The closest election in Brazilian history came to an end on 30 October, with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva beating Jair Bolsonaro. Those who went to the polls knew that this was no ordinary ballot. Bolsonaro had pulled out all the stops to manipulate the democratic process and threatened to challenge any result that did not go his way. But Lula, the 77-year-old leader of the Workers’ Party (PT), drew on the enormous popularity he had amassed during his previous years in power, edging over the finish line with 50.9% to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%. In so doing, he recovered some of the terrain that the PT lost in the 2018 election and increased the left’s seat share in a parliament dominated by the right. The result was unprecedented: never before had a Brazilian president been elected for a third term, nor had the incumbent been defeated since the possibility of re-election was introduced.
Just three years ago, Lula was thought to be politically finished and possibly destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars, having been convicted on corruption charges. Now he is back; but the Brazil he will preside over is very different from the one he left to his successor Dilma Rousseff in 2010. The tight election race belied the conviction, held by many on the left, that this was still essentially the same country that had elected the PT four times. Once he enters the Palácio da Alvorada in January, Lula must deal with a sluggish economy at home and abroad, the legacy of six years of acute institutional dysfunction, a divided congress and a powerful far right. While his first government benefited from the commodity boom of the early millenium, no such windfall appears to be on the horizon; and even if it were, the prospect of rampant climate change limits the extent to which it could be exploited. Given such constraints, his room for manoeuvre – for increasing social spending or expanding the rights of marginalized groups – will be even narrower than it was in 2003.
To understand these changes, it is not enough to point to the extensive network of online influencers, YouTube channels, WhatsApp and Telegram groups, TV stations, radio broadcasters and evangelical churches that coalesced around Bolsonaro in 2018. It is also necessary to examine the longer-term dynamics that were set in motion by the PT administrations of the 2000s and 2010s, along with those which came to the fore in the years since. Such dynamics were at work in the four main stories of the recent campaign: Bolsonaro’s impressive show of strength, the degradation of Brazil’s democratic institutions, the rise of the extractive sector as a political and social force, and the broad coalition that the PT has assembled. This essay will look at each in turn.
In 2018, Bolsonaro could claim to be the candidate of hope and change. In 2022, he carried the weight of a disastrous presidential record: constant political turmoil, rising living costs, blatant corruption, the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. These issues were expected to alienate a sizeable chunk of the voters who had aided his victory four years ago. Indeed, as the results were announced, it became clear that Bolsonaro’s fate was sealed by the fraction of the electorate who switched their allegiances to Lula in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais. But this trend was nowhere near as strong as the pollsters had predicted; instead of losing the majority of the wavering vote, Bolsonaro appeared to have brought much of it into his hardcore base, which emerged from the electoral cycle looking larger and more cohesive. This makes sense given that Bolsonaro, like Trump, was always more concerned with keeping his supporters engaged and mobilized than with the everyday business of governing. While this strategy lost him many middle-of-the-road supporters, it also consolidated the Bolsonarista bloc.
Bolsonaro’s coalition is largely held together by the far right’s impressive communicational infrastructure. Yet its origins can be traced back to the economic crisis that erupted towards the end of Rousseff’s first term and triggered the early termination of her second – as well as the various pension, labour and social spending reforms that followed. Among those who were lifted out of poverty during the boom years, attaining middle-class living standards (often financed by debt) became a major source of self-esteem. But the downturn which began in 2015 undermined the PT’s project of ‘inclusion through consumption’, prompting dissatisfaction with the party, which was compounded by successive corruption scandals. From then on, a long-established ‘neoliberalism from below’ combined with libertarian propaganda ‘from above’ to produce a new ideological landscape. As the number of people working for apps in Brazil exploded (a 979.8% increase since 2016), underemployment, deregulation and growing economic coercion were reframed as signs of personal freedom, entrepreneurship and healthy market competition, enabling sections of the electorate to partially regain the self-esteem that had been lost under the PT. Simultaneously, a renewed investment in gender, racial, religious and class prejudices – which the right presented as a defence of republican and Christian family values – provided psychological compensation for economic uncertainty and shrinking expectations. As an account of the crisis that blended ultraliberalism and anticommunist paranoia gained traction, many people who had benefited from the PT’s social policies came to see their social advancement as an individual achievement – and to blame those very policies, as well as the groups and minorities that they aided, for their present tribulations.
