smallafter taking Brazil’s new leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, faces several problems after taking office in January. A week after his inauguration, thousands of supporters of his right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, stormed the presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court, demanding that the military overturn last year’s election results. Lula is known to have feuded with the central bank over rate hikes. A recent testy news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz confirmed his tolerance for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, Lula faces another challenge: Mr Bolsonaro says he will end his self-imposed exile in Florida in March to become “the leader of the right-wing country”.
At first glance, Lula had nothing to worry about. Mr Bolsonaro’s influence appears to be fading. Nearly 76 percent of Brazilians surveyed opposed the January incursion into government buildings.famous bolsonist Also distanced himself from the former president. The legal wrangling may have extended Mr Bolsonaro’s stay abroad. He is under investigation in Brazil on about a dozen charges ranging from peddling lies ahead of a presidential election to inciting protests in January (all charges he denies). If he returns to Brazil, he will have to deal with those potential cases and could be barred from holding public office.
Dig deeper, however, and it is clear that Mr Bolsonaro remains surprisingly popular. He came to power in 2018 amid a wave of discontent with the established party following the revelations of Operation Car Wash, a huge corruption scandal under Lula’s Workers Party. The right-winger joined the country’s growing evangelical Christian base, winning over young people, security agencies, agribusiness, small farmers and miners. All of these groups still broadly support the former president.
Most notably, Bolsonaroism Remains attractive among young Brazilians. In a recent poll, 57 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds said they would elect Mr Bolsonaro if elections were held next Sunday, the highest proportion of any age group. In another poll, nearly 40 percent of Brazilians said they did not believe Lula had actually won the presidency. The group that believes this most strongly is the 25-34 age group. With 65 million followers across various platforms, Bolsonaro is more social media savvy than Lula, who has 31 million. Social media looms large in Brazilian politics: The deputy who won the most votes in last year’s election was 26-year-old Nikolas Ferreira Bolsonarista Rising to fame on video streaming app TikTok.
The armed forces and police still love Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain. Under his leadership, military pensions were exempted from pension reforms that delayed or reduced spending for most Brazilians. The number of current and former military officers serving in the federal government more than doubled to more than 6,000.
Anderson Torres, the security chief in the capital Brasilia and an ally of Mr Bolsonaro, flew to Florida two days before the January protests. Police later found at his home a draft decree dated when he was justice minister that would allow Mr Bolsonaro’s government to overturn the results of the presidential election. Some police officers stood by during the riot. In response to the unrest, Lula fired dozens of government officers and police officers and fired the head of the armed forces.
Rodrigo Nunes of the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro said Mr Bolsonaro could also continue to count on the support of the “wild west of the capital”. This includes small and medium ranchers expanding their territories through illegal logging. Likewise, Lula’s attempts to rein in illegal gold miners who have penetrated deep into the Amazon under Bolsonaro could anger them.
Agribusiