Lula – A Leftist Icon Again Leads An Embattled Brazil
Every issue, the SAIS Observer presents a World Leader Profile of someone you have probably heard of but may know little about. This edition is about Brazil’s new leader: President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.
On October 30, in the second round of Brazil’s predictably contested and heated election, former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva defeated incumbent far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. The election was tight, with Lula winning just 50.9% of the vote compared to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%, a margin of 2 million votes in a country with over 200 million people. Nevertheless, Lula’s return to the presidency elicited massive responses worldwide, with leaders congratulating him for ushering in a new era for Latin America. Lula’s momentous return to power merits an examination of this long-standing figure in Brazilian politics.
Born in 1945 to a working-class family, Lula had little formal education, instead working various odd jobs to supplement his family’s income. While working in a factory in a suburb of Sao Paulo, Lula joined the Metalworkers’ Union. He rose to prominence in 1975 after being elected president of the Union. In this role, Lula spearheaded efforts to raise workers’ wages and led several strikes in the suburbs of Sao Paulo in the twilight of military rule.
Building on his nascent political stardom, Lula was a founding member of Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or the Workers’ Party, in 1982. Lula was later elected as a PT delegate from Sao Paulo in the 1986 elections, the first legislative elections held in Brazil after the end of the military regime. He was PT’s candidate for president in the 1989, 1994, and 1998 elections before emerging victorious in 2002. During his presidency, Lula governed more moderately than his previous politics would suggest. He prioritized social programs such as Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance); these programs are now often credited with reducing extreme poverty in the nation. As a result, over 22 million Brazilians were lifted above the national poverty line as millions moved into the formal sector with higher wages. Lula’s presidency also saw public healthcare expanded and deforestation reduced. Outside of Brazil, Lula was a prominent figure on the foreign policy stage, garnering a reputation as a pragmatist and a key figure in addressing Latin American regional crises. Under his presidency, Brazil went from a net debtor with large amounts of foreign debt to a net creditor in 2008 for the first time in the country’s history. His accomplishments as the president made him an icon of the Latin American left.
Corruption scandals, however, marred these accomplishments. For example, during the “mensalão” scandal of 2005, investigators found that PT leaders paid several members of the Chamber of Deputies to vote for their legislation. Lula’s precise role is unknown, but many of his advisors resigned and encouraged him to do the same. Still, Lula’s popularity remained incredibly high after his second term ended. He would not, however, come out unscathed from Operation Car Wash, a money laundering investigation launched in 2014. The operation uncovered massive bribery and corruption between Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned multinational petroleum corporation, and the government. In addition, investigators discovered that the company gave Lula’s political allies executive positions to build legislative support.
Charges were brought against Lula, with federal judge Sergio Moro accepting an indictment against Lula and his wife in 2016 on money laundering charges. Subsequent court hearings led to Lula being sentenced to 12 years in prison, which sparked protests across Brazil. Lula contested the presidential election in 2018 from jail as the PT candidate, but the Electoral Court barred his candidacy in August of that year. Two months later, Bolsonaro was elected in a landslide against Lula’s running mate, former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad. Later reports and investigations doubted Moro’s impartiality as a judge. These doubts were only amplified when Moro accepted a position in Bolsonaro’s cabinet as Minister of Justice and Public Security. Subsequently, in 2021, the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court ruled that Moro’s handling of Lula’s case was biased and cleared his convictions. This made him eligible to run for the presidency again in 2022 and eventually unseat Jair Bolsonaro.
Lula’s return to power likely has consequences for Latin America’s ideological alignment. At the time of this article, Bolsonaro has not explicitly conceded and approved the transition process. However, Lula will still have to reckon with the now-former president’s supporters protesting the election results, despite no evidence of fraud. This unrest shows that far-right politics is alive and well in the region. While support for him remains strong among the left, it remains to be seen whether Lula can be the same unifying politician who took Brazil and the world stage by storm 20 years after a decade of fighting corruption charges and hits to his reputation.
Lula’s election also comes on the heels of victories of other leftist candidates in the region over the last year, including Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro. This alignment among leaders of the Latin American left will be key to watch, particularly how this impacts relations and alignment with the rest of the world, including the United States.
Lula is also credited for turning Brazil into a major player on the world stage with BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), an alliance and forum of key emerging markets. Leadership, events, and political ideologies have shifted in several countries since the BRICS’ founding in 2006. Some of Lula’s comments have raised questions about his foreign policy regarding his BRICS partners. For example, Lula has said Ukraine is “just as guilty” as Russia for the current war in the former and that Brazil should have gotten closer to China. Perhaps Lula is again banking on his reputation as a “pragmatist.” Under a second Lula presidency, Brazil could prove a case study of an ascendant power’s foreign policy in an increasingly multi-polar world.
Perhaps most importantly for the world, Lula’s election also signals a potential for Brazil to return to or surpass its past as a leader on environmental issues. He will also have to reverse the trends in deforestation that were on track to peak once again under Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s stewardship of the Amazon carries significant consequences for the world’s control of carbon dioxide emissions and impacts on climate change. It also has implications for the millions of indigenous people in Brazil who saw their protections eroded under the Bolsonaro presidency. Brazil’s President-Elect wants to set the tone for his country’s direction as a prominent leader in addressing climate change, a promising signal for climate activists and concerned governments worldwide.
Lula’s second presidency will almost certainly start on a challenging note. He will have to fight both the demons of his political past and Brazil’s recent political history to have a chance at unifying Brazil, which is no small task in itself. In addition, he will have to rehabilitate Brazil’s image and show its promise as an emerging leader and market on transnational issues. Perhaps most of all, he returns to the presidency after an eventful decade that has seen tremendous shifts in the ideological order and amplified global threats. It is safe to say that Lula’s work is cut out for him in Brazil and beyond.