This sense of resentment among the lower middle class converged with one that had been brewing since Lula’s first term among an upper middle class caught between the rich, who were becoming richer, and the poor, who were becoming less poor (thereby threatening their markers of class distinction). In Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign, these two strata joined forces with a capitalist class that saw in the PT’s fall an opportunity to push through a barrage of reforms (including a permanent cap on public spending) and in Bolsonaro a chance for at least four years of untrammelled predation.
After four years of exactly that, Brazil is now a more brutal and unequal country; but this has not necessarily damaged Bolsonaro’s political standing. On the contrary: for many of its adherents, Bolsonarismo’s appeal is what might be termed a differentially distributed state of nature: a situation in which the state no longer plays any role in mitigating existing power relations, and each person is free to exercise their authority in whatever sphere they might wield it, even if it is just over their wife and children or oppressed minority groups. Even for those in the peripheries, the idea that the state will stand back and refuse to intervene may sound more liberating than threatening. There is a perverse form of egalitarianism at work here: the feeling that, if one is subjected to ever more ruthless living and working conditions, these should at least be imposed upon everyone – except, of course, for the winners whose ranks one aspires to join, and in whose unfettered freedom one hopes to partake. Hence Bolsonaro’s paradoxical status as a symbol of both discipline and permissiveness: he represents a form of social Darwinism in which to compete is to operate at the limit of morality and law, and to win is to no longer be subjected to the same rules as everyone else.
Yet the results of 30 October were not merely a reflection of these political-historical trends. It would be giving Bolsonaro too much credit to ignore the effects of his extraordinary use of the state apparatus to support his election campaign. This is the second main story of the contest: even if the former army captain’s defeat saved Brazil from going down a path similar to that of Orbán’s Hungary, the electoral process made clear how much institutional erosion has taken place in recent years.
Although Bolsonaro promised a ‘new politics’, his tenure effectively radicalized some of the shadiest practices of Brazil’s notoriously self-serving political class. Threatened by criminal investigations surrounding him and his sons, and fearing an impeachment for his reckless pandemic response, the president curried favour with congress by instituting a ‘secret budget’ that, since 2020, has handed sympathetic legislators R$46.2 billion to be used with no democratic oversight. (By comparison, the Lava Jato investigation claimed to recover R$6.28 billion embezzled under the PT.) This system, which vastly increases opportunities for corruption, helped to secure the loyalty of the legislature, allowing Bolsonaro to pass a staggering number of patronage measures ahead of the presidential campaign. These included the expansion of cash transfer programmes, the opening of credit lines for recipients of those programmes, benefits for lorry and cab drivers (two bastions of Bolsonarismo) and tax cuts to reduce fuel prices. All this led to a temporary uptick in economic conditions, giving credence to Bolsonaro’s claims that Brazil was performing better than other countries in the aftermath of the pandemic. While Lula maintained his lead among the poorest section of the electorate, such reforms probably helped shore up some of the support which Bolsonaro would have otherwise lost as a result of rising living costs. More significantly, they created a fiscal shortfall estimated at at least R$150 billion, which is sure to constrain the programme of the incoming president.
Alongside this vote-buying operation, Bolsonaro repeatedly cast aspersions on the electoral process and suggested he would refuse to recognize a Lula victory. He openly courted the security apparatus, appointed over 6,000 members of the armed forces to government positions, and hinted at the prospect of a right-wing coup. Though this never materialized, the actions of the Federal Highway Police – disrupting traffic in Lula strongholds on election day – showed that it was not an entirely empty threat. In the midst of the campaign, even the fight against institutional dysfunction began to take on a dysfunctional form. When the Electoral Court intervened to control the spread of right-wing disinformation, it did so in ways that were legally questionable, fuelling Bolsonarista claims that they were being unjustly targeted by the state machinery.
All this raised the temperature of the elections and poisoned the political atmosphere. One in three voters, predominantly women and Lula supporters, cited political violence as a concern. Tensions came to a head in the week leading up to the second round, with two major incidents involving Bolsonaro allies. First, the disgraced former congressman Roberto Jefferson staged an armed confrontation with Federal Police, who tried to apprehend him after he broke the conditions of his house arrest by calling a Supreme Court judge ‘a used-up whore’. Soon after, the federal representative Carla Zambelli pulled a gun on a Black man with whom she had an altercation in the streets of São Paulo.
The incumbent clearly hoped that these shock-troops would protect his position. Following the election, he fell silent for 44 hours, consulting with various allies and waiting to see if the roadblocks that his supporters had erected would evolve into a large enough movement for him to contest the results. When this failed to transpire, he gave a reluctant two-minute speech in which he said nothing about his opponent, celebrated the ‘real emergence’ of the right under his administration, made some vague statements to keep hope alive among his base, and left it to his chief of staff to announce that the transition process had begun.
