LULA HAS RETURNED TO THE presidency of Brazil and – with his victory – to the spotlight of the global media. This is news longed for by Brazilians with a saudade (thirst) for democracy. For those who live in other Latin American countries it represents the opening of a universe of expectations.
The campaign for the presidency inaugurated a period of extremely intense debates, from the national budget and state spending to policies against hunger, the legitimacy of electronic voting in the country, the future of the Amazon, gender identity and the institutional representation of the devil himself.
We can’t leave out the repeated accusations against the Workers’ Party (PT) of representing the devil and anti-Christian forces. During the last stretch of the campaign, Lula’s supporters counterattacked. In campaign speeches, Lula was careful to highlight the importance of Christian and family values; he opposed the legalisation of abortion and hinted at alleged links between Bolsonaro and the freemasonry. Now that the dark side of power has been crossed and the presidential seat has been won, what can we expect from a re-charged Lula at 77 years of age? What campaign promises can be fulfilled with the opposition controlling the national Congress, with at least 99 radically proBolsonaro parliamentarians? Is it really possible to re-launch Latin American integration? And furthermore, how is it possible to dismantle an extreme Right that has spread throughout Brazil and has become firmly entrenched across the region?
Four themes of Lula’s campaign
Lula focused on at least four themes during his electoral campaign:
1. He pledged a real increase in the minimum wage, which today stands at 1,212 reais, the equivalent of R3,900.
2. He gave an assurance that he would maintain the income-support programme for the social sectors of the population suffering food insecurity, launched by Bolsonaro in November 2021. It’s called Auxílio Brasil (formerly Bolsa Familia) and currently provides 600 reais (R1,900) a month to almost 15 million families.
3. He also publicly supported the deepening economic and political integration of Latin American countries, plus a more active role for Brazil within the Brics bloc. Brazil’s reintegration into the world is an enormous challenge after it had been missing in the political agenda of the outgoing government.
4. He also vowed to defend the Amazon. The care and preservation of the Amazon rainforest region was a central theme of his victory speech. He was eager to distance himself from the legacy of Jair Bolsonaro, who during his mandate enabled a level of deforestation worthy of the Guinness Book of Records. In June 2022 alone, there were 2,562 intentional fires in the country aimed at expanding the agricultural frontier.
The commitments made by the PT leader are much more significant today, now that the elections have been won. Once in power, a host of obstacles and problems of the realpolitik order must be overcome. Of course, that is what the art of politics is all about. However, the politics of today, of tik tok, twitter, IG and Twitch, presupposes not only public policy know-how but also speed and a specific knowledge of how to tell the story of what is being done.
As a political movement, and due in great part to its proficiency in using social media, Bolsonarism has achieved a surprising spread. Private universities, the media, churches, social clubs, neighbourhood community spaces and former members of the security forces have embraced Bolsonaro’s ideas. These ideas focus on anti-communism and the defence of the traditional family, heteronormativity, the fatherland and the Christian faith. These spaces of socialisation, to which social media add powerful energy, are what Antonio Gramsci called civil society. The struggle to (re)conquer these popular spaces of an expanded state will undoubtedly be on the agenda of the new government.
But going back to the beginning, we can affirm that Lula’s promise to improve the material living conditions of the most vulnerable sectors of Brazilian society is today the great rallying point.
Some coins for the lady’s purse and the gentleman’s wallet
The transition period, with the outgoing government still fully functioning until Lula takes over the presidency in January, requires the PT to generate the political conditions for future social expenditure. Based on unofficial estimates, the Bolsonaro government will leave a public debt of approximately 320 billion reais. Bolsonaro failed to respect the public spending ceiling. This is the rule in Brazil’s constitution that limits the growth of government spending to the previous year’s inflation. According to this INTERNATIONAL rule, Bolsonaro has already spent the money for any social policy commitment for 2023.
There is an imminent vote in Congress on the Constitutional Amendment Proposal (PEC) to enable more funds for the Lula III government. It will be voted on 16th December. The weaving of political alliances will be indispensable for the PT. All possible alliances.
In concrete terms, improving the living conditions of Brazilians means increasing the minimum wage in real terms on the one hand, and maintaining the main social assistance programme, Auxilio Brasil, on the other. Auxilio Brasil is the social programme that replaced Bolsa Familia, the programme recognised worldwide for having succeeded between 2003 and 2015 in getting more than 30 million Brazilians out of poverty. Bolsa Familia was the brand of the Lula government, praised by international institutions for its enormous impact.
Looking back, in the first 13 years of its implementation, it had a dynamising effect on economic growth, a positive impact in reducing infant mortality (by 58%), and contributed to significant increases in school attendance and access to health care. Thanks to Bolsa Familia the average height of Brazilian children increased, as a result of the increase in the number of people who eat properly and the general nutritional improvements among the country’s population. The truth is that Lula, famous for the Bolsa Familia, comes to government now with a limited Auxilio Brasil. It is framed within a public spending adjustment ceiling that defies his main political commitment.
Then there is the minimum wage floor. The National Wage Policy, established in the Brazilian Constitution, obliges the federal government to increase the wage floor on an annual basis, by the amount of the consumer price index (CPI) of the previous year. Since 2007, during Lula’s second term in office, this rule has been modified to also include increases in the national GDP. This led to a real and sustained increase in the purchasing power of wages. In 2011, during Dilma Rousseff’s first government, this indexation became law. But the upward trend of the Petista (PT) governments was reversed in 2017 and 2018. GDP fell and so wages grew below inflation.
