Why Brazil’s Lula is still so popular

Veteran leftist takes victory over right-wing incumbent by narrowest margin in Brazil’s modern history

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Lula will serve a third term in office
(Image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Brazil’s former leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has capped a remarkable political comeback with victory in Brazil’s presidential election.

The veteran leftist’s second-round victory over right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro sees Lula return to lead Latin America’s largest economy following a “contentious and tight race”, which forced the former president “to build a broad coalition and move to the centre”, reported the The Washington Post.

It’s a “remarkable outcome for a politician who just three years ago was in jail for corruption”, said Bloomberg. The charges against him were later dropped on procedural grounds. Yet Lula’s victory by the narrowest margin in Brazil’s modern history - 50.9% to 49.1% - “underscores the divisions in society exacerbated by four years of Bolsonaro”, the broadcaster added.

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The election was “widely seen as a test for the world’s fourth-largest democracy”, said Semafor’s J.D. Capelouto as Bolsonaro “repeatedly questioned Brazil's electoral system during his campaign and vowed to reject the results if he lost, sparking concerns of political violence”.

In a victory speech to his supporters after the result of the election was announced, Lula said: “This country needs peace and unity. This population doesn’t want to fight anymore”.

A towering figure on the Brazilian left, Lula remains hugely popular despite his legal troubles.

From popular president to convicted criminal

The former steel worker and union boss left office in 2011 with an approval rating of more than 80%. This was largely a result of the rapid economic progress that took place in Brazil under his rule.

But after he stepped down, multiple allegations against Lula and his party emerged. In July 2017, he was convicted of bribery and money laundering as part of Brazil’s biggest ever corruption scandal and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison.

In January 2018, an appeals court upheld the conviction and increased his prison sentence to 12 years and one month. Lula always denied the charges, arguing that his trial was politically motivated. Eventually the “conviction was nullified over a year into his imprisonment after the Supreme Court said he was tried in a court that didn’t have proper jurisdiction”, said Semafor’s Capelouto. The annulment last year cleared the way for him to run against Bolsonaro.

Champion of the poor

A poll published shortly after Lula’s conviction was upheld in January 2018 showed that if an election had been held then, he would have led the race with 34% of the vote. Analysts said at the time that his enduring popularity could be attributed to his commitment to social justice, as well as the economic prosperity ordinary Brazilians experienced during his tenure.

“In his time in office, Lula pumped billions of dollars into social programmes and can reasonably claim to have helped reverse Brazil’s historic inequalities,” the BBC reported. By “increasing the minimum wage well above the rate of inflation and broadening state help to the most impoverished”, he helped some 44 million people and “cemented his support among the poor”, the broadcaster added.

A rockier road

The election has been ill-tempered: President Bolsonaro called Lula a thief, and the left-winger labelled Bolsonaro a madman. However, Lula has drawn support from a broad coalition of voters who were keen to see the back of Bolsonaro. “A lot of the people who’ve voted for him are not leftists,” Latin America correspondent Tom Phillips wrote for The Guardian.

In contrast to his rival, who has argued that parts of the rainforest should be opened up to economic exploitation even as deforestation and forest fires soared under his tenure, Lula won the support of more climate-aware voters with his promise to bolster measures to protect the Amazon.

In his victory speech, he “invited international cooperation to preserve the Amazon rainforest”, reported Reuters. Lula said he will seek fair global trade rather than deals that “condemn our country to be an eternal exporter of raw materials”.

He also vowed to introduce a new tax system that would allow for higher public spending, and an end to hunger in the country, which has returned during the Bolsonaro government.

Now all eyes turn to Bolsonaro’s reaction to Lula’s tight victory. Last year, Bolsonaro told evangelical leaders he only saw three paths for his future: “being arrested, killed or victory”.

Should a peaceful transition of power be achieved, Lula, now 77, “has made it clear that he will lead Brazil for the next four years only”, said Bloomberg. That means “we’re likely to see an older but wiser Lula who is impatient to get things done and intent on shaping his legacy for good”, the broadcaster added.

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