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Challenge begins now for Brazil’s comeback kid

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Lula is back, but the struggles ahead, from healing deep social cleavages to fixing Brazil's fiscal woes, should not be underestimated (Photograph by Tuane Fernandes/Bloomberg)

“They tried to bury me alive and here I am.”

By the time former-president-turned-Brazilian-president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spoke on Sunday night, celebrating an unlikely comeback at 77, his gravelly voice was even more hoarse than usual. It has been a gruelling, grimy and occasionally violent campaign, but his words were the right ones — calm, grateful, preaching economic progress and reconciliation. He promised to govern for all Brazilians. “No one,” he said to the crowd, “wants to live in a country that is in a permanent state of war.”

President Jair Bolsonaro, the first Brazilian incumbent to lose a re-election bid, was silent. At about 10pm, lights in the presidential palace went off.

After months of effort by the Bolsonaro camp to question the election process, plus last-minute shenanigans with complaints about radio advertisements and election-day police checks on busy roads (impeding voters), this has brought welcome relief. As has the rapidity with which domestic allies of Bolsonaro, such as the speaker of the lower house Arthur Lira, moved to accept the result, even as international heavyweights like the United States congratulated Lula — reducing the room for a presidential tantrum.

But no one should be deceived. Lula’s victory over Bolsonaro was the narrowest in modern Brazilian history — not even two percentage points — and the electoral map reveals a country deeply fractured between the less affluent pro-Lula northeast and the pro-Bolsonaro south. There are cleavages along ideological, racial, religious and social lines. Lula lost in populous states such as São Paulo, and in fact, out of 26 states and a federal district, he came out ahead in just 13. Rejection of the leftist leader remains very strong, the result of a vast graft probe that followed his time in office and helped to oust his successor¹. (He was jailed, but his convictions were later annulled.) As many cheered in the streets on Sunday, half of the country seethed.

The official inauguration, meanwhile, does not take place until the start of January, leaving plenty of time for mischief.

Against that backdrop, the balancing act ahead for Lula is an unenviable one, an order of magnitude more challenging than when he was first elected two decades ago. Having grown up in poverty himself, back then he surfed a wave of rising commodity prices to dramatically improve life for the poorest Brazilians, reducing extreme poverty and inequality with a groundbreaking cash-transfer programme. He has promised to repeat the feat, while getting the economy back on track and tackling damage done to the environment.

But this is not the early 2000s. There is no broad commodity boom, Covid-zero China is not gobbling steel and iron ore at staggering rates. In fact, the world is heading into a downturn and government revenues will be lower in 2023.

And the stakes could hardly be higher.

Lula’s impressive political skills and charisma have allowed him to build a wide enough coalition to secure an electoral triumph against Bolsonaro’s presidential machine — but he will have to build many more bridges now. Sunday’s vote was a bitter race to see who was hated the least, a vote against, rather than for. It was not an overwhelming endorsement of Lula or even, sadly, of democracy. If Lula fails and the economy falters, he would usher Bolsonaro back in, or worse, a stronger and more effective far-right alternative.

First and foremost, his challenge is to reassure wary investors, who are likely to be relieved at the absence of turmoil, but wary on what comes next. Lula’s past economic record is a pragmatic one, yet he has provided little detail this time, beyond a letter promising to combine his social promises with fiscal responsibility — an echo of what he wrote to Brazilians back in 2002. He needs to provide more clarity on how he will balance vast needs and hefty debt, starting with the appointment of a finance minister who is a known quantity, trusted by investors, say, former central bank governor and one-time minister Henrique Meirelles, a front-runner for the position.

Lula is in a good place to repair Brazil’s international credibility, beginning with commitments around the climate, given the scale of destruction. Reconstituting the agencies monitoring and protecting the environment and indigenous peoples would be a start.

Then he needs to decide how to move forward with national reconciliation, in a concerted effort to defuse some of the most toxic elements of Bolsonarismo, without necessarily investigating them all. Even if Bolsonaro the man is defeated, the far-right populist movement he represents is not, and leading lights among his followers have won governor positions or senate seats. That requires urgent dialogue with conservative evangelical groups and, crucially, with the military, which has yet to give its verdict on Sunday’s vote. Lula will need to press for an endorsement, to then redefine civilian-military relations while slowly pushing generals back to the barracks. It means shoring up democratic institutions.

No less importantly, to guarantee any level of legislative success with a fragmented parliament, Lula needs to build a broad frente ampla government, leaning on allies such as Simone Tebet, who has links to the agricultural lobby — a key source of support for Bolsonaro — plus centrist parties in congress. He must act fast.

For all that, the next move to watch will be Bolsonaro’s. It has been a bruising year of outrageous allegations, mudslinging and violence. On the eve of the vote, a Bolsonarista congresswoman drew a gun and then chased a young Black man in a fancy district of São Paulo after she said she was insulted. That was a grim omen. Presidential silence may be a better one.

Notes: ¹ Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor, was elected in 2010, re-elected in 2014 and impeached in 2016 on charges of manipulating budget accounts

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Britain, Italy and Russia

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Britain, Italy and Russia

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Published November 01, 2022 at 7:46 am (Updated November 01, 2022 at 7:46 am)

Challenge begins now for Brazil’s comeback kid

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