The remarkable return of the leftwing politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for a third term as Brazil’s president is not just good for his country. His victory over the incumbent rightwing extremist, Jair Bolsonaro, is also good for the world. Since Mr Bolsonaro took office in 2019, forest fires and deforestation soared in the Amazon, with the federal government turning a blind eye to illegal logging, mining, cattle-grazing and land-grabbing. Brazil’s rainforest went from a carbon sink to a carbon source. If allowed to continue, the damage to the world’s lungs would have been irreversible – with disastrous effects on global weather systems and food security.
Lula, as he is universally known, pledged to reverse his predecessor’s policies that have worsened the climate emergency. The world will breathe more easily as a result. But Mr Bolsonaro only narrowly lost the election. He has, at the time of writing, still refused to concede his defeat. Mr Bolsonaro, who praised dictatorship and torture, may never accept the people’s will. But those who have supported him – from evangelists to political allies – have recognised that the game is up. His reluctance to go quietly may be because he fears ending up behind bars. Presidential immunity and an obliging attorney general have helped shelter Mr Bolsonaro and his politician sons from investigations into longstanding suspicions of embezzlement and corruption. For Mr Bolsonaro, that shield disappears in January.
Mr Bolsonaro was nicknamed the “Trump of the tropics” – and he used a similar playbook. Like the former US president, Mr Bolsonaro polarised his divided country by denigrating women, gay people and minorities. He armed his supporters by flooding the country with guns. A pandemic that killed almost 700,000 people helped push poverty numbers to the highest on record and saw him sink in the polls. His answer was to flood the infosphere with fake news, dole out welfare payments and send federal highway police to block roads in pro-Lula areas on voting day. But enough Brazilians returned to Lula, whose last stint in power delivered economic growth and a reduction of inequality.
Jailed under the previous rightwing Temer government for alleged corruption, Lula was released and his convictions quashed last year, allowing him to run again. However, Brazil is a very different country from the one he last presided over. When he left office in 2010, Lula’s approval ratings were stratospheric. Now a sizable minority think their once-and-future president is corrupt. Brazil in 2010 was the world’s 7th largest economy – it has now slipped to 13th. The country is marked by rising debts and deepening divides. Brazil’s modest economic recovery is unlikely to last as the world faces a recession that it won’t escape.
Lula’s victory cannot eclipse the fact he faces a Congress dominated by self-seeking conservative politicians of the Centrão (“big centre”) – who have been allied with Mr Bolsonaro. The new president will need to strike deals to get legislation passed. Big structural reforms that need changes to the constitution will probably be off the table. Thanks to his environmental policies and his defence of democracy, Lula can count on the support of the world’s leading powers. President Joe Biden has offered to create a $20bn fund for the Amazon once Brazil starts showing results in protecting its rainforests. Under Mr Bolsonaro, Brazil lost its way – and its mind. Lula’s victory shows the country can return to the path of sanity.