NICHOLAS SHUBITZ: Lula’s re-election in Brazil augurs well for Brics expansion
President is likely to call for more South American countries and others to be brought in
Corruption charges made newly re-elected Brazilian President Lula da Silva a controversial figure in the eyes of many of his countrymen, though his supporters always maintained his innocence.
Lula was arrested in 2018, while leading in the polls and heading for a second term. Right-winger Jair Bolsonaro was elected president and the judge who sentenced Lula to nine years in prison was made justice minister.
Then in a stunning turnaround the corruption charges against Lula were dropped on appeal in 2021, paving the way for him to stand against Bolsonaro — and ultimately beat him in a tightly contested election.
Bolsonaro, the pro-gun, pro-business, Catholic-turned-Evangelical Christian, promoted a brand of populist conservatism that appealed to Brazil’s religious communities, as well as the large agricultural interests in the country. But he was unpopular among environmentally minded younger voters, who want greater protection for the Amazon. Deforestation accelerated under Bolsonaro to 15-year highs, and increased inequality during his presidency made him unpopular with the urban poor.
Lula, by contrast, has always been pro-poor. His Bolsa Familia welfare programme is credited for large reductions in poverty during his first term in office. Bolsa Familia was the first nationwide policy of its kind in Brazil and the world’s second biggest social welfare programme by number of recipients after SA.
Brazil is said to export enough food to feed 1-billion people. So when more than 3-million Brazilians (mostly of African descent) were forecast to go hungry this year, the reversal of a decade of improved food security in a country with a history of widespread racial inequality became a talking point during the election campaign.
The left-leaning Lula is considered strongly pro-Brics (the acronym for five leading emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA). He was Brazil’s president when the bloc of countries first began organising official exchanges after the 2008 financial crisis, and can be considered a cofounder of what is becoming a formal alliance.
To be fair to Bolsonaro, he embraced Brics too, but mostly as a platform to promote Brazilian economic interests. China is Brazil’s top export destination, receiving more than double the dollar value of goods than the US. Bolsonaro was consequently an enthusiastic participant within Brics, especially from an economic perspective.
Now that Bolsonaro is out, Lula is generally expected to add an additional dimension to Brazil’s participation that goes beyond economic pragmatism. While Bolsonaro often imitated former US president Donald Trump by criticising China — despite increased trade volumes between China and Brazil — Lula is seen as more genuinely politically aligned with the Brics bloc, promoting a foreign policy agenda based on fostering relationships with other Latin American countries and the Global South.
Da Silva’s focus on environmentalism, sustainable development and poverty reduction resonates with the other Brics countries, which face similar challenges in reducing poverty via economic development while preserving the environment for future generations.
This can be seen in SA with the concept of the just energy transition from fossil to renewable fuels. Lula’s commitment to preserving the Amazon could help offset some of the emissions that will be required to support economic development in poorer countries, which often produce fewer emissions and yet are more at risk from climate change.
Brazil’s new president also inherits an economy in which agriculture makes up a far bigger share of GDP than when he was president the first time. He will need to find a balance between his climate goals and powerful economic and political interests.
Brazil’s rainforests are crucial to the planet, but the country’s agricultural output is equally important to the economy, as well as the rest of the Brics, which want to keep food prices low for their large populations.
Lula is expected to advance Brics co-operation and push for the inclusion of more South American countries, such as Argentina, in the alliance. While his environmentalism and big government approach are likely to find favour with the Biden White House, Lula will remain neutral with regard to the Ukraine conflict, despite good relations with Biden and pressure from the US state department.
Besides a greater focus on environmentalism, there is unlikely to be any major shift in Brazil’s policy positions within Brics arising from the change in Brazil’s leadership.
Nevertheless, due to Lula’s left-wing political philosophy and his desire to promote multilateralism, he is inherently more politically aligned with the other Brics governments than Bolsonaro, and can be expected to accelerate the gradual expansion and formalisation of the alliance in line with Brazil’s political and economic interests.
• Shubitz is an independent Brics researcher.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.