The third major story of the election concerns the shape of the electoral map and the affirmation of the Brazilian countryside as a social and political force. Bolsonaro won, often by wide margins, in the South, Midwest and parts of the North: the heartlands of agribusiness where the extractive frontier is expanding. This tracks well with the spread of deforestation during his term. (In the Amazon alone, it was up by 73% in the last four years, whereas it had gone down by 67% under Lula.) Of course, PT administrations were far from enemies of the extraction industry; on the contrary, their wager on the commodities boom accelerated the reprimarization of the economy that had begun in the 1990s. Beyond talk of ‘shared values’, what explains the agribusiness sector’s preference for Bolsonaro was the prospect of accumulation unimpeded by any constraints or counteracting forces, be they the recognition of indigenous titles, environmental regulations or distributive policies. Even if most of the wealth recently produced in agribusiness strongholds has ended up in the pockets of a small number of families, Bolsonaro’s triumph in these regions shows that actions such as dismantling state agencies and cheerleading illegal mining and logging successfully conveyed an aspirational message: that his government had the back of the adventurous frontiersman and would defend free enterprise by any means necessary.
It was in Lula’s second term that China became Brazil’s main trading partner, firmly establishing the extractive sector on the world stage. But it was when the sector abandoned Rousseff in 2015 that it seemed to have come of age politically: no longer content to simply defend its immediate economic interests, it instead sought to impose its agenda on the country as a whole. With Bolsonaro, finally, it appeared to figure out that some form of overseer capitalism – a situation in which the interest of ensuring maximum predation leads capital to strike direct power sharing deals with security forces turned independent economic and political agents – would be the most compatible with its unrestrained flourishing.
The broader historical trend here may be the reversal of the political domination of the countryside by the bigger cities (and the industrial and service sectors) which began with Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s. This inversion is a direct consequence of the PT’s governing formula during its first stint in power: to reconcile economic growth with wealth distribution by taking the path of least resistance, using the bonanza afforded by the commodity boom to fight poverty without attempting structural reforms in areas like land ownership and taxation. The clout that this approach has gifted the extractive industries is such that, as one analyst recently remarked, it has become impossible to govern without the ‘Mega-Midwest’. While this is undoubtedly true in the short and medium term, the question for any political project concerned with economic and political equality is whether it is possible to govern with it in the long run, or if continuing to feed this sector will inevitably lead to something even worse than what has taken place since 2016.
The fourth and final main story in these elections is that the broad democratic front which the PT had hoped to assemble in 2018 finally came through, with important figures in the right and centre right deciding they could no longer give Bolsonaro the benefit of the doubt. The composition of Lula’s cabinet will surely reflect this political heterogeneity, as well as the need to make alliances with a right-leaning but ideologically diverse parliament. Lula has already stated that this will not be a government of the PT alone. Yet the real issue is whether the PT will try to assert its leadership over the governing coalition, or whether it will merely seek to maintain an equilibrium that is bound to be highly unstable.
Over the next four years, the PT will once again face pressure to pursue poverty alleviation without structural reform – but this time without the revenue yielded by the commodity boom. As he joins the ranks of younger leaders touted as Latin America’s ‘new Pink Tide’, the challenge for Lula, as for them, will be to learn the lessons of the old one. Perhaps the most important is that, short of an improbable revolutionary situation, the question is never whether to make or not make concessions, but whether, even as one makes concessions, one is nonetheless working towards a long-term transformation of the balance of forces. If not, and there is no obvious direction of travel or strategic programme, then the line between concession and capitulation disappears, and it is likely that one will have to concede ever more. Given the twin threats of climate change and a burgeoning far right, the decision to work within existing constraints, without striving to change them, will only prove disastrous.
The conditions for a Lula presidency have never been as unfavourable as they are now, but the conjuncture also presents him with a great opportunity: to lead Brazil out of its self-imposed international isolation and position it as a world leader in the struggle for a just, ecologically realistic, socially transformative Green New Deal. If this strategy is successful, it could help to expand his room for manoeuvre domestically. To use a footballing metaphor of which the president-elect would no doubt approve, going on the offensive may be the best form of defence. It remains to be seen whether Lula, the most talented politician of his generation, will rise to that challenge.
Read on: Roberto Schwarz, ‘Neo-Backwardness in Bolsonaro’s Brazil’, NLR 123.