Container politics in Brazil

November 13, 2022

To understand why citizens cannot trust their government to announce the true winner of an election, we must take a look at Brazil’s political history.

Container politics in Brazil


razilians have elected Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva as their president. Most of the votes went to two frontrunners, the incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro and Lula. In the runoff to the election, Lula was expected to heavily outperform Bolsonaro and win comfortably. But when the results came in, Lula’s lead was meagre. In fact, the contest was decided by a razor-thin margin. The hope with Lula is that he can curb deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. He has promised to crack down on illegal logging and commercial livestock farming in the Amazon. It is hoped that such actions will have an impact on curbing climate change.

However, right wing protestors refused to accept Lula’s government, and thousands have demonstrated outside the country’s military headquarters demanding that the army remove Lula from office. Democracies around the world have faced difficult times of late, with increasing polarisation and an ever falling number of people willing to accept election results. Donald Trump’s refusal to peacefully vacate the office of the president of the United States may have encouraged Bolsonaro’s supporters to do the same.

To understand how a situation where citizens cannot trust their government to announce the true winner of an election arose in a country that has had several peaceful democratic transitions leading up to the 21st Century, we must take a look at Brazil’s political history. Lula’s centre-left politics today are far from the far-left workers’ union politics that his early political career was rooted in. When Brazil was under military rule, Lula was a critic of the military establishment. By the 1980s he had the support of thousands of trade unionists. This marked the beginning of Brazil’s Workers’ Party and his political coalition. Lula’s coalition drew mainly on Brazil’s political left. It was a broad spectrum, but it would be a while before his popularity translated into significant electoral success. In 1989, Lula lost his first presidential election. He ran again in 1994 and 1998 and lost both times. His support base was not yet large enough to win a presidential election.

In 2002, when Lula contested elections for the presidency for the fourth time, he adopted a different strategy. In the 2002 race, he included several members of Brazil’s conservative and right wing parties in his campaign, making them a part of his coalition. This marked a shift away from ideological purity to a more practical approach. The shift seemed to benefit Lula but also cost him many of his most dedicated supporters. They later joined Bolsonaro’s side for his commitment to sovereignty and anti-imperialism. By including conservatives and centrists, Lula expanded his coalition, attracting the support of centre right voters, like business owners and bankers, effectively creating a “catch all party”. This coalition propelled Lula to victory in the presidential election. In Lula’s first year Brazil’s economy grew rapidly, mostly due to increased trade with China. By the end of Lula’s second term in office, GDP growth was the highest in Brazil’s history, and so was the president’s approval rating. At the time, with a higher than 90 percent approval rating, he was the most popular politician on earth.

By the end of Lula’s second term in office, GDP growth was the highest in Brazil’s history. At the time, with a higher than 90 percent approval rating, he was the most popular politician on earth.

Dilma Rousseff, the next leader of the Workers’ Party handpicked by Lula to succeed him in 2009, inherited his coalition and easily won the presidency in 2010. Early in her administration, global demand for commodities fell, which led to a recession in Brazil. In 2014, a government investigation found that many Workers’ Party officials, including Rousseff, were involved in corruption related to Brazil’s state owned oil company. Lula was also implicated and accused of taking bribes. He was convicted in 2017 and jailed. Lula remained popular despite his conviction.

During Rousseff’s impeachment, the greatest threat to Luala’s coalition was brewing. Retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro, making fiery speeches at public rallies, was laying the groundwork for his populist presidential bid in the 2018 election. He was the candidate of the far right, but also gained the support of the centre right and some traditionally leftist voters who were disillusioned with the Workers’Party. Meanwhile, Lula’s coalition had weakened and splintered into factions. Bolsonaro defeated them easily.

In office, Bolsonaro oversaw further destruction of the Amazon rainforest, allowing logging companies to easily obtain permits to fell down trees and turning a blind eye to illegal logging. He also presided over the destructive Covid-19 crisis in a poorly prepared Brazil, which made it one of the countries worst impacted by Covid in the world. Bolsonaro was also seen as anti-democracy, trying to control the media and undermining neutral government institutions. Due to these factors his popularity never exceeded 50 percent.

In 2019, Brazil’s Supreme Court released Lula from prison and annulled his convictions, allowing him to run again in 2022. Lula positioned himself as the pro-democracy candidate. He worked to establish another political coalition from across the political spectrum. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, enacted social reform programmes to court working class voters. As elections approached, Lula’s strategy seemed to work better than Bolsonaro’s. After a heated contest, Lula won by 50.9 percent of votes to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent, the closest result in Brazil’s electoral history. A bigger surprise came when right wing candidates aligned with Bolsonaro won a majority in Brazil’s parliament. To protest the outcome of the presidential election, Bolsonaro’s supporters blocked roads across the country. Bolsonaro had sowed doubt in the electronic voting system for months, saying he would not accept the result if he lost. However, many members of his coalition have accepted the results so that Bolsonaro will find it hard to claim fraud, but that is unlikely to deter him.

Lula’s worse than expected performance has to do with the fact that many people now consider him corruptand have simply had enough of him. For many, part of Bolsonaro’sappeal comes from the perception that he’s tough on crime. Even if Lula is president, he is facing a stronger opposition than he has ever faced before.

The writer is a member of staff

Container politics in Brazil