Lula keeps policies a mystery on Brazil comeback trail

Since his return to Brazilian politics in March with a rollicking speech at a metalworkers’ union outside São Paulo, the popularity of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has continued to rise.

Opinion polls suggest “Lula” — who served two terms as president between 2003 and 2010 — would easily defeat the firebrand conservative Jair Bolsonaro if elections scheduled for October next year were held today.

But while the leftwing former leader’s call for a return to normality after three divisive years of Bolsonaro’s populist rule has resonated, some Brazilians wonder what a new Lula presidency could look like. Over half a century in Brazilian politics the 75-year-old has shown different stripes.

Lula has conceded that his ideas “change when the facts change”, and he has veered from socialist union leader to the head of a liberal economic administration in 2003. Today he pledges support for the free market while vowing to intervene in state-run companies if it means improving the wellbeing of Brazilians.

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Some also wonder whether Lula would seek political vengeance once back in power. He spent almost two years in prison following a corruption conviction in Brazil’s sprawling Lava Jato, or Car Wash, investigation. He deems the conviction — which was quashed by the Supreme Court in March — the result of a political plot by his opponents.

The former president’s allies insist any third term would be characterised by pragmatic dealmaking, progressive values and the protection of democracy.

“He is keen to improve the lot of poor people and doesn’t think of the economy in a way that is separate from employment, life conditions, health and education,” said Celso Amorim, who served as foreign minister in Lula’s government. 

“My impression is that internally we would try do something not unlike what Joe Biden is doing in the US. Of course we don’t have the same resources, but it would mean a greater role for the state especially in social areas. If the [neoliberal] view has departed from the main centre of capitalism in the US, we shouldn’t be shy of adopting measures that are similar.”

Still, while supporters insist Lula is a pro-democracy pragmatist, he is a longtime backer of repressive governments in Cuba and Venezuela.

After thousands of Cubans demonstrated on the streets last week, Lula signed a letter as part of the leftwing Puebla Group that expressed “its support for the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel with the complete certainty that he will know how to handle the recent social situation with prudence and diligence”.

Luiz Felipe d’Avila, a political scientist at the Center of Public Leadership in São Paulo, said Lula’s support for the Cuban regime was “worrisome and signals the perpetuation of radicalism”.

“We have a rightwing radicalism, and we continue to have a leftwing radicalism, which the Brazilian voter does not want. Today, they do not want either Lula or Bolsonaro. They are tired of radicalism that has not improved their lives.”

An aide to the former president said Lula would not reveal economic policies so far ahead of the election but said there was “a need for the country to have a strong consumer market, a return to dialogue with the world and [a focus on] sustainable development, including in agribusiness”.

Lula has used social media to criticise a ceiling on government spending — beloved by investors for keeping Brazil’s fiscal house in order — and the Bolsonaro government’s campaign to privatise state-run entities.

“If you want to see the surrender of national sovereignty and selling national heritage, don’t vote for me. Be afraid, because we are not going to privatise,” he said earlier this year.

‘Lula in jail’: Brazilians celebrate after the former president was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to almost 10 years in prison in 2017 © Nacho Doce/Reuters

However, Lula’s relative silence has had the effect of keeping the media focus on Bolsonaro’s botched handling of the pandemic and anti-democratic rhetoric.

“So far, he has been cleverly quiet — he seems to have understood that being out of the spotlight could be actually helping his popularity right now,” said Eduardo de Carvalho, a portfolio manager at Pacifico Asset Management.

“If Lula comes back like the one from 2003, it would be good news for the economy. Back then, he had a good economic team and implemented a very sound economic policy. However, if he arrives proposing policies closer to his second mandate and the [successor Dilma] Rousseff government — both in which public spending heavily increased — then investors could flee Brazilian assets.”

Those close to him say the Lula that Brazilians would encounter in a third term would be a dealmaker, not an ideologue.

“We are working in a strategic way, constructing alliances,” said Aloizio Mercadante, a co-founder alongside Lula of the leftwing Workers’ party. He points to the former leader’s outreach to centre-right politicians, including his one-time nemesis, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

“Lula had the most popular presidency in recent Brazilian history. He has shown that he is capable of constructing a meritocratic, competent government.”

Hussein Kalout, who served in the rightwing Michel Temer administration, said Lula’s attempts to build alliances would override any inclination to seek retribution for his imprisonment.

“Maybe the Workers’ party will become more radical and want to avenge what happened, but I don’t see Lula going there because it doesn’t fit his personality and it doesn’t fit his politics. He knows he could not govern only sticking with the left,” he said.

Bolsonaro’s success in the 2018 election was largely attributed to voter discontent over rampant corruption during the presidencies of Lula and Rousseff between 2003 and 2016.

Many voters today say they would still not vote for Lula because of this. Lula has not helped by deriding the Car Wash corruption investigation as a political witch-hunt, despite the probe recovering billions of dollars in stolen public money. It was the largest corruption investigation in Latin American history, with scores of politicians and businessmen arrested across the continent.

Kalout points out, however, that while the Workers’ party was clearly involved in corruption alongside many other parties, the administrations of Lula and Rousseff did much to strengthen the institutions and rules that allowed the Car Wash investigation to happen. In particular, he says the independence of prosecutors was bolstered.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice

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