Lula v. Bolsonaro
It’s just over two years since former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from jail, and eight months since he was declared innocent of all charges brought against him. As Brazil heads towards elections in October 2022, with the economy in recession, Lula holds a commanding lead over his electoral rivals, President Jair Bolsonaro and his former justice minister, Sergio Moro – the judge who put Lula in jail.
But anything could happen between now and election day, especially since Donald Trump’s political star appears to be waxing again. Bolsonaro – who once said to Trump in public, unsolicited and unrequited, ‘I love you’ – has long taken the former US president as a role model.
Inspired by the events in Washington DC on 6 January, Bolsonaro called for a coup against Congress and the Supreme Court in Brasília on 7 September. No detachments of soldiers or military police showed up, but anti-Bolsonaro protesters did, en masse. The police separated them from the president’s supporters and the day unfolded without violence.
Bolsonaro is the only G20 leader not to have been vaccinated against Covid. In New York for the UN General Assembly in September, he and his team, forbidden from entering restaurants, were reduced to eating pizza on the sidewalk. His health minister, Marcelo Queiroga, the fourth since the pandemic began, flipped off protesters outside the Brazilian Mission. He later tested positive for Covid.
Even the Globo media empire, which aided and abetted the overthrow of Dilma, the imprisonment of Lula and the rise of Bolsonaro, was struck by the contrast between Lula and Bolsonaro last week. Lula received a standing ovation in the European Parliament and met with the French president, the German chancellor and the Spanish prime minister. Bolsonaro and his sons rode around in a miniature motorcycle gang in Qatar, following a trip to Dubai. The Gulf monarchies were his first stop after the climate talks in Glasgow. He may be courting buyers for Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, or laying the foundations for a prolonged period abroad after 2022. The immensely rich and immensely unpopular economy minister, Paulo Guedes, said the Arab petrolarchs were thinking of buying two of Brazil’s leading football clubs, Flamengo and Palmeiras.
Now that Trump is out of office, Bolsonaro is probably the leading figure of the far right internationally: the caretaker and guard dog for a project that allows neo-Nazis to come out of the woodwork and participate in public life. Environmental destruction in the Amazon, where most of Brazil’s indigenous people live, is up 22 per cent on last year, reaching its highest level since 2006. Bolsonaro’s unpopularity is also reaching new heights, but he still has his core support of between 20 and 25 per cent, and is likely to maintain most of that, since everyone else has already bolted.
Likewise, Lula is probably the greatest social democratic leader on the world stage right now – in part because he has no real rivals – and there can be little question of his widespread support abroad. Foreigners don’t vote in Brazilian elections, though.
Lula and the PT’s search for allies in Brazil’s political centre has yet to bear fruit. Ciro Gomes, the leader of the centre-left PDT, continues to attack Lula and Dilma as well as Moro and Bolsonaro, even as his own presidential hopes evaporate. The support of parties to the left of the PT, such as PSOL – led by the radical urban activist Guilherme Boulos, who ran for president in 2018, mayor of São Paulo in 2020, and will run for governor there in 2022 – will need to be earned, and cannot be taken for granted. In terms of electoral coalition building, the bulk of the work remains to be done.
Boulos is an organiser in the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST). He recently shared a photograph of the film-maker and actor Wagner Moura eating at an MTST occupation in São Paulo after a screening of his thriller about the death in 1969 of Carlos Marighella, the communist theorist of urban guerrilla warfare. Moura, who starred as Pablo Escobar in the Netflix series Narcos, has been outspoken on the European and US film circuits about censorship in Brazil.
At the end of Marighella, which stars Seu Jorge and highlights police brutality against Afro-Brazilians during the military dictatorship, moviegoers in Salvador, Rio and São Paulo have applauded, shouting: ‘Fora Bolsonaro!’ But it will take more than shouting at the big screen to get him out (and most Brazilians can’t afford to go to the cinema). It seems clear that the president will serve out his term and run for re-election.
According to the PT, 28 million people have dropped off the government’s emergency aid rolls, and 20 million are hungry. Of the nine million who lost their jobs in the first eight months of 2020, 70 per cent were black. Brazilian police killed 6416 people in 2020: most of them were young, black and from the urban periphery. So are the 200,000 people in jail on drug offences. Blacks earn less, are fired first, and are more likely to be working in the informal economy without rights or protections, according to a new report based on the National Household Sample Survey. Two million more have joined the ranks of the informally employed since 2019, which represents 55 per cent of the total labour force.
It was Black Consciousness Day on Saturday. There were anti-racist, anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations in 105 cities across Brazil, though outside São Paulo, they were not massive. In Salvador da Bahia, which has Brazil’s largest urban population of African descent – 82 per cent identify as preto (‘black’) or pardo (‘mixed-race’) – events began in Pelourinho in the morning with the cleaning of the statue of Zumbi, the leader of the 17th-century Quilombo dos Palmares (a quilombo was a community of people who had escaped enslavement). In the afternoon, a wide range of unions and other organisations gathered in Campo Grande. People marched to the Praça Castro Alves, named after the great Bahian abolitionist poet and playwright. The main speakers were women of African descent, along with the communist member of parliament Alice Portugal.
As with previous anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations, the numbers were underwhelming. Turnout in next year’s elections shouldn’t be: in both 2014 and 2018 it was around 80 per cent. The north-east was the only region to vote against Bolsonaro last time. The president is the most widely loathed politician in Bahia – 74 per cent disapprove of him – followed by Guedes and Moro. The latest polls show Lula taking 63 per cent of the vote here.