In 2019, Bolsonaro decoupled the growth of the economy from the minimum wage formula, raising incomes barely in line with general price increases. In the past six years, only in 2019 did the minimum income for Brazilian workers grow above inflation, reaching 998 reais (equivalent to R3,200). But even in that year it lost out because of the devaluation of the exchange rate against the US currency.
Is it possible to change this situation? In August of this year, the Executive sent the 2023 Budget to Congress. It provides for a minimum wage of 1,302 reais (R4,200) and for the Auxílio Brasil grant to fall in January from 600 to 400 reais. To reverse this situation, in December this year the new government will need a special 60% majority in both chambers of Congress to approve the constitutional amendment that would enable it to increase public spending above the current limits for social, health and education.
The outlook is complex: in the Chamber of Deputies, Lula has his own bench of only 80 legislators (out of 513), plus the 14 of the allied PSOL. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) has 99 seats of its own, the largest number for a single political party since 1998. The rest of the House is dominated by the Centrão, a heterogeneous set of parties with which it will have to negotiate to the point of exhaustion. In the Senate the situation is similar: the PT will have only 9 of the 81 seats, while the PL now has 14.
Together we are stronger
In Latin America, we have two empirically verifiable certainties: one is that regional integration is a defensive rather than an offensive process, in any context and under any international circumstances. And the second is that any process of regional integration is the result of the will of the presidents and not of institutions created for that purpose.
The Lula III government will face the challenge of resetting Brazil’s agenda with the rest of the world. This includes improving trade within the Mercosur trade bloc. This is threatened by initiatives for Iiberalisation via bilateral agreements (as proposed by Uruguay). It also includes moving towards regional unity, in the best style of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur).
Celso Amorim is the foreign minister of previous Lula’s governments and close collaborator of the president-elect in international matters. He declared himself in favour of the creation of a single currency for the regional bloc, a long-standing desire of Latin American progressivism. Fraternal channels have been established with Luis Arce of Bolivia, Gustavo Petro of Colombia, Gabriel Boric of Chile, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Alberto Fernández of Argentina. Fernández, in particular, visited Lula in prison and travelled to Sao Paulo the day after the election victory to greet the PT leader.
To prosper, this alliance must transcend ideological affinities and consolidate commercial and energy strategies. It must do this in the face of an uncertain war in Europe that prefigures a global battle of giants. Opening up Brics membership could be one of the most important achievements at the regional level. Argentina would be grateful. It is currently beset by an agreement with the IMF that is difficult to fulfil and inflation rates that threaten to reach three digits in December.
Beyond Latin America’s borders, Lula achieved some notable milestones during the first hours of his symbolic presidency. Among the calls from the main leaders of the North, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden stood out. Macron had an almost personal confrontation with Bolsonaro and became one of the most critical exponents of the climate crisis. Biden is taking advantage of Bolsonaro’s defeat as a strategic ally of Donald Trump.
Lula’s victory was also celebrated by the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, something unprecedented since the beginning of the armed conflict between Moscow and Kiev in February. But, without a doubt, the most significant gesture, and the one that best illustrates the global weight of the triumph of the historic leader of the Brazilian Left, is Lula’s participation in COP 27. This was repudiated by the incumbent president. It shows the weight of the climate issue in Brazil’s insertion into the world.
A new chance for the planet
The Amazon unites efforts and wishes for a long and prosperous life for those who know that climate change cannot only be an agenda item for some European countries. In recent years, illegal trafficking of goods, indiscriminate burning of trees and grasslands and the sale of exotic timber have been the rule. Brazil’s Institute for Space Research (Inpe) recently found, through satellite monitoring, that the planet’s largest tropical rainforest shrank by 3,987 km2 in just six months, taking into account vegetation alone. This is 10% more than the loss in 2021. This is equivalent to the disappearance of a rainforest the size of two football fields every minute.
What is lost is not only carbon, but also the lives and knowledge of indigenous communities. It generates profound climatic impacts that go far beyond the limits of the forest. During his electoral campaign, Lula pledged to redirect the expansion of the agricultural frontier to underutilised land in the country and to halt deforestation. He also favoured foreign investment to develop sustainable development projects together with local communities and to promote research and development projects. The case of the Amazon rainforest is perhaps the topic on which the future president has achieved the most overwhelming political victory in the face of new challenges.
Meanwhile, on 3rd November, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of reactivating the 3 billion reais frozen since 2019 in the Amazon Fund of the Brazilian National Development Bank. This was created in 2008 to house donations for investment in projects to combat deforestation. It was deactivated by Bolsonaro. This decision was accompanied by declarations from the governments of the Fund’s main investors, Germany and Norway, who pledged to invest again, in view of the Brazilian government’s change of course on environmental issues. The struggles are not few, the challenges are immense. But they are nothing that a president with enormous experience in the administration of a huge country cannot face.
Victoria Darling is a professor and researcher at the Universidade Federal da Integraçao Latino-Americana in Brazil.
Francisco Muzzo is a doctoral fellow at CONICET in Argentina