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Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva celebrates with supporters on Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 30. Picture: BLOOMBERG/TUANE FERNANDES
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva celebrates with supporters on Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 30. Picture: BLOOMBERG/TUANE FERNANDES

On Sunday Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was re-elected president of Brazil, a huge sigh of relief for his voters, the world and — most importantly — the Amazon rainforest.

The result was tight. Lula got 50.9% of the vote and the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, 49.1%, representing a difference of 2.1-million votes. As I write on Monday morning, Bolsonaro has inexplicably not yet conceded defeat, despite the election authorities already certifying the results.

At one point early in the count Bolsonaro was even in the lead. But it was Lula’s hinterland, the northeast of Brazil, whose results only came in later, that clinched the deal for him. There were some tense moments during election day when the federal traffic police, whose director is a vocal Bolsonaro supporter, stopped buses carrying voters in the northeast, ostensibly as part of routine traffic stops.

Many Brazilians, including some I had been chatting to during the day, feared it was the beginning of Bolsonaro’s long-alluded-to coup. Brazil’s election court quickly intervened, and the traffic operations were stopped. The election court will investigate the incident but has already found that no-one was prevented from voting. Nevertheless, it caused a lot of anxiety in Brazil.

Lula has shown one of the most remarkable comebacks for any politician worldwide. He had a successful presidency between 2003 and 2011. His policy of incentivising a prosperous economy while uplifting the poor proved that social democracy is far more successful than unbridled capitalism in creating more equitable societies. The rich and poor can work together for the common good. As a result, he left office with the highest approval rating of any Brazilian president.

But then followed the controversial Operation Car Wash, which sold itself, and deceived many, as an operation to clean up corruption in Brazil. It was in reality a scam to get rid of the Brazilian left and ensure Lula could not be re-elected in 2018. As part of their relentless persecution of Lula, the prosecutors even confiscated his toddler grandson Artur’s iPad looking for non-existent evidence.

Artur died aged seven in 2019, believed to be from meningitis, never getting his iPad back. The judge and prosecutor in Operation Car Wash were caught colluding with each other to secure Lula’s conviction. But he spent 580 days in prison before the Brazilian supreme court annulled his conviction for the blatant travesty that it was. And on Sunday he was re-elected as president. That is a stunning comeback. 

Brazilians looked at what Brazil had become under Bolsonaro and decided that was not the future they want. In the month before the runoff he appeared to become increasingly unhinged. He said he would eat an Indian provided he was cooked in banana leaves and confessed to getting aroused by adolescent Venezuelan refugee girls, and one of his most loyal supporters shot and threw hand grenades at the police to avoid arrest. 

In a last display of how absurd Bolsonaro’s allies have become, on the Saturday before the election Carla Zambelli, a right-wing supporter of Bolsonaro, armed with a pistol, chased a Lula supporter through the streets of one of São Paulo’s poshest neighbourhoods while her bodyguard fired shots at him.  The entire event was filmed by onlookers, providing a macabre microcosm of what Brazil would look like during a second presidential term for Bolsonaro.

But Lula has his work cut out for him. He will become president of a Brazil that is quite different from the one he inherited in 2003. While Bolsonaro may be out, his supporters make up the majority of Brazil’s legislature and Lula will face an uphill battle to get his policies approved. He will have to negotiate and make deals with his adversaries, which has in the past been fertile ground for corruption because obstructive Brazilian opposition politicians have often sold their support in exchange for brown envelope deals. Bolsonaro also had to start making back room deals with members of Brazil’s congress, something he swore he would never do.

However, Lula is a skilful negotiator. During his first presidential term he often had lunch with Brazil’s top bankers and dinner with leaders of unions and the radical left Landless Movement.  His deputy president this time is Geraldo Alckmin, who was his opponent during the 2006 election. He has already united a broad coalition behind him. This has given Brazilian business leaders confidence that, notwithstanding the lies peddled by Bolsonaro’s election campaign, Lula will not tamper with the economy, nor turn Brazil into the next Venezuela.

Lula’s election is a further step in a lurch to the left in South America, after leftist victories in Chile, Argentina and Colombia. This is not the left in the radical Che Guevara or Castro tradition. This new left is a political movement that does not want to fight business or expropriate property. However, they make it clear that the poor cannot be excluded from economic growth. 

A strong economy provides more tax money to fund projects that support the poor. Lula’s first term clearly showed how more money in the hands of low-income groups could propel economic growth. There can be no economic growth if the poor are excluded from the economy. That is Lula and the new left’s mantra, and there is no reason to be afraid of it.

SA should rejoice in Lula’s victory. He has always supported Africa — he made relations with Africa a priority and Brazilian companies, including many of Brazil’s biggest companies, set up shop in SA and elsewhere in Africa. This is likely to resume now. Brazilian tourists flocked to our shores thanks to 12 weekly flights. Under Bolsonaro there were no direct flights, though LatAm Airlines will resume direct flights in July 2023.

Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that the political right worldwide should reconsider fielding candidates such as Bolsonaro and Donald Trump if they don’t want to continue losing elections.

• Myburgh is an attorney practising in Johannesburg and São Paulo.

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