With Bolsonaro tamed in defeat, Brazil back from the brink



RIO DE JANEIRO — With Brazil’s presidential election approaching, many feared a narrow result would be contested and spell the end of Latin America’s largest democracy.

So far, however, the worst fears have been averted, despite a stinging victory by left-leaning former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva over far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, and ongoing protests from some of the supporters. of Bolsonaro across the country.

The conservative leader’s allies quickly recognized da Silva’s victory, the army remained in barracks, and vigilant world leaders stepped in to offer their support to da Silva and nip in the bud even the idea of ​​anything. either resembling the January 6 insurrection that took over the US Capitol.

“All of Bolsonaro’s exhaust valves have been closed,” said Brian Winter, a longtime Brazil expert and vice president of the New York-based Council of the Americas. “He was convinced from all sides not to contest the results and to burn down the house on his way out.”

Although Bolsonaro refused to congratulate da Silva, Brazilian institutions generally seem to have resisted.

That leaves a thornier challenge: how da Silva, 77, universally known as Lula, unites a deeply divided country, straightens out a faltering economy and meets the outsized expectations raised by his return to power.

One thing is clear, if anyone can do it, it’s the charismatic da Silva – whose political skills are admired even by his critics.

“That’s what we need, someone who not only can fight inequality, but also inspire our emotions and ideas,” said Marcelo Neri, director of the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s social policy center and former strategic affairs minister of da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff.

In many ways, the conservative movement that Bolsonaro helped ignite — if not the politician himself — emerged stronger from the vote, Winter said. His allies have been elected governors in several key states and his liberal party has become the largest in Congress, limiting da Silva’s ability to advance his own agenda after a decade-long malaise that has left millions of Brazilians hungrier. than when da Silva took office in 2010.

Moreover, Brazil’s demographics appear to favor Bolsonaro’s aggressive brand of identity politics – including an anti-LGBTQ agenda and hostility towards environmentalists – which has earned him the nickname “Trump of the Tropics”.

The country’s statistics institute predicts that the number of Brazilians identifying as evangelical Christians – who pre-election polls show are overwhelmingly supportive of Bolsonaro and skewed to the right – will overtake Roman Catholics within a decade.

Thousands of Bolsonaro supporters swarmed a regional army headquarters in Rio on Wednesday, demanding that the army intervene and keep him in power. Others showed up at military installations in Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina and the capital Brasilia. Meanwhile, truckers maintained about 150 roadblocks across the country to protest the loss of Bolsonaro, despite Supreme Court orders for law enforcement to dismantle them.

At one of the roadblocks manned by truckers inside the state of Sao Paulo, a car drove into the crowd and injured several, including children and members of the police.

Bolsonaro then made a video statement calling for an end to the protests. “I know you’re upset. I’m just as sad and upset as you are. But we have to keep our heads up,” he said. “Road closures in Brazil jeopardize people’s right to come and go.”

Since the return of democracy in the 1980s, all Brazilian leaders have been guided to varying degrees by a common belief in strong state enterprises, high taxes and aggressive wealth redistribution policies.

Bolsonaro first attempted to lead a more austere, business-friendly government, that is, until the social devastation wrought by COVID-19 and his own dwindling electoral prospects finally led him to loosen spending controls and emulate the policies he once attacked.

How da Silva will govern is less clear. He won a narrow victory of just 2 million votes after building a broad coalition united by little more than a desire to defeat Bolsonaro. And with the promise to maintain a generous social assistance program until 2023, it will have limited budgetary space to devote to other priorities.

His running mate from another party, former Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckim, was a nod to the centrist, fiscally conservative policies that made da Silva a Wall Street darling during his early years in office. This week, da Silva tapped Alckim to lead his transition squad.

However, alongside him on the victory stage on Sunday night were also several stalwarts of the left who have been implicated in numerous corruption scandals that have plagued his Workers’ Party and paved the way for Bolsonaro’s rise.

Although da Silva’s supporters have played down concerns about corruption – the Supreme Court overturned the convictions that kept him in prison for almost two years – for many Brazilians he is a symbol of the culture of corruption which has long permeated politics. As a result, he is likely to be held to a higher ethical standard in a country where almost every government has been accused of buying votes in Congress.

“It wasn’t just a fever dream on the part of his opponents,” Winter said of the corruption allegations that have long plagued da Silva’s party.

Da Silva’s victory coincides with a string of recent victories from the left in South America, notably in Chile and Colombia, whose leaders revere the former union boss. During his first stint in power, da Silva led a so-called pink wave that promoted regional integration, rivaled US domination and put the rights of neglected minorities and indigenous groups at the center of the political agenda. .

Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has largely retreated from this leadership role, although the sheer size of its economy alone means that a return to leadership is never far away.

Scott Hamilton, a former US diplomat, said da Silva will have to make a tough choice on whether to use Brazil’s considerable influence to pursue an ambitious foreign policy to tackle entrenched issues or simply use its power. featured on the world stage to build support. at home.

“Rejoicing that he’s not Bolsonaro will get him a lot of positive attention in and of itself,” said Hamilton, whose last post, until April, was as consul general in Rio. “The more ambitious path would be to try to help solve some of the toughest political issues where democratic governments in the region are struggling or dead.”


Goodman reported from Miami.

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