One of the most consequential elections in the world will be taking place on Sunday, October 2. Jair Bolsonaro, the incumbent Brazilian President, is being challenged by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, the former president of Brazil.  Lula is currently leading in the polls with 43.4% of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 34.8%. 

The election is extremely important, with Brazilian democracy at stake. In the past, Bolsonaro has expressed his admiration for the military dictatorship of 1964-1985; a dictatorship which saw two decades of widespread human rights abuses such as torture and killings.

He has in recent weeks challenged the democratic process in the country stating that he would not trust the election results of October 2, while also criticizing Brazil’s institutions and threatening a coup. His response to COVID-19 was so disastrous that it led to an investigation by Brazilian authorities which were later dropped.     

The man he is facing for re-election is a political giant and an icon of the left. Lula, having first been elected in 2002 on the Workers’ Party ticket served as President of Brazil from January 1 2003 to January 1 2011, winning a landslide re-election in 2006 and having an approval rating of 87% when he left office, a record for Brazilian politics.  

During his presidency, Lula transformed Brazil. There was a massive reduction in poverty through programmes such as ‘Fome Zero’ and ‘Bolso Familia’. There was economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. The World Bank even labelled 2003 – 2013 as the ‘Golden Decade’.

Lula also significantly improved Brazil’s standing in international affairs, increasing its foreign policy activity. Along with Turkey it signed an agreement with Iran known as the ‘Tehran Nuclear Declaration’ in 2010 that allowed Iran to send 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for “120kg of fuel needed for the Tehran Research Reactor.”

 It was hoped that the agreement would prove Iran’s commitment to dialogue and prevent further UN sanctions. However the United States rejected this train of thought and another round of sanctions was voted for.

Lula’s Brazil also engaged heavily with South America. Writing in a research paper titled “Brazil’s foreign policy under Lula,” political scientist Claudia Zilla writes how Lula’s Brazil used the termed ‘South America’ rather than ‘Latin America’:

“Minister of External Relations Celso Amorim indicated that South America constitutes a geopolitical entity on its own; the developments in this region differ from those taking place in Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean.” 

During Lula’s term institutions such as ‘Unión Suramericana de Naciones’ (UNASUR, ‘Union of South American Nations’) and the ‘Consejo de Defensa Suramericano’ (CDS), the ‘South American Defence Council of the UNASUR’ were created.

When in 2009 Columbia accepted America’s proposal to use seven military bases, despite the fact that Washington did not indicate a willingness to help solve Columbia’s internal conflicts and drug trafficking throughout the region, Lula objected, however in 2010 he signed an agreement with the United States that called for military co-operation, “which was meant, first and foremost, to promote economic cooperation in the defence sector” .

Claudia Zilla argues that by acting as a “conflict manager” for the region, Lula was limiting U.S. influence:

“By repeatedly taking on the role of a conflict manager in South America, Brazil met the objective of keeping Washington’s influence small. The focus was on ensuring stability within individual states or friendly relations between governments. In this connection, Lula established a series of ‘Groups of Friends’ during his presidency, which served as mediators in various conflicts within or among South American countries.”

When Lula was president from 2003 to 2011 there was economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection- Mark Manduca

If one looks at the foreign policy of the far-right Bolsonaro, the difference couldn’t be starker. He is pro-American, pro-Israel, anti-social democracy and not interested in regional integration.  He is in favour of traditional Christian values and views liberal values such as human rights, environmental protection as globalist forces that threatens the true people of Brazil. His world view is similar to previous regional dictators such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Argentina’s Juan Carlos Onganía.

This is not to say that there weren’t any problems during Lulu’s time in office, as Noam Chomsky explains to the late Michael Brooks when discussing the ‘Golden Decade’:

“There were plenty of problems with Lula’s term, I should say. One of them was he tolerated corruption much too readily. He didn’t pay attention to it; and there was a lot of it in the Workers’ Party. It’s endemic in Brazil and within the entire region.” 

Another big problem about Lula’s presidency which Chomsky mentions was the failure to make millions of Brazilians understand that it was Lula’s policies that brought them out of poverty. We’re talking about a serious failure of communication here. Chomsky explains:

When people are asked, people who benefited greatly from the, Lula’s programmes, ‘Bolso Familia’ and others, people who I’ve talked to, people they, very poor families that were able to buy a car, kid can go to college, start a small business. When you ask them how did this happen, they say it came from God, it was an accident. They don’t know that it was part of the Workers’ Party programmes. That was a real failure of engagement.”         

Despite the legitimate criticism, any objective analysis of Lula’s time in office would conclude that his presidency was a roaring success.

However, in 2017, Lula was arrested and convicted on very dubious corruption charges after an investigation known as ‘Operation Carwash’ was carried out. In 2018 he was sentenced to 12 years in a prison which saw him in the eyes of many become a political prisoner. Lula and his supporters saw his imprisonment as a way for his political enemies to ensure that he could not run in the 2018 presidential elections. He was in fact banned from the 2018 race when his conviction was upheld. 

Lula was freed from jail in November 2019 after the Supreme Court of Brazil ruled that defendants could only be imprisoned after exhausting all appeals to higher courts. Since Lula was imprisoned without exhausting all his appeals, he was freed.  His conviction was even annulled in March 2021 and that decision was upheld in April of the same year by Brazil’s Supreme Court.        

Adding credence to the claims that Lula’s imprisonment was politically motivated; an investigation by The Intercept discovered collusion between Sergio Moro, the judge who sentenced Lula and the prosecutors in the case against him. Moro would then be named Justice Minister by Bolsonaro after The Intercept’s revelations, infuriating Lula’s supporters.   

Lula’s struggle must also be seen in the wider context of the struggle of far right vs. progressive forces in the global arena where the likes of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbin, and Lula fight for progressive internationalist politics whereas figures such as Victor Orban, Donald Trump and Bolsonaro believe in right-wing nationalism.      

The last and probably most important reason why Lula needs to defeat Jair Bolsonaro on October 2 would be the amazon rainforest, which are truly the lungs of the planet. Environmentalists and academics have warned that if Bolsanaro wins re-election the Amazon will cease to exist, with serious consequences for the whole planet. Writing in July 2021, the Guardian’s global environment editor Jonathan Watts states:

“Since Bolsonaro took power in 2019, deforestation and fire in the Amazon have risen to their highest levels in more than a decade. Scientists suspect the rainforest may be slipping into a series of vicious cycles. At a local level, land clearance and burning led to extended droughts and higher temperatures, which in turn weakens the resilience of the ecosystem and leads to more fire.

“At a regional level, this can intensify drought because the respiration of the rainforest normally acts as a pump to drive humid weather systems across a wide area of Brazil, South America and the Atlantic. When the forest weakens, that pump is less effective.

“There are also global repercussions because land clearance is turning the Amazon region from climate friend to climate foe. A study published in Nature reveals forest burning now produces about three times more CO2 than the remaining vegetation is able to absorb. This accelerates global heating.”

For everyone’s sake, let us hope that Lula, the man who inspired Brazil to dream big for a decade, can do so yet again, starting by ending Jair Bolsonaro’s reign on October 2.

Mark Manduca has a Master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies.

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