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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 47 November 12, 2022

After Lula’s Narrow Victory: Return to Democratic Capitalism or an Ongoing Rightwing Insurgency in Brazil? | Jörg Nowak

Saturday 12 November 2022


by Jörg Nowak *

After a tough campaign, centrist candidate Lula da Silva of the Workers Party (PT) won the second and final round of the Brazilian presidential election on October 30 with 50.9 percent of the vote, 2.1 million votes more than his extreme-right adversary Jair Bolsonaro of the Liberal Party (PL).

This was the closest result for a Brazilian presidential election since 1989. Lula promised a return to democracy and normality in his victory speech on the packed Avenida Paulista in the center of São Paulo where tens of thousands assembled to celebrate. Bolsonaro remained silent for two days after the election, making only a very brief statement that made clear he would not contest the results.

Lula won 48 percent of votes in the first round against 43 percent for Bolsonaro. Astonishingly, Lula received 6.2 million more votes than Bolsonaro in the first round but won by only a small margin in the second.
While 9.8 million Brazilians voted for candidates other than Lula or Bolsonaro in the first round, most of these votes went to Bolsonaro in the second.

Lula received 57.2 million votes in the first round, and 60.3 million in the second, mobilizing an additional 3.1 million votes. Bolsonaro scored 51 million votes in the first and 58.2 million votes in the second round, achieving an additional mobilization of 7.2 million voters, more than two-thirds of the votes that had gone to third candidates in the first round.

With this result, Bolsonaro received about 400,000 more votes than in 2018 when he won with more than 10 million votes ahead of his competitor Fernando Haddad of the PT. In 2022, the abstention in the second round was slightly lower than in the first round, adding another 500,000 votes to the total.

Detailed Results

Some crucial insights into voter preferences were revealed in polls conducted immediately before the elections by Datafolha, which predicted Lula would win with 52 percent. The only income groups where Lula has a majority, according to the poll, are the poorest sections of society who earn up to two times the minimum wage, about US$400/month. In all other income groups, Bolsonaro led the race.

It is interesting to note in which federal states Lula scored better than Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate who ran against Bolsonaro in 2018. Although the populous states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were won by Bolsonaro this time and in 2018, Lula improved upon Haddad’s results from 2018 by 12.7 percent in São Paulo state and 11.4 percent in Rio de Janeiro.

Lula also bested Haddad’s results in other Bolsonaro strongholds like Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraná, Goias, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul — here Lula did between six and eight percentage points better than Haddad in 2018. This reveals an increase of support for Lula in regions that are vote-rich bastions for Bolsonaro.

In the Northeast, Lula’s stronghold in the first and second round of elections, the results were quite similar to those in 2018 for Haddad. While it is often claimed in the media that the Northeast was key for winning the election, it was the mobilization of additional voters in the Southeast of Brazil that secured victory for Lula. He won the election both in the city of São Paulo and its metropolitan region, but not in the broader regions of this most populous state, which almost exclusively were claimed by Bolsonaro.

Perspectives and Challenges

There are two central questions regarding the prospects for the third Lula presidency. Will there be an ongoing insurgency by the right against the Lula government? And, what will be the room for maneuver for progressive politics in face of the conservative composition of Parliament and the Senate? Most state governors who are close to Bolsonaro have already signaled they are ready to cooperate with Lula.

Nevertheless, on the evening of the election, a motley crew of Bolsonaro supporters — a mix of truck drivers, the petty-bourgeoisie and other elements — questioned the election results, proceeded to set up roadblocks, and demanded military intervention. The traffic police, which, as mentioned, was very effective in stopping some voters from heading to the polls on election day, reacted slowly to Bolsonaro’s militant supporters and at times even maintained the roadblocks.

This movement reached its peak on the morning of November 1, with 271 road blockages, of which 167 remained active the next morning. By November 4, the roadblocks had almost disappeared. Many governors aligned with Bolsonaro, such as Claudio Castro in Rio de Janeiro, deployed the military police to dismantle the roadblocks.

