The Return of Lula to the Brazilian Presidency: Reflections by Lula’s Biographer

Guest blog post by John D. French, author of Lula and His Politics of Cunning: From Metalworker to President of Brazil

I progress as I digress, the author of Tristram Shandy wrote, and so Brazil, a country whose November election touched hearts, leading many to contact me after the second round of the election. The anxieties associated with uncertainties of the transition—including protests and calls for military intervention by supporters of the loser—inhibited any wild celebratory mood on the part of myself. However, the seventy-eight-year-old Lula was finally inaugurated for his third term in office after a close election in which he edged out his far-right opponent despite an extraordinary and illegal deployment of state resources under the guise of a declaration of national emergency. Yet the far-right Bolsonaro not only lost but came in second to Lula in the first round, the first time this has happened to a sitting president since 198

The parliamentary coup of 2016, that ousted the newly reelected PT President Dilma Rousseff, was the height of an onslaught against thirteen years of progressive center-left governance. This led to a 2018 election in which the top polling candidate, Lula with a third of the vote, was excluded by jailing him on phony corruption charges leading to an amazing fluke of an election in 2018 that resulted in the victory of a cashiered former Army officer Jair Bolsonaro (he retired to avoid a retrial of his court martial). Here was a man whose eccentricities over 28 years—as a lowly federal deputy with no influence or following—was to frontally express the backward prejudices found in Brazilian society at all levels, rhetoric so ingrained as to seem like wisdom and an expression of ‘common sense.’ 

Lula and His Politics of Cunning book jacket cover (photo of Lula in a crowd)

Bolsonaro won in an electoral tsunami in 2018 that defied all established understandings and generalizations as to how Brazilian electoral life has functioned since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. Here was an unknown figure, the proverbial outsider, who was known for his extremist rhetoric celebrating the military, torture, the lifting of restrictions on gun ownership, and general disdain for the weak in Brazilian society (even though he himself, like Lula, comes from a poor rural background). He was crude and had made a middling success of himself while aping the values and goals of the ‘rich’ he aspired to be part of. He built a family business around political office—and the petty corruption and deal-making it allows—and a real estate empire while aping the most retrograde attitudes of the highly educated and well off, the core of his movement, but that would prove to have undeniable appeal to sectors of the popular classes, including the poor and the non-white, with his crude machismo proving especially appealing to men.

Running on a rump party with a single deputy and without any state-level inter-party alliances, Bolsonaro triumphed with 56% of the final vote despite having spent not even a fraction of what his opponents had; his national campaign budget was less than that of the average federal deputy in 2018. Creatively taking advantage of social media and its possibilities for mass outreach, he campaigned under the religious and patriotic slogan “God above all, Brazil above all of us” (“Deus acima de tudo, Brasil acima de todos”) that proved intoxicating for many among this most spiritual of peoples, especially but not solely among evangelicals (roughly 40% of the population of whom 2/3rds voted for him).

It was an extraordinary victory for Bolsonaro that was achieved with ex-President Lula in jail and his party and Brazil’s social movements besieged. There was every reason in 2018 to believe—especially with the victory of hundreds of other politicians and even governors, often unknowns, who hooked their wagon to Bolsonaro—that Brazil would be permanently transformed following the destructive neoliberal measures between 2016 and 2018 under the Presidency of Temer, the vice President who betrayed Dilma. The panorama seemed even more dire with the electoral liquidation of the center-right political forces, even as they had moved ever more to the right prior to 2016, in the face of the “new politics” of Bolsonaro.

If there was an Achilles heel or silver lining after his 2018 victory, it would prove very costly to the Brazilian people. The man with no record of disciplined work or professional accomplishment—whether as a military man or as a career politician—proved utterly uninterested in and indeed incapable of governing a continental-sized country like Brazil with 215 million people. With no capacity to lead or to construct public policies, he was content to merely negate while voicing defiance and abuse. Bolsonaro would prove negligent in all aspects of his administration, whether it be denialism in the face of COVID or the heedless push to ‘arm the population’ or to further empower police abuse and killings of the poor and most often Black. His extraordinary and unexpected victory had opened the way for a disastrous presidential administration that would in the end make history by going down to defeat despite access to all the powers of incumbency in 2022. 

While almost 45% of the nation voted for Lula’s substitute presidential candidate Haddad in 2018, the prospects that the jailed Lula might return to office seemed slight. This was true even after the Supreme Court recognized the lack of jurisdiction of the kangaroo court that condemned him; this initial move was followed by the subsequent dismissal of dozens and dozens of charges filed against him as part of backlash that sought to oust the Left from its leading role in a center-left presidential coalition that was far from radical. 

After his release, I saw Lula in December 2019 in quite different contexts, and he was clearly in a spiriti=ed fighting mode. What he did since then flowed from the characteristic dispositions of his generation of ambitious skilled worker who—as I showed in my biography—believed that the only path to win against the odds was to engage in the hard and painstaking 24/7 work of building relationships, assessing new information, and adapting to set backs and constraints while looking for new opportunities for advances, chances perhaps not seem with clarity by others.

However extraordinary, what happened since 2019 is nothing like the facile journalistic coverage that speaks of Lula’s phoenix-like resurrection. Rather, it is the story of a patient collective process, with Lula at its pinnacle, involving hundreds of thousands—in the PT, other leftist parties, and the social movement left—as they reactivated relationships and forged new ones. They did so despite a generalized initial atmosphere of discouragement, fear and even despair made worse by successive police massacres in Bolsonaro’s Rio stronghold and the loss of 700,000 lives, mostly needlessly, to COVID denialism.   

Insecure and erratic in his actions, the failed military man turned mediocre rank-and-file politician (baixo clero) clearly believed his own talk of having been divinely ordained. Lazy, ineffective, and unwilling to put in the hours, he quickly proved an alienating President incapable of effectively using the levers of power to build on what he had achieved in 2018. He courted the military with praise, money and thousands of government appointments and fed his massive social media followings with bold and hyperbolic rhetoric (bravatas). Yet he was incapable of loyalty or reciprocity even with his closest allies of convenience—including the general he chose as his vice-president, the party leader who got rich by making him his candidate with whom Bolsonaro soon broke, or the military chiefs of staff he fired—and he even achieved the unique feet of alienating important sectors of the rich and highly educated who had welcomed the continuation of Temer’s neoliberal policies in office, even if only opportunistically.

Bolsonaro also thrived on unnecessary rhetorical clashes with international capitalism, other than his idol Trump, over the environment and the Amazon. Taking a page from Trump, he would attack the legitimacy of Brazil’s voting system and speak heedlessly of “my Armed Forces” and threaten a coup d’etat in his clashes with Brazilian Supreme Court, an institution, an institution whose Justices were more inclined to resist his onslaught than our mediocre Republican-dominated US top court.

The translation of my book appeared on the first of September in Brazil—published by a small movement press—which led to three weeks of touring since the first round of the election which took me to six states.  While the events were small, they provided plenty of grist for my mill as Lula and the PT undertook strategic pivot having recognized that his popularity and the forces of the left could not alone defeat a president entrenched in power, even if he handled it badly. In the face of criticism from some sectors of the left, who subsequently changed their mind, Lula won over Sao Paulo’s Geraldo Alckmin, the center-right ex-governor of Brazil’s largest and richest state, to serve as his vice-presidential candidate; a man he had twice defeated in past presidential races and who had supported the 2016 impeachment of PT President Dilma.

