Lula's prospects

MMU politics students Millie Taylor, Inigo Maxwell and Oliver Lomond assess how effectively Brazil's new president will be able to govern in his second term and the challenges of protecting the Amazon

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The presidential elections in Brazil mark a huge change in direction for the country, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s (Lula) victory promises more leftist and climate-based policies than those seen under Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. But with Lula only winning by a fraction of votes and a congress that still leans to the right, it remains to be seen if these promises can be fulfilled.

Lula’s Workers Party (PT) holds 141 seats of the total of 513 in congress’s lower house. The right wing’s representation is between 240 and 249 representatives.

Lula must therefore seek to win the support of the Centrão (“big centre”), which has been allied with Bolsonaro over the past two and a half years, in order to gain the three-fifths majority vote needed to pass laws. Claiming to be non-ideological, the Centrão has 235 seats and demands ministerial posts and control over budgetary decisions in return for support.

Lula’s promise of “zero deforestation” will require immense legwork to pass through congress. Likewise his statement that “if we are the world’s third biggest producer of food … we have the duty to guarantee that every Brazilian can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day”.

Deforestation increased by 21 per cent under the Bolsonaro administration, with agribusiness now making up 28 per cent of the Brazilian economy. Lula’s challenge to the primacy of agribusiness in the country marks a U-turn in economic policy. The challenge to agribusiness will need massive budgetary allocations to prevent a collapse in the economy while other business sectors grow. But allies of Bolsonaro in congress have an active role in budgetary decisions, meaning unfavourable amendments can be made to laws financing an end to deforestation.

Deforestation will also need huge investment from the international community, perhaps to be incentivised by potential trade deals. It was clear Lula was seeking support from the international community when he spoke at COP-27. One early sign of hope is the possibility that the environmental alliance between Norway, which last year elected a left of centre government, and Brazil will be re-instated after its hiatus during the last presidency. This collaboration benefited the Amazon Fund for Forest Conservation and Climate Protection in its protection of the Amazon rainforest – to the tune of $1 billion.

If Lula can provide sustainable alternatives to agribusiness to feed its population and provide exports, and get budgetary approval from congress for them, it may usher in a greener Brazil, which will have beneficial effects globally. The picture will become clearer when he makes his ministerial appointments, likely to be in December. Analysts say he is currently favouring leftist Fernando Haddad to become finance minister, rather than a more centrist candidate who may be more reassuring for overseas investors.

Lula faces other political obstacles. Bolsonaro has remained largely silent since the election, calming fears that he would mount a Trump-style challenge to the result. But there are ongoing protests against Lula’s victory, the biggest of which are the trucker blockades of major roads throughout the country, affecting Brazil’s food exports. Even though the Defence Ministry has found no evidence of Bolsonaro supporters’ claims of election fraud, further protests may grow.

Many children born into indigenous families across the Amazon rainforest are not named until the age of five due to the survival rate being so low

Lula has not only been an advocate for protecting the Amazon rainforest but also its people. The Amazon has 30 million inhabitants, of which 1.5 million are indigenous peoples.

Mining in the Amazon has polluted many rivers and estuaries. Many native children who play in its waters have contracted mercury poising and other diseases as a result of Bolsonaro’s efforts to build the economy on the natural resources surrounding these peoples. Many children born into indigenous families across the Amazon rainforest are not named until the age of five due to the survival rate being so low. Many young members of tribes feel compelled to join the mining efforts to support their families and therefore cannot help cultivate crops at home. Not only are lives being lost but also heritage and history. This is what Lula wishes to fight for, but without economic support it seems like an uphill battle.

In urban areas the fight against poverty and inequality remains just as challenging but many believe Lula’s experience from first presidency, in 2003-2010, will help. The introduction of the initiative Fome Zero (zero hunger) helped 28 million people break free from the cycle of hunger. Bolsa Familia and its successor Auxílio Brazil were social welfare programmes that included large cash transfers to the poor and were successful in bringing significant numbers of people out of poverty.

These have contributed to working-class support for Lula in his new term, including in the favelas, where education in particular is lacking. This was highlighted during the Covid pandemic as teaching began online and around 5.5 million children in Brazil were left without access to education because they lacked an internet connection. The development of healthcare and education in the Favelas is the key to Lula achieving his electoral aim “to make inequality a priority and not the spending cap”.

This idea comes tied to one of the riskiest parts of Lula’s campaign – to amend the part of the constitution that currently limits budget increases to inflation. Amending the constitution would require approval in both congressional houses. But if Lula could succeed with an amendment, he could add $32 billion to his social welfare plans.

Photo of Amazon rain forest: Andre Deak/Wikimedia Commons

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