A Lula-Bolsonaro Race Looks Set In Brazil. Is A Third Candidate Out There? Please?
COMMENTARY Neither present President Bolsonaro nor past President Lula is the leader Brazil's future needs. Brazil's voters look stuck with them anyway.
Brazil’s presidential election is set, amigos, more than 18 months before it’ll even be held. And that’s sad news for Brazil, Latin America, the Americas – and Brazilians in America.
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I’m jumping the gun, you say? Maybe. Still, whereas in the U.S. we currently have just one political personality cult, Brazil has two – and the country’s Supreme Court just green-lit the presidential candidacy of the second cult leader. Brazil might as well print ballots now.
A face-off between current, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro and left-wing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for the October 2, 2022, contest will make for electrically polarized political samba in Brazil over the next year and a half. (The U.S. might even look bipartisan in comparison.) But when it’s all over, no matter the result, the future of Latin America’s largest nation – and Florida’s largest export market – won't look much brighter, possibly worse, than it does even at this frighteningly low moment.
Consider – and I’m making sure I’m sitting down as I consider it – a second four-year term for Bolsonaro, whom critics already call the worst president since Brazil became a republic 132 years ago. His Neanderthal bid to restore what he calls the glory days of its brutal military dictatorship (1964-1985) has undermined the country’s democracy, torched record swaths of the Amazon rainforest – and, as a result of his knuckle-dragging denial of the pandemic, helped condemn Brazil to the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll after the U.S.'s.
While America’s COVID death curve is starting to flatten, this week Brazil for the first time saw more than 3,000 pandemic fatalities in a single day. Insidious COVID virus variants keep filling the country’s intensive-care units, and Bolsonaro just had to appoint the fourth health minister of his two-year-old administration.
Yet Bolsonaro appeared outside the presidential palace Sunday to yank off his protective mask and tell a throng of mostly maskless supporters that Brazilian mayors and governors who enforce pandemic restrictions are “little tyrants hindering your freedom!” Then he told them, ominously, to “count on the armed forces to protect your liberty!”
A Bolsonaro-Lula face-off means electrically polarized political samba — but when it's over, no matter the result, Brazil's future won't look better.
Even so, betting against Bolsonaro and his Make Brazil Military Again movement is still probably as dumb as believing FiveThirtyEight polls that told you Donald’s Trump MAGA tribe was disappearing last year. Which is why Lula’s sudden political resurrection has so many beleaguered anti-Bolsonaristas feeling hopeful again.
On Tuesday, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled the judge who oversaw Lula’s 2016 corruption trial and conviction was politically biased. The decision, on top of another ruling this month annulling Lula’s conviction, opens the gate to his 2022 presidential candidacy. And, riding voters’ memories of the boom economy of his two-term presidency that ended a decade ago, the 75-year-old Lula has already charged ahead of Bolsonaro in some polls.
So why aren’t Brazil-watchers like me clapping too? Because, while I certainly don’t regard Lula the Darth Vader Bolsonaro is, I also don’t think this particular leader of Brazil’s past is the one who can take it into the future.
I’m largely an admirer of Lula’s presidency and how it steered a capitalist-socialist “third way” that raised some 40 million Brazilians into the middle class. In my interviews with him in those days he projected a basic decency that seems utterly absent in Bolsonaro. But when Lula left office I was still painfully aware of how much he’d cavalierly ignored during his eight years in Brasília – things I really don’t think he’s either interested in or capable of fixing. Such as:
His economy’s low-tech, high-risk reliance on commodities exports. The five-alarm need to reform Brazil’s cancerously massive bureaucracy and upgrade its decrepit infrastructure. And most of all, Brazil's epic corruption – including that of his leftist Workers Party, his cult, which helped get his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, impeached five years ago and pushed so many Brazilians toward Bolsonaro.
Eighty percent of Brazilian voters here in South Florida went for Bolsonaro, too. They’ve understandably soured on him since then – but they can’t stand Lula, either. So I’ll ask them: who’s the woman or man who can be Brazil’s political third way?
You and voters there have 18 months to figure that out. Or cede Brazil to the political cults.