A Pragmatic President?

Lula returns to power in Brazil but can he unite such a divided country and what are his priorities?

The Worker’s Party is back in power in Brazil, six years after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and after four years of a far-right socially conservative government led by the retired military officer, Jair Bolsonaro. After the Supreme Court of Brazil annulled the corruption convictions of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) he became the favourite candidate to claim the country’s presidential seat, which he claimed after narrowly defeating Bolsonaro with 50.9% votes versus 49.1%.

As world leaders rushed to acknowledge Lula’s victory, Bolsonaro refused to congratulate the winner of the election, increasing fears over whether he will accept the result. According to the leading local newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Bolsonaro refused to speak to his allies although Alexandre de Moraes, head of the Supreme Electoral Court, said that he informed the defeated candidate about the outcome of the election. Most of Bolsonaro’s allies, including the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, and Attorney General Augusto Aras, conceded Lula’s victory.

A Brazilian collaborator with Transparency International commented, “It’s not for him [President Jair Bolsonaro] to accept the results. The TSE [Electoral Supreme Court] already validated the results and his opponent won. There is something eery about his silence and, most importantly, those of his sons, the main ideologues behind Bolsonaro’s strategy. But what can he do? As upset as he may be his political allies don’t seem to be willing to start a fight which could get ugly and, likely in the fringes of legality or through bluntly illegal means.”

“It’s not for him [President Jair Bolsonaro] to accept the results. The TSE [Electoral Supreme Court] already validated the results and his opponent won.”

Collaborator, Transparency International, Brazil

Expected to take office on 1 January 2023, Lula already said that he will govern for 215 million Brazilians and added that he wanted to end the “two Brazils” rhetoric, bringing together the peoples of what he defined as “one great nation”. Despite his narrow victory, Lula has managed to expand his base by granting the support of left, centre, and centre-right candidates, including his candidate for Vice-President Gerardo Alckmin, former Governor of São Paulo. Nevertheless, Lula will still face a divided Parliament dominated by conservative forces which will force him to seek a conciliatory tone and reach political consensus to push his legislative agenda. “Despite his populist rhetoric, Lula was a pragmatic president the first time and he will need to be again. He will be severely constrained by Congress,” explained an international relations professor in São Paulo, “many governors will bluntly oppose his proposals and the business community will be demanding too.”

“Despite his populist rhetoric, Lula was a pragmatic president the first time and he will need to be again. He will be severely constrained by Congress.”

International relations professor, São Paulo

The CEO of a multinational textile company based in São Paulo agreed, “We’re expecting a pragmatic Lula, at least for the first two years. His current election team was already quite moderate with centrist advisors and orthodox economic advisors. Of course, there will be more social spending, but the negative economic perspectives suggest that he will not be able to pour money into Bolsa Família as he used to do.”

In the international arena, Lula is expected to continue with a South-South diplomatic agenda, which, on his first two terms transformed Brazil into an undisputed regional power. This time, he will count with left-wing allies in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina who are willing to strengthen ties with Brazil. Lula has already said that he sees the US and the EU as valuable partners, particularly in trade and environmental cooperation, but, as he aims to re-negotiate the EU-Mercosur trade deal, he will seek to deepen bilateral ties with China, Brazil’s largest trade partner.

The professor of international relations warned, “Surprisingly, Western leaders fail to understand that Lula’s foreign policy is based on maximising Brazil’s economic growth. His ideological stance focused on a deeper integration of South America with, for instance, a stronger Mercosur. EU leaders welcomed his election but he’ll be a much tougher negotiator than Bolsonaro and he was never afraid of seeking allies outside the West: he made Brazil’s original approach to China but he also sealed deals with Iran and the BRICS. He will do this without isolating the US, he’ll just take from Washington whatever he thinks is positive for Brazil.”

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