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Lula, Brazil’s popular ex-president, battles for 2022 political comeback

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president from 2002 to 2010, embarked upon a triumphant European tour worthy of a head of state in November. Cleared of corruption charges by Brazil’s Supreme Court in April, he gathered support from the European left and honed his message ahead of Brazil’s 2022 presidential election. His strategy to unseat President Jair Bolsonaro is based on the appeal of his personality and his ability to negotiate with Brazilian politics’ kingmakers.

‘Back in the Champions League of international leaders’

Is Lula planning on running in the 2022 Brazilian presidential elections? “I’ll let you know,” the former president replied calmly, when questioned in a grand Parisian hotel, where he was being awarded Politique Internationale’s Prize for Political Courage on November 17.

True to form, the former steelworker who was released from prison in November 2019 declared his love for the “good, democratic, generous, hard-working” Brazilian people, who are “much better than the ignorant people currently in power”, and defended Brazil’s mission to become an economic and regional power for the good of the planet. A few hours later, he was received by French President Emmanuel Macron for lunch at the Élysée Palace.

The interminable judicial ordeal that, beginning from 2011, saw Lula convicted in cases of corruption, embezzlement of public funds and obstruction of justice, seems to be over. The former president is “back in the Champions League of international leaders”, says Gaspard Estrada, director of the Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean at Paris’ Institute of Political Studies.

Reusing a proven electoral strategy

Lula’s European tour demonstrated that, unlike Jair Bolsonaro, he isn’t a pariah in the eyes of the international community – a clear difference that the former president hopes will win back the hearts of the Brazilian electorate.

Upon his return to Brazil, and ahead of an upcoming trip to the United States, Lula will continue to make full use of the electoral strategy that won him the presidency in 2002: Talking to a variety of people, and negotiating with and rallying political forces beyond his Workers’ Party (PT), particularly from the centre of the political spectrum.

“Lula has no competition on the left, but after Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment (Editor’s note: in 2016), the PT’s political orientation has turned more towards the left. In the 2018 presidential election, the PT’s candidate chose a running mate who was further left than him. But historically, the PT only wins with a vice president from the centre-right,” Oliver Stuenkel, professor of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, points out.

The unavoidable ‘Centrao’: The soft and corrupt underbelly of Brazilian politics

Indeed, since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, all presidents have had to form alliances with a multitude of small, conservative parties in order to govern. Acting as representatives of conservative, “deep” Brazil, they are known by Brazilians as the “Centrao” (“big centre”). 

Divided into different groupings – 25 parties currently have elected members in Congress – these coalitions determine whether legislation can move through Brazil’s parliament. “You can’t govern Brazil without the Centrao. Its members will always be in government, and they don’t care who wins the election. It’s a peculiarity of the Brazilian political system,” explains Stuenkel. 

It is therefore likely that Lula wants to “return to the happier times of his presidency and put an end to political polarisation” in the form of “Lulism”, a synonym for “conciliation and acceptance of the realities of Brazilian political life”, explains Armelle Enders, a historian of contemporary Brazil at Université Paris 8.

“The left has reproached him for having personal ties with many right-wing or centre-wing personalities whom they consider unattractive,” Enders says. But in 2022, these parties will probably be less picky, as they aim to put former army captain Jair Bolsonaro out of office for good.

Reconnecting with the military

Another challenge for the great conciliator will be to reconnect with the military: a popular institution among Brazilians that aligned itself with Bolsonaro after his 2018 victory. “Lula tried to open a dialogue with the military hierarchy through his former defence minister, Nelson Jobim, but apparently without success. The establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by Dilma Rousseff in 2014 has created a rift between the PT and the army,” explains Stuenkel. 

In Paris, Lula appeared uncharacteristically unconciliatory as he spoke about this issue. “The role of the Brazilian armed forces is well-defined by the Constitution: They defend the sovereignty of our country. (…) They are at the service of civil society. That is what our Constitution says. Today, there are 8,000 military personnel in positions of civil responsibility and trust. They will have to leave, and we will replace them with non-military personnel. There is no problem, but I don’t want to talk about elections with the military,” he told journalists on November 17.

French left-wing party La France Insoumise’s presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon salutes Brazil's ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva before their meeting in a Paris hotel on November 17, 2021.
French left-wing party La France Insoumise’s presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon salutes Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva before their meeting in a Paris hotel on November 17, 2021. © Christophe Archambault, AFP

Uncertainty ahead of a decisive election

In a Brazil hit hard by unemployment and the pandemic, with hunger resurfacing in some parts of the country, Lula, who has been leading in the polls for months, wants to focus his campaign on reconciliation, on celebrating Brazil and on reassuring the Brazilian people. 

Yet a Lula victory, hoped for by many Brazilians as well as leaders in Europe and Latin America, is not a foregone conclusion. Although the former president has been cleared of all convictions, his name remains synonymous, for a part of Brazilian public opinion, with political corruption. A polarised contest between the former president and the incumbent can therefore be expected.

“Lula will have a hard time winning back the business community,” says Enders. “In 20 years, many things have changed. A new, highly libertarian right wing has gained strength. It is looking for a third way, between a Lula who is too far left and a Bolsonaro who is too unpredictable. It could instead look towards Judge Sergio Moro [Editor’s note: Moro jailed Lula, was appointed minister of justice and public security after Bolsonaro was elected, and resigned in April 2020], which could bother Bolsonaro.”

“Currently, Jair Bolsonaro is keeping a low profile, as he was threatened with impeachment after trying to stage a coup in September. But he is not out of the running – anything is possible.” 

In the event of a second-round defeat, the current Brazilian president, a great admirer of former US president Donald Trump, does not plan on going down without a fight – especially if Lula emerges victorious.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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