A critical moment for the future of Brazil
There begins in Brazil this weekend the most significant, and most polarized, election in many cycles for the South American superpower. With national and state elections running simultaneously, thousands of politicians are involved the fray, including more than a dozen in the running for president.
Voting is compulsory in Brazil, so almost every adult will participate. With the minimum voting age set at 16, scores of teenagers will vote for the first time.
It is a feast of politics but in the strangest of ironies, the most influential politician in the three-decade history of Brazilian democracy will be missing, confined at the age of 72 to a jail cell. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — the president of Brazil between 2002 and 2010, and now serving a 12-year jail sentence for accepting kickbacks — had his political career terminated by an electoral court in August when it ruled that he could not contest the presidential election.
The situation calls for an elegy, as much as a look to the future. After all, the story of modern Brazil is inseparable from the life and career of “Lula” and the Partida dos Trabalhores (the “Workers’ Party” or, in Brazilspeak, the “pé-té”), which he founded in 1980 when Brazil was still ruled by the military.
Lula has been around forever; it is sometimes forgotten that he fought three unsuccessful presidential campaigns before triumphing in 2002. The first Brazilian president from outside the country’s social elite — he sold oranges on the streets of Santos as a child and spent his youth as a metalworker — he and his party oversaw nothing less than a social revolution during his years in office.
To the disappointment of many on the left, upon winning power Lula abandoned many tenets of his party’s socialist economics as a pragmatic concession to the realities of the global order. But at the same time he set in motion a vision for the country, and for the average Brazilian, that far surpassed the plebeian patron-client politics of his predecessors, men with university degrees who could not see or feel or imagine as he could.
The Brazil of today is a radically different country from the one 20 years ago. The Lula regime greatly expanded the capacity of the higher-education system — which is free but was traditionally susceptible to elitism because of its challenging entrance exams. His party’s “bolsa familia” program, which provided direct cash transfers to millions of poor Brazilians provided they sent their children to school, itself a form of generating future social capital, helped to halve poverty levels in the country. Once one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of wealth distribution, as measured by the Gini coefficient, Brazil in the 21st century slowly achieved a measure of redistributive justice.
Lula’s Cabinet reflected the racial diversity of a society in which all the colors of the world live side by side, although the proximity is still too often vertical rather than horizontal. This was in stark contrast to the current, nearly all-white Cabinet of outgoing President Michel Temer. Despite a series of corruption scandals that shook voter faith in his party, Lula left office with an approval rating of more than 80 percent. These are all rare achievements in democratic politics.
In the strangest of ironies, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — the most influential politician in the three-decade history of Brazilian democracy — will be missing, confined at the age of 72 to a jail cell.
Like many charismatic politicians the world over, although without displaying their tendency toward self-glorification, Lula the man generated a noun, “lulismo,” denoting a show of voter faith that is distinct from, and often greater than, “petismo,” or support for the Workers’ Party itself. Even when Lula stood down after two terms, as required by Brazilian law, his chosen successor, the wooden but diligent Dilma Rousseff, won two terms in office. Lulismo seemed to have become the foundation of a long-term societal orientation toward petismo.
But now, eight years after Lula and three years after the departure of Rousseff — who was controversially impeached in 2015 in a move that many Brazilians still describe as a “coup” by the right wing, which then seized power in the form of Rousseff’s deputy, Temer — Brazilian politics has reached an impasse. Giant scams, an economy in free fall and an unemployment rate of 13 percent have sent voters running into the arms of the unpleasant, but untainted, far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro, who leads in the pre-election opinion polls.
Notwithstanding Lula’s conviction and imprisonment, lulismo noticeably continues to thrive. The most commonly seen poster in my travels around Brazil is one that screams “Libre Lula!” (Free Lula). Petismo, on the other hand, seems in danger of petering out.
That would be a tragedy. Brazil remains a vastly unequal society, very much a work in progress. Before democracies can be nouns, they must be verbs: They must attempt to level the playing field. There are many parties inside the formal landscape of Brazilian democracy but only petismo has tried convincingly to democratize society itself, to spread the discourse of citizenship and personal agency and extend protection against economic insecurity to the poor and politically reticent. This is captured in the telling proverb in Brazil, only negated by Lula’s own career path, that “pobre nao vota em pobre,” or “poor people don’t vote for poor people.”
Of course, the Workers’ Party has been complicit in its own downfall: Its politicians have been caught with their hands in the till. But I think there can be no fantasies of absolute probity and incorruptibility in politics, especially in a political culture as messy and compromised as Brazil’s; Wendy Hunter, the scholar of Brazilian politics, has written especially cogently on this.
A large section of the Brazilian electorate has come to see the Workers’ Party as “just another party.” This is fair enough, and there would be some justification to their rejection if there was a good alternative, as there was in the 1990s when Lula was beaten twice by another impressive statesman, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. But voting for a far-right, trash-talking president would be a crude fix that would probably undo all of the progress of this century.
And perhaps lulismo still has the power to shape Brazilian politics. After he was barred from contesting the election, Lula endorsed a relative unknown, the former Mayor of Sao Paulo, Fernando Haddad, as the party’s presidential candidate. In a month, Haddad rose from nowhere to second in the opinion polls — certainly more because of lulismo than petismo.
If Haddad maintains that position until Sunday, it will take him into a straight runoff with Bolsonaro this month. That would make stark the choice between machismo and petismo in Brazil. And if at that delicate juncture the last effect of lulismo is required to tip the scales, that would be no tragedy for Brazil.
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy.