In Brazil, a battle of populists — from the Right and the Left
Brazil is headed for an ugly political confrontation that will culminate in next year’s presidential election. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, and and former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are on a collision course.
Over the past few years, Brazil’s citizens have endured the worst recession in the country’s history, one of the world’s highest Covid-19 death tolls, a surge in violent crime, and global controversy over large-scale destruction in the Amazon forest.
Bolsonaro was elected president in October 2018 with more than 55% of the vote in a deeply polarised nation. Echoing Donald Trump’s presidential run in 2016, Bolsonaro promised to “drain the swamp” by fighting crime and corruption, took confrontational views on social issues, and expressed deep support for Brazil’s military.
But since his inauguration in 2019, Bolsonaro has faced, and at times ignited, one political firestorm after another. Candidate Bolsonaro had promised to kickstart an economy mired in recession since 2014, but economic growth remains low and unemployment high. In part, that’s because of the pandemic, of course, but Bolsonaro’s disastrous handling of the biggest public health crisis of the past century has made matters far worse. He has downplayed Covid-19’s severity, refused to support mask-wearing, and bungled the vaccine rollout. As the pandemic took hold, Bolsonaro offered an emergency stipend that temporarily helped the country’s poorest citizens, but 55% of Brazil’s people faced food insecurity in 2020.
As for the Amazon fires, deforestation accounted for one-third of the destruction of the world’s tropical forests in 2019. Trump, a climate sceptic, was willing to ignore the implications of this destruction, but the Joe Biden administration has joined with European leaders to combine offers of financial help for Brazil with pressure on Bolsonaro to reverse course on the Amazon policy.
Re-enter Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The former president, widely known as Lula, a still popular Left-wing firebrand, is now out of prison and preparing to face Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential election. In recent years, the world has grown used to seeing populist candidates square off against establishment politicians. But the contest in Brazil will feature two remarkably talented populists, one from the Right and the other from the Left, going head to head.
Lula represents Brazil’s poorest people, those who feel that no one else in power cares about them. His formative experience as a tough but savvy trade union leader and the popularity he earned as president by investing large amounts of public money to create opportunities for Brazil’s poorest families give him a stature and a chance to win that none of Bolsonaro’s other challengers can match. Bolsonaro is better connected to Brazil’s middle class, which is fed up with the crime and corruption during the period when the Workers Party, led first by Lula, and then by his handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff, governed.
Though Lula presents himself as a victim of political persecution, his government was eventually caught up in the largest criminal corruption investigation in Brazil’s history. As part of the so-called Car Wash scandal, an investigation that began with charges of contracting graft at Brazil’s national oil company, expanded in multiple directions and across borders. According to the taskforce which investigated Car Wash-related crimes, the investigation led to the return to the Brazilian treasury of more than $800 million and the conviction of 278 people. Former presidents of Peru, Panama, and El Salvador went to prison. So did Lula. But Lula has never accepted responsibility for wrongdoing, though he owes his release from prison to a legal technicality.
Despite all the setbacks and failures that Brazil’s two political heavyweights have suffered, polls show that each has managed to keep the support of hardcore followers.
In the meantime, Covid-19 continues to ravage the country, the economy is sputtering, and social media attacks are already inflaming political tensions. It’s going to be a hot year for Brazil.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism The views expressed are personal