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.
Hunter, Wendy and Timothy J. Power. 2019. “Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Illiberal Backlash.” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 1. (December 5, 2019)
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Lobao, Mario and Diane Jeantet. 2019. “Freed ex-president tells crowd Brazil’s left can win in 2022. https://apnews.com/9b44906479cf4c24a0c51782a0b345ce (December 5, 2019)
McCoy, Terrence. 2019. “Out of Prison, former president Lula wants Brazil back. But is the feeling mutual?”. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/out-of-jail-former-president-lula-wants-brazil-back-but-is-the-feeling-mutual/2019/11/18/81009538-08b2-11ea-8ac0-0810ed197c7e_story.html (December 5, 2019)
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Facing what may become a military regime, Brazil is currently under the power of one of the most controversial and disliked presidents yet. The article “The Popularity of Lula and the Unpopularity of Bolsonaro” by Michel De Dios from the University of the Philippines, analyzes the rising popularity of former left-wing president Lula Da Silva and his impact to what has become an undemocratic Brazilian government under the current right-wing president, Bolsonaro. Feeling threatened that a popular previous president is freshly out of jail might cause Bolsonaro to overreact and manipulate his way into remaining in power and behaving against the public’s wishes by leaning more towards authoritarian tendencies.
I find this article very interesting as it touches exactly on the topic of populism and authoritarian characteristics. Power is something many desire and once they have it, it’s the connection to the social status that makes power hard to let go of. Both candidates are leaning more towards the authoritarian tendencies mentioned in the book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. This book states that the four authoritarian indicators are: “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game”, “Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents”, “Toleration or encouragement of violence”, and “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media”.
Using those populist skills is what got Bolsonaro the presidency in the first place. In a similar article “Brazilian democracy under threat: the pathway that led President Bolsonaro to power” by Eugenia Alvares Affonso, it is analyzed the reasons why such a populist was able to gain power. During a moment of crisis, he exploited the weaknesses of the Brazilian people; winning by a mere 5%, Bolsonaro would threaten his opposition, declare all media “fake news”, and is now rejecting the democratic norms.
In their book, Levitsky and Ziblatt mention that the Constitution is what sets the rules of power; every country has them. However, not all the rules are written down, some are implied. Using George Washington in the U.S. as an example, he set the “rule” of President’s only being allowed to preside over two terms, it wasn’t until someone challenged that rule that it came to the attention of many of the lack of clear guidelines the constitution has for certain situations, and how easily one may come around them. Lula Da Silva is such a challenger. Though he has already served twice as President, he wishes to run again and attempted to do so in 2018 but was denied under Brazil’s clean slate law. The clean slate law “bars candidates convicted of serious crimes, corruption or who have been impeached”. An argument arose between the right of the people to choose their president; they were being denied the fundamental right to choose the candidate they desired, showing a sense of inequality in which the “elites” had a disproportionate amount of power given what a small group they were.
The force pushing both candidates, popularity. Each with a strong force pushing to see them succeed, it is clear the ideological divisions behind each one. At the end of the article, Michel states “Maybe the upcoming elections won’t be a popularity contest but one which [will] fuel the engine for authoritarianism”. To which I partly agree; I believe the upcoming election will serve both as the fuel for authoritarianism and while serving as a testament for popularity. As seen through many examples throughout the world, a Populist leader is fueled by the fact that they are more popular meaning that whoever wins will prove exactly that.
However, the argument of whether or not Bolsonaro is popular is still questionable. This article clearly highlights the distaste for him, but there seem to be something people lack. Richard Wike’s and Janell Fetterolf’s article “Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence” mentioned how people tend to lean toward more authoritarian leaders when they are under financial insecurity; they prioritize the sake of the economy over actual democracy. Bolsonaro, though having questionable democratic morals, has improved what was a declining government in Brazil. Bolsonaro has improved the government through “the elimination of corruption, and the boosting of the economy and public security”. The Brazilian people are far more worried about job security than any of the comments he has made in the past or other things he may stand for. With this in mind, it is clear how he may not actually be as unpopular as the author describes him to be; he brings a new wave of the possibility of economic prosperity. According to Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens in their book “Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It”, income inequality is the defining factor of democracy, which is something he is trying to eliminate through the improvement of the economy which in turn improves democracy in general for the nation.
Right now, Brazil is a political, cultural, and economic mess and it is very likely that the people will align themselves more towards a ruler who has the intention to solve it themselves as quickly as possible and who seems confident enough to do so. There is clear democratic deconsolidation occurring within the Brazilian population creating that fuel of want and need to have more of an authoritarian government. If Lula wins the next election, it would be going back to a time of more economic instability, however, if Bolsonaro continues people have no idea what could happen; either way, both can take a turn for the worse.
The 2022 election is only two years away, how much Bolsonaro can do to change people’s mind is still a question, whether or not the economy will still take precedence over other things for the Brazilian population is also another question that will remain unanswered. Having an imminent threat in the form of a popular ex-president, the people might question what his future intentions might be and whether or not his actions could be related to authoritarianism. In the end, the power is in the hands of the people as they decide at the end of the day what their priorities are and what they want the future of the country to look like.