On November 8, 2019, Former Brazilian President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva was released from prison after the latest ruling from the Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal that reverses its position to allow imprisonment after a conviction following a first appeal. A day after, the former president was greeted by thousands of supporters as he spoke at a metal workers union meeting near Sao Paulo. In his 45 minute speech, he attacked his rival, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, for his recent political actions. “We are going to do a lot of fighting. Fighting is not one day, then three months off, then back. Fighting is every day,” he said drowned out by cheers and applause from his supporters. Since then, Lula has been tweeting, giving speeches, commanding rallies and even forging alliances in the congress. His recent activities leads us to assume that he’s likely to run for presidency in 2022. But what would it take for Lula to win again? Does he have the same unwavering public support and approval to take back Brazil? And what opportunity does this pose for President Jair Bolsonaro and for the future of Brazil’s democracy?
Lula Da Silva’s popularity is something phenomenal. He gained not only the admiration of Brazilians but also recognition internationally for his efforts to alleviate the living conditions of the marginalized. While in office, he was named one of the most popular politicians in the world and also one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2010. Even after stepping down from the office, he left an indelible mark in Brazil with an 80% public approval rating. His popularity can in part be credited to Brazil’s economic growth during his tenure but he’s also a figure that Brazilian’s feel they could identify. Lula’s story is one of humble beginnings and hardships, a transformation that reflects the spirit of the marginalized.
A four year term limit applies for the presidential position in Brazil and is renewable once. However, this limit doesn’t apply for life. A former president who has served for two consecutive presidential terms may, at a later time, run again for office. This provided an opportunity for Lula Da SIlva to run again. Early polls for his third presidential campaign shows that he had a significant lead over other candidates. He was in a comfortable position. But when he was disqualified from running under Brazil’s Clean Slate Law, it became easy for Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate of the Social Liberal party, to lead the elections.
A 2022 Presidential bid by Lula Da Silva under the Workers’ Party is not impossible. The left can still leverage on his immense popularity to lead the upcoming elections but what does this possibility pose for a potential Jair Bolsonaro second presidential bid. Given the increasing unpopularity of Bolsonaro, there’s always the possibility of submitting to undemocratic means to keep political power. Stories about Hugo Chavez, Ferdinand Marcos and Recep Tayyip Erdogan tells us that there are now more sophisticated ways to maintain political power. The smartest way to rig an election starts even before the ballots have been printed. The true cost is a slide to authoritarianism.
Democractic erosions is usually a long, arduous process but history also tells us that democracies can deteriorate fast through coercive and aggressive means. The latter poses as a possibility for the conquest that Bolsonaro may lead should he decide to maintain his political power. Having served in the army as a cadet and a paratrooper, he developed nostalgia for the military regime that ruled Brazil for more than 20 years which is also reflected in his campaign rhetoric. He admires the country’s former dictators and believes that dictatorship was a very good period. Early this year, Bolsonaro even reinstated commemorations of the 1964 coup – one that has been characterized by widespread torture and killing throughout Brazil. He went as far as to propose hard austerity measures and support ideological persecution at the educational level. He also believes that criminals are killed on the spot rather than face justice. All these factors provide us with an indication of the political actions he’s willing to take to preserve his political power if the upcoming election results will not favor him.
2022 is still a long way to go. There’s still the certainty that Lula Da Silva can go back to prison after all his cases have been exhausted. Perhaps, Bolsonaro can use his leverage as the president of Brazil to prevent Lula from bidding in the upcoming presidential elections, or he can take lessons out of the authoritarians’ rule book on how to rig elections through legitimate means. While we cannot know for sure what lies ahead, Lula’s release from prison have reinvigorated the left that has been struggling since his arrest in 2018 to mobilize and increase their efforts to campaign for the upcoming elections. Bolsonaro’s unpopularity presented as a liability on his potential bid for second term but it’s also what can trigger him to submit to undemocratic means to preserve political power. Maybe the upcoming elections won’t be a popularity contest but one which fuel the engine for authoritarianism.
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