes, he drew crucial dynamism and strength from his hardcore left-of-centre supporters – just watch footage from his exuberant campaign rallies, with their dancing, chanting and pro-Lula anthems – but he also found ways of reaching out beyond that base without diluting its underlying spirit. His running mate and now vice-president elect, Geraldo Alckmin, is a moderate conservative. Lula appealed to “men and women of all generations, all classes, all religions, all races, all regions of the country” to join him. Ahead of the runoff vote he secured the endorsements of the two centrist candidates, Simone Tebet and Ciro Gomes, who had come third and fourth in the first round of the election.

Tebet’s statement on backing Lula bears quoting: “We have our differences, but they are infinitely smaller than what unites us. What unites us is our deepest love for Brazil and our unconditional respect for democracy and for the values ​​and principles established in the Constitution. We need you to help rebuild Brazil. It will not be just one political party, not just one ideological grouping, not just one part of Brazilian society. All good Brazilians, all people who love democracy, who love sharing a country’s wealth must participate in this process. We have to get Brazil back to normality.” Given the closeness of the second round’s vote, such appeals to unity surely made the difference between Lula’s win and a second term for Bolsonaro.

[See also: Bolsonaro vs Lula: the fate of the Amazon rests on Brazil’s election]

Lula’s win reinforces the lesson that united, broad fronts are needed to defeat authoritarianism. Biden’s victory in the US in 2020, building a coalition of anti-Trump voters – ranging from the Bernie Sanders left to moderate conservatives in middle America – with unifying messages on the economy and public standards (“Build Back Better”), saw him win decisive states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia. Yet all too often, the story is a different one – with right-wing populists of various shades advancing towards power and in some cases taking it, thanks to the divisions among their opponents.

Consider France’s elections earlier this year. Yes, Emmanuel Macron held the presidency. But Marine Le Pen did alarmingly well, winning 41 per cent of the vote in the presidential runoff. Her far-right National Rally rose from seven seats to 89 in the subsequent legislative elections. The single biggest reason? Macron’s inability to unite his own centre-right tendency with enough left-of-centre voters to reverse Le Pen’s rise. Similarly, take the Swedish election in September. The mainstream parties had long maintained a cordon sanitaire around the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), but it was broken in 2019 when the centre-right Moderates opened talks with the SD. The broad front was broken, the SD was legitimised and at the election overtook the Moderates to become the second largest party in the Riksdag and subsequently part (albeit an external one) of a governing majority.

Perhaps the best example was the Italian election in late September, where the post-fascist Giorgia Meloni was able to become prime minister even though right-wing parties took only 44 per cent of votes, against 49 per cent for centre and centre-left parties. The reason? The right went into the election united, as a block, while those centre and centre-left parties – divided for reasons more to do with style, tone and personality than profound ideological repulsion – did not. Under Italy’s electoral system, which rewards big-tent blocks, that gave the right clear majorities in both houses of the legislature.

Liberal democrats elsewhere should take heed. Most immediately at the US midterm elections on 8 November, where the endurance of Biden’s broad politics will be put to the test. Then next year brings three further important elections in Europe, all of which will have right-wing authoritarianism on the ballot. Spain is sliding towards a coalition of the increasingly hardline conservative People’s Party with the far-right Vox. In Poland, the moderate opposition has a chance to oust the democracy-abusing Law and Justice party. In Turkey, the increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stands a real chance of losing power.

In all three cases, the difference between a victory and defeat for liberal democrats may well be measured in their ability to find some way to not ignore their differences, but to acknowledge them and somehow synthesis them into a broad front united by basic principles of democracy, checks and balances, norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance, independent institutions and rule of law. Lula shows that, even in a system where these principles have been brutally trampled, such a broad front can win and bring about a change of course. He is far from perfect. He faces an unenviably daunting task in healing a broken country. He will almost certainly disappoint on some or many levels. But despite all of this, his story teaches a powerful lesson: there is strength, and hope, in unity.

[See also: Letter from Brazil: the rainforest fights back]

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak