Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has been elected the next president of Brazil, in a stunning comeback following a tight run-off race on Sunday. His victory heralds a political about-face for Latin America’s largest country, after four years of Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right administration.
The 76-year-old politician’s win represents the return of the left into power in Brazil, and concludes a triumphant personal comeback for Lula da Silva, after a series of corruption allegations lead to his imprisonment for 580 days. The sentences were later annulled by the Supreme Court, clearing his path to run for reelection.
“They tried to bury me alive and I’m here,” he said in a jubilant speech to supporters and journalists on Sunday evening, describing the win as his political “resurrection.”
“Starting on January 1, 2023, I will govern for the 215 million Brazilians, not just the ones who voted for me. There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation,” Lula da Silva also said.
He will take the reins of a country plagued by gross inequality that is still struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Approximately 9.6 million people fell under the poverty line between 2019 and 2021, and literacy and school attendance rates have fallen. He will also be faced with a deeply fractured nation and urgent environmental issues, including rampant deforestation in the Amazon.
This will be his third term, after previously governing Brazil for two consecutive terms between 2003 and 2010.
The latest in a leftist wave
The former leader’s victory on Sunday was the latest in a political wave across Latin America, with wins by left-leaning politicians in Argentina, Colombia and Chile. But Lula da Silva – a former union leader with a blue-collar background – has sought to reassure moderates throughout his campaign.
He has built a broad alliance including several politicians from the center and center-right, including historical opponents from the PSDB, Brazil’s Social Democrat Party. Among these politicians is his vice-president, former São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, who has been cited by the Lula camp as a guarantee of moderation in his administration.
On the campaign trail, Lula da Silva has been reluctant to show his cards when it came to outlining an economic strategy – a tendency that earned sharp criticism from his competitors. “Who is the other candidate’s economy minister? There isn’t one, he doesn’t say. What will be his political and economic route? More state? Less state? We don’t know…,” said Bolsonaro during a live transmission on YouTube on October 22.
Lula da Silva has said that he would push Congress to approve a tax reform which would exempt low-earners from paying income tax. And his campaign received a boost from centrist former presidential candidate Simone Tebet, who came third in the first round earlier this month and gave Lula da Silva her support in the run-off. Known for her ties with Brazil’s agricultural industry, Tebet said in an October 7 press conference that Lula da Silva and his economic team had “received and incorporated all the suggestions from our program to his government’s program.”
He has also received the support of several renowned economists highly regarded by investors, including Arminio Fraga, a former president of the Brazilian Central Bank.
Healing a divided country
Lula da Silva received more than 60 million votes, the most in Brazilian history, breaking his own record from 2006.
But despite the huge turnout from his supporters, his victory was by a narrow margin – Lula da Silva won 50.90% of the vote and Bolsonaro received 49.10%, according to Brazil’s electoral authority.
His biggest challenge now may be unifying a politically fractured country.
Hours after the results were announced, Bolsonaro had yet to concede defeat or make any public statement. Meanwhile, videos on social media showed his supporters had blocked highways in two states to protest against Lula da Silva’s victory.
“We will only leave once the army takes over the country,” one unidentified Bolsonaro supporter said in a video taken in the southern state of Santa Catarina.
Lula da Silva will need to pursue dialogue and rebuild relationships, said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper, a university in São Paulo. “The president can be an important instrument for this as long as he is not only concerned in addressing his base of voters,” he said.
With more than 58 million votes cast for his rival Bolsonaro – who had been endorsed by former US President Donald Trump – Lula da Silva will have to form “pragmatic alliances” with parts of the center and the right that bought into his predecessor’s politics, adds Thiago Amparo, professor of law and human rights at FGV business school in São Paulo.
At the same time, he will have to deliver to match supporters’ expectations, Amparo added. “Many voters went to the ballot expecting that, not just to get rid of Bolsonaro, but with memories of better economic times during Lula’s previous governments.”
Many will be watching for potential change to the 2017 Labor Reform Act, which subjected more workers’ rights and benefits to negotiation with employers, and made union contributions optional. Lula da Silva had said previously that he would revoke the act but recently changed the verb to “review” following criticisms from the private sector.
He may find that enacting his agenda is an uphill battle, Amparo warns, especially with a hostile Congress. Seats that were from the traditional right are now occupied by the far right, who are not open to negotiation and not easy to deal with, underlines Amparo.
In the latest elections, Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party increased its representatives in the lower house from 76 to 99, while in the Senate it doubled from seven members to 14. Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party has also increased its number of deputies from 56 to 68 and senators from seven to eight – but overall, conservative-leaning politicians will dominate the next legislature.
That friction will require some compromises, points out Camila Rocha, a political scientist at the Cebrap think tank. “[Bolsonaro’s] Liberal Party will have the highest number of representatives and important allies and will make real opposition to the government, [Lula da Silva’s] Worker’s Party will have to sow a coalition with [traditional rightwing party] União Brasil in order to govern, which means the negotiation of ministries and key positions,” Rocha told to CNN.
The Amazon and climate leadership
Environmentalists meanwhile will be watching Lula da Silva’s administration closely, as it assumes governance not only over the Brazilian nation but over the planet’s largest forest reserves.
With destruction of the vast Amazon rainforest reaching record levels under Bolsonaro’s presidency, Lula da Silva has repeatedly said during his campaign that he would seek to curb deforestation. He has argued that protecting the forest could produce some profit, citing the beauty and pharmaceutical industries as potential beneficiaries of biodiversity.
In an interview with foreign press in August, Lula da Silva called for “a new world governance” to address climate change and stressed that Brazil should take a central role in that governance, given its natural resources.
According to the head of Lula da Silva’s government plan, Aloizio Mercadante, another tactic will be to create a group including Brazil, Indonesia and Congo ahead of the UN-led November 2022 Conference of Parties. The group would aim to pressure richer countries to finance the protection of forests as well as outlining strategies for the global carbon market.
Several experts told CNN they believed his stance on environment and the climate issue could represent a fresh start in Brazil’s international relations.
For Amparo, environmental protection could indeed be springboard for Brazil’s global leadership, a major shift after Bolsonaro warned the world away from intervening in the destruction of the Amazon. “Lula would try to reposition, almost like a rebranding, Brazil in the international arena as a power to be taken into account,” he said.
“We can expect a government that goes back to talking to the world, especially with a new stance in the environmental area,” said Melo, the Insper researcher.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Rodrigo Pedroso and Julia Vargas Jones.