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Lula, Brazil, and the Perils of the Political Center

8 mins read

There are so many conflicting narratives about the presidential election which occurred in Brazil early this month that it’s taken me until now to even have a semblance of an idea of what it all means. Nevertheless, the results of this election yield lessons for contemporary politics — be they regional, across the Atlantic, or as far north as the United States — on the perils of abandoning a popular platform in lieu of appealing to a comparatively smaller center. For context, the elections on Oct. 2 featured once-beloved former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, facing current president and strongman Jair Bolsonaro. Lula’s involvement in large-scale corruption reaching into every region and political party of Brazil had until recently prohibited his candidacy, and it took a court ruling the initial investigation politically motivated to restore his political rights. Jair Bolsonaro, on the other hand, is a fascist populist who could generally be considered indistinguishable from his far-right contemporaries around the world, in part for his mishandling of the COVID pandemic, which was severe enough to warrant a recommendation for charges of crimes against humanity by the Brazilian Senate. For months prior to the election, Lula had held a double-digit lead in the polls, leading some to speculate that he could win in the first round and avoid a runoff entirely. The more pressing question for many was whether Bolsonaro would attempt to hold onto power regardless of the results. 

Then the election results started to come in, and it was clear that Bolsonaro was not to be easily brushed aside. He overperformed in key southern departments and benefited from the same red mirage which plagued the 2020 U.S. election — a result of an interplay between demographics and the structure of vote counting in which votes counted first tended to skew further to the right than the final results. When the mirage faded, however, and Lula emerged with an almost five-point lead at the end of the night, coming within just over 1% of the presidency, the only thing that was clear was that no distinct conclusion could be immediately drawn from the results. Yes, Bolsonaro overperformed polling expectations, but he also came in second in the general election as a sitting president, a first in modern Brazilian history. Lula, on the other hand, only slightly underperformed, but the growth of center-right parties in the overall vote share prevented his ascendancy. As a result, Lula has promised key leadership positions to party leaders in those groups to shore up the remaining few percentage points while maintaining a core of old-guard Worker’s Party leaders. 

This realignment is nothing new to Lula, whose actual political stances remain a point of contention among analysts. At the onset of his 2003 term, many thought he would represent the more radical end of the slate of center-left and new-left Latin American leaders known as the “Pink Tide”, and international leaders as well as markets braced for radical economic change. In reality, he was far more of a reformist than the radical most expected, instituting an increase in the welfare state but maintaining close ties with the economic elite which control much of Brazil’s economy and are the ultimate source of many of the corruption charges. His party leadership led to a mass exodus from the big tent Worker’s Party and the creation of many smaller breakaway parties dissatisfied with his unwillingness to challenge the entrenched interests of capital. Despite speaking against it during his campaign, he oversaw the privatization of crucial roadways and record profits for Brazilian banks. Crucially, through the appointment of far more conservative ministers, such as PSDB member and banker Henrique Meirelles, Lula was able to distance himself from these otherwise unpopular policies. 

While Lula’s recent tack to the center might be more restrained than his previous shift, it still exemplifies the classic trend of the center-left in all its juvenile glory. Lula’s feeble performance on the second is a cautionary tale against the selling out he engaged in, both through his overt corruption and abandonment of political ideals in search of coalition building. Most frightening is the ubiquity of this sort of behavior in our own center-left party in the United States. One need only look briefly to find all the same sorts of inside trading and self dealing, and the same weak ideological stances. Be it the cringeworthy columns written between Gail Collins and Bret Stephens in the New York Times, the unquestioning support of liberals for the Lincoln Project, or simpering praise for something as noxiously centrist as a split party 2024 ticket, the throughline is clear: compromise is not a pragmatic choice to consolidate power or pass legislation, it is a goal unto itself. They choose to ignore the bloodthirsty ultrazionist Stephens, the corruption and lies of the Lincoln Project, and see no contradiction in their praise of Republicans like Cheney, Romney, or even McCain, who ruthlessly oppose them in all but their theatrical stands for democratic values. In doing this, they play the game of moderating their stances in an attempt to reach consensus with groups who have no interests in doing the same. In doing so, liberals shoot themselves in the foot by eliminating the possibility of fielding their own alternative to the status quo. 

It’s no surprise then, that in Brazil this month, turnout was at record lows despite all the international coverage, heavyweight candidates, and high levels of political unrest. Lula picked a moderate in the centrist PSDB candidate Geraldo Alckmin and was not rewarded with the center-right vote, only receiving fracturing within his coalition and diminished enthusiasm from his voter base. 

It seems, for now at least, Lula has stayed the course and has avoided further squandering his populist appeal, but I am not so optimistic about us here in the United States. Beyond the upcoming midterms lies the gaping void of 2024. Hesitant as I am to even think about it, I can guarantee one thing: there will be many who will urge moderation alongside a consistent message of liberalism. Unlike in Brazil, we won’t get a second chance to scrape together enthusiasm after the “nothing will fundamentally change” platform fails. 

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