Overall, these protesters had little support from the public at large, apart from a few radicals close to Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro himself made a positive reference to the protests in his mini-speech on November 1 but said rightwing protesters should not imitate the movements of the left and should keep freedom-of-movement intact — just as Bolsonaro had defended against calls for lockdowns and restrictions during the pandemic.

Rightwing Opposition to Lula’s Programme

There is concern among leftists that such militant rightwing movements will exercise pressure on the Lula government. For such movements to persist, a lot depends on whether they will be able to find and maintain organic leaders. Bolsonaro himself seems more concerned with staying out of jail, hence his eagerness to meet with the Supreme Court justices after his electoral defeat. His intention is most likely to negotiate a cessation of the 36 criminal investigations targeting him that will go ahead once he steps down as president.

The general assumption is that he will offer not to rally on behalf of an insurgent movement against President-elect Lula, in exchange for being spared jail time. While it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will concede to such a trading of favours, such an offer would demonstrate that a future as a political leader might not be Bolonaro’s first priority. His first speech after the election seemed to be more of an obligation, and he clearly did not use the opportunity to motivate his militant supporters.

A more serious challenge for Lula will be the opposition in Congress and the Senate. The vested interests of agribusiness and the evangelical churches and the organized interests of capital in general might block legislative initiatives that benefit the bulk of Brazilians. The areas where urgent new policies are expected are numerous. Among the most pressing problems are those of widespread hunger, lack of running water, sanitation, and waste disposal. Only half of Brazilians are connected to a sanitation system and are adversely affected by the attendant massive environmental and health problems among the poorer populations that such a situation produces.

Other areas of necessary action include public transport and the health and education systems, all underfunded and poorly organized. It will be hard to convince elites to transfer financial resources to areas that benefit the poor majority, as the selective distribution of resources in Brazil is also a means of reproducing relationships of political domination.

Initiatives to contain illegal gold mining and deforestation will also require a transfer of wealth from elites, and the environmental protection agencies that have been dismantled and underfunded by the Bolsonaro government will have to be rebuilt. Lula announced he will create a ministry for Indigenous people that will add new resources for the protection of territories belonging to traditional communities and peoples.

In all these policy areas the Lula government will have to negotiate with Congress and the Senate, the latter of which has a high number of Bolsonaro hardliners who will obstruct any initiatives. One essential question is to what extent the Lula government will be able to convince parts of the bourgeoisie to support initiatives that could benefit their business interests and the bulk of the population. Much will depend not solely on economic interests but on the political conjuncture and the extent to which the rightwing will be able to project itself as a viable alternative.

The geopolitical level might be an area where the Lula government has more room to maneuver. Foreign policy has been one of Lula’s strong areas and can be expected to continue to be so with his new presidential term. There will be an attempt at some revival of the, more or less, dead project of the BRICS bloc, which is now hampered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Lula gave signals that he wants to undertake initiatives to end the war.

Other difficulties for the BRICS bloc include the authoritarian turn in China and the extreme-right presidency of Modi in India, which has become much more repressive in its second term. Lula will, in any case, promote a third bloc beyond NATO and Russia.

More fertile terrain for these geopolitical ambitions can be found in Latin America, where several governments of the left in Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba will be partners for the Lula government. Argentine president Alberto Fernandez visited Brazil the day after the election. The stalled negotiations for a Mercosur-EU free-trade agreement will also be revived, but Lula has made clear he wants to renegotiate the treaty with a stronger focus on the export of industrial products from Brazil to the EU.

* (Author: Jörg Nowak is Visiting Professor at University of Brasilia, Brazil. His latest publications are “Do choke points provide workers in logistics with power? A critique of the power resources approach in light of the 2018 truckers’ strike in Brazil" (2021) in the journal Review of International Political Economy.)

This article was published originally in a longer version on the website Socialist Project:

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