Lula e a política da astúcia: de metalúrgico a presidente do Brasil book jacket cover (Portuguese edition)

Working tirelessly with both his closest old and new allies, Lula worked to construct the state-by-state constellation of political support by local political forces and machines that could provide a counterbalance to the overwhelming federal power of the purse that guaranteed Bolsonaro control over congress and defeated attempts at his impeachment. At the same time, he toured the country speaking to millions—my anthropologist wife Jan Hoffman French heard him this summer in Sergipe in an well attended and enthusiastic rally—as illustrated by this campaign video. Meanwhile his team built up a social media juggernaut of their own while Lula muscled out rivals in the first round by appealing to their voters; and, after the first round result, won over the second top vote getter Simon Tebet, a centrist conservative with 5% of the vote who will now serve in his cabinet, to throw him her support and campaign with him in the second round. 

All in all, the 2022 campaign was a well-integrated and broader one politically when compared with 2018 when the PT final candidate Haddad’s running mate was a young federal deputy from the Brazilian Communist Party. Once again, as I charted in my biography, Lula displayed the unique style of team building leadership from his apprenticeship in the ABC metalworkers union leading up to the amazing mass strikes of 300,000 in 1979 and 1980: the construction with cunning of a convergence across difference as part of an additive politics based on a transformative but not revolutionary politics aimed at ameliorating the lives and animating the hopes of all of Brazil’s people, but especially the common people, the poor and hungry, and the subaltern, whether it be because of their region, size of city, social class, male or female, race, indigeneity or sexual preference. “Unite the different to combat the antagonistic,” as Lula is wont to say citing Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

In his inaugural speech, Lula insisted that “there are no two Brazil’s. We are one country, one people, and a great nation” but one that can only prove its worth by addressing the return of extreme poverty and hunger under Bolsonaro. Hunger, he insisted, exists not “because of destiny, or nature, or divine will. The return of poverty is a crime, the gravest of all, committed against the Brazilian people. Hunger is the daughter of inequality, which is the mother of all the great evils that hold back Brazil’s development. Inequality makes our continental-size country smaller by dividing us into parts that don’t see each other. On one side, a small share of the population has everything. On the other, a multitude that lacks everything, and a middle class that gets poorer year after year.”

We must understand that “united, we are strong,” he declared, but if “divided, we will always be the country of the future that never arrives, and that continues to owe a debt to its own people.” And “when I say ‘govern,’” he clarified, “I mean to ‘take care of.’ More than governing, I will care for this country and for the Brazilian people with great love.” He went on to offer concrete examples of the many forms of suffering and injustice—including by gender and race—that intensified under Bolsonaro, even though they predated his administration, which owed a great deal to Brazil’s “tragic inheritance of our slaveholding past. Such abysses, he insisted are “obstacles to the construction of a country that is truly just and democratic and of a prosperous and modern economy.”  While opening with praise for those who kept the faith by camping out in front of the prison for 580 days, Lula was quick to direct himself to “those who opted for other candidates. I will govern for all 215 million Brazilian men and women, and not just for those who voted for me.”

Lula’s second-round victory relieves a lot of worry, although the task of reconstruction ahead is challenging with a minoritarian but radicalized far right social movement on the rise, as I emphasized in an opinion article recently published in The Guardian. There are political and economic storm clouds in the sky at home is clear, but prospects are made even more complicated because an international environment marked by an aggressive and ill-considered US drive to reestablish US global power through economic, military, and commercial warfare directed against Russia and China. In contrast, Lula sounds the alarm bell against war and calls for negotiations while arguing that a multi-polar world should not be seen as a threat even if it were to curb the exaggerated ambitions of the US, its North Atlantic partners, and its closest allies around the world. We must recognize the importance of fighting against war in all its forms which inevitably brings in its wake hunger, brutality, death, and suffering while encouraging a belligerent nationalism that intensifies injustice both domestically and internationally and strengthens the hand of those who benefit, including arms manufacturers, while feeding galloping militarism.   

John D. French is professor of history at Duke University and the author, most recently, of Drowning in Laws: Labor Law and Brazilian Political Culture.