Brazilian Presidential Election and Political Turmoil as Lula Returns to Power

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On 1 January 2023, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (more commonly known as Lula) is scheduled to return to the office of the Presidency in Brazil, more than a decade after he left the office in 2010. His first two terms of the Presidency (2003-2010) was plagued by corruption scandals, most notably the Mensalao vote-buying scandal. However, Lula’s image as a man of the people somehow remained relatively intact when he left office.

Shortly following his departure from the Presidency in 2014, the multijurisdictional Operation Car Wash investigation embroiled Lula and several government members in an influence-peddling scandal across Latin America. With charges still pending against him, his successor and former energy advisor President Dilma Rousseff, appointed him to her cabinet as Chief of Staff in a blatant attempt to shield him from prosecution. Ultimately, Rousseff was impeached in 2016 due to accusations of her role in the influence-peddling scandal. Lula was sentenced in 2018 to 10 years imprisonment after being found guilty of taking BRL 3.7 million (roughly USD 1.2 million at the time) worth of bribes relating to the scandal. 

Lula’s political future at the time seemed bleak. Following several appeals at the Supreme Court and 580 days imprisonment, a controversial and narrow 6-5 Federal Supreme Court decision paved the way for his release. It should be noted Lula and his successor Rousseff appointed seven of the eleven judges on the Federal Supreme Court, increasing distrust in public institutions in the country.

Following his release, Lula vowed to defeat the right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro, a retired military officer and controversial figure who some media outlets have characterized as “Brazil’s Trump.” Bolsonaro rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment in Brazil during the 2018 elections. Much of that sentiment directly resulted from the corruption and cronyism that pervaded during Lula and Rousseff’s tenure. Bolsonaro’s 2018 platform played on voters’ anti-establishment views, as he vowed to tackle crime and fight corruption. However, his controversial comments on homosexuality and seeming support of the military dictatorship in Brazil led many voters to become dissatisfied with his leadership. Furthermore, it has been argued that his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was one of “the worst pandemic policy responses in the world.” Bolsonaro was not just seen as a controversial figure but a threat to Brazilian democracy, as he threw insults at the Supreme Court and questioned the legitimacy of any election, he did not win. 

It can be argued that this scenario created the perfect storm for a disgraced figure like Lula to challenge Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro failed to win the first round of elections in early October 2022, with Lula failing to secure the majority needed to take office, and the two faced off in a head-to-head runoff election later in October. Ultimately, in a narrow second round runoff, Lula won with 50.9% of the vote, while Bolsonaro had received only 49.1%.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro had vowed that he would not accept losing the campaign and claimed without evidence that the electoral system he won in 2018 was vulnerable to fraud, casting doubt on the election. Bolsonaro’s supporters have refused to accept the result and calls for the military to intervene to prevent Lula from taking over can be heard at rallies of Bolsonaro’s supporters. Bolsonaro’s party even directly challenged the results due to fraud at the electoral court, which the court rejected. 

Political violence is also rising in the country as Bolsonaro’s supporters continue to challenge public order and the election results. On 12 December 2022, following the arrest of a pro-Bolsonaro indigenous leader, Jose Acacio Serer Xavante, supporters of Bolsonaro “attempted to invade” the federal police headquarters in Brasilia where he was being held. These are alarming signs for a country whose democratic experience remains short, and a time when a military dictatorship ran the country remains in living memory. Lula’s inauguration is scheduled for 1 January 2023, but his re-election has pitched the country into chaos and unrest, and it remains to be seen what Bolsonaro may do. Bolsonaro has yet to speak publicly about Lula’s proposed transition team, while initial meetings between the two teams have recently begun. But as Bolsonaro’s supporters continue to question the election results, the country’s political stability in 2023 remains unclear.