Rather than a triumphant, sweeping comeback, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory in the Brazilian presidential election on Sunday night was a nail-bitingly slow grind. His government promises to be an even harder slog.
As the electronic vote count proceeded over three hours, it soon became clear there would be no repeat of the landslide victories Lula enjoyed in 2002 and 2006. His victory this time, over the hard-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, was eked out painstakingly. Just 1.8 percentage points separated the two men by the end.
Had it not been for a series of blunders by Bolsonaro and his supporters in the final days of the campaign, including one of his allies videoed brandishing a pistol through the streets of São Paulo in pursuit of a black man, the forces of Brazil’s nationalist right might have triumphed.
The result was a reminder of how profoundly Brazil has changed, not just in the four years under Bolsonaro, nicknamed “tropical Trump”, but over the past two decades. The astonishing rise of evangelical churches is one element; their flock now includes almost one in three Brazilians.
The lobbying clout of agribusiness, which accounts for nearly 30 per cent of gross domestic product, is another. Both are strong drivers of social conservatism and small-state capitalism. Neither will go away under a Lula government.
Now in his twilight years, the 77-year-old leftwing former union leader will need to summon up all his skills as a conciliator to unite a deeply divided nation. His unwieldy coalition includes centre-right figures who were bitter opponents before they decided that Lula represented the lesser of two evils.
As one senior Brazilian banker put it last week: “We will get Lula elected in order to stop Bolsonaro. Then, on day one of his government, we go into opposition.”
Matias Spektor, professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, said Lula faced big challenges. “He was elected on a promise to boost public spending, but he won’t be able to” for lack of funds. “And he won’t have a majority in congress. His coalition is ideologically broad, and it will be an enormous challenge to hold it together to pass legislation.”
In a reminder of the strength of Brazil’s conservative movement, Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, Bolsonaro’s former infrastructure minister, won a convincing victory in the governor’s race in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest state. This completes a hat-trick for Bolsonaro allies, who now run the top three states and make up the largest party in the senate and lower house.
“Lula will have a tough time in view of the consolidation of the far right in congress, and in the major state of São Paulo,” said Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “His challenges are massive.”
Bolsonaro’s own future is unclear and could depend in large part on how he responds to Sunday’s result. If he accepts defeat, the 67-year-old may well return to the fray to fight the 2026 presidential election and his two sons Flávio and Eduardo remain important figures in congress.
Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron have both criticised Bolsonaro for allowing Amazon deforestation to soar. They were quick to send their congratulations to Lula, who has promised zero deforestation, albeit without a date, and new protections for indigenous lands.
But this task too is likely to prove much harder now than in Lula’s first two terms, when he reduced Amazon destruction by about two-thirds. Bolsonaro has gutted the agencies responsible for environmental enforcement, slashing budgets and appointing allies to run them. Loggers, land-grabbers and ranchers have been emboldened under his government to carve out tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land while illegal miners have operated on an industrial scale.
“The machinery of the state is a mess and it will need to be rebuilt,” said Miguel Corrêa do Lago, a Brazilian political scientist who teaches at Columbia University. “There is already a fiscal black hole because of Bolsonaro’s election welfare programme and Lula will face a very organised opposition in congress.
“On the positive side, the Amazon will be central for him and a priority for his government. This could attract a lot of money to Brazil.”