Since his return to Brazilian politics in March with a rollicking speech at a metalworkers’ trade union outside São Paulo, the popularity of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has continued to rise.
Opinion polls suggest Lula, who served two terms as president between 2003 and 2010, would easily defeat Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right firebrand incumbent, if elections scheduled for October next year were held today.
But while the leftist’s call for a return to normality after three divisive years of Bolsonaro has resonated, some wonder what a new Lula presidency could look like. During 50 years in politics, Lula, 75, has shown different stripes.
Lula concedes that his ideas “change when the facts change”, and he has veered from socialist union leader to head of a liberal economic administration in 2003. Today, he pledges support for the free market but vows to intervene in state-run companies if it means improving the wellbeing of Brazilians.
Some wonder whether Lula would seek vengeance after almost two years in jail after his conviction in the Lava Jato, or Car Wash, corruption case. He deems the conviction, quashed by the Supreme Court in March, the result of a political plot by his opponents.
Lula’s allies insist any third term would be characterised by pragmatic dealmaking, progressive values and the protection of democracy.
“He is keen to improve the lot of poor people and doesn’t think of the economy in a way that is separate from employment, life conditions, health and education,” said Celso Amorim, who served as foreign minister under Lula.
He added: “My impression is that internally we would try to do something not unlike what Joe Biden is doing in the US . . . If the [neoliberal] view has departed from the main centre of capitalism in the US, we shouldn’t be shy of adopting measures that are similar.”
Still, while supporters insist Lula is a pro-democracy pragmatist, he is a long time backer of repressive governments in Cuba and Venezuela.
After thousands of Cubans took to the streets last week, Lula signed a letter as part of the leftwing Puebla Group that expressed “its support for the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel with the complete certainty that he will know how to handle the recent social situation with prudence and diligence”.
Luiz Felipe d’Avila, a political scientist at the Center of Public Leadership in São Paulo, said Lula’s support for the Cuban regime was “worrisome and signals the perpetuation of radicalism”.
He added: “We have a rightwing radicalism, and we continue to have a leftwing radicalism, which the voter does not want. Today, they do not want either Lula or Bolsonaro. They are tired of radicalism that has not improved their lives.”
A Lula aide said economic policies would not be revealed so far ahead of the election, but there was a “need for a . . . strong consumer market, a return to dialogue with the world and [a focus on] sustainable development”.
Lula has used social media to criticize a ceiling on public spending – beloved by investors for keeping Brazil’s fiscal house in order – and the Bolsonaro campaign to privatise state-run entities.
“If you want to see the surrender of national sovereignty and selling national heritage, don’t vote for me. Be afraid, because we are not going to privatise,” he said earlier this year.
Lula’s reticence has had the effect of keeping the media focus on Bolsonaro’s botched handling of the pandemic and anti-democratic rhetoric. “He seems to have understood that being out of the spotlight could be actually helping his popularity right now,” said Eduardo de Carvalho, a portfolio manager at Pacifico Asset Management.
“If Lula comes back like the one from 2003, it would be good news for the economy. Back then, he had a good economic team and implemented a very sound economic policy. However, if he arrives proposing policies closer to his second mandate and the [successor Dilma] Rousseff government, both in which public spending heavily increased, then investors could flee.”
Those close to him say voters could expect Lula the dealmaker.
“We are working in a strategic way, constructing alliances,” said Aloizio Mercadante, who founded the Workers’ party with Lula. He points to Lula’s outreach to centre-right politicians, including Fernando Henrique Cardoso, his one-time nemesis and ex-president.
“Lula had the most popular presidency in recent Brazilian history. He has shown he is capable of constructing a meritocratic, competent government.”
Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 was largely attributed to voter discontent over corruption during the presidencies of Lula and Rousseff in 2003-16. Hussein Kalout, who served in Michel Temer’s rightwing administration, said the Workers’ party was clearly involved in corruption but pointed out that Lula and Rousseff did much to strengthen the institutions and rules that allowed the Car Wash investigation to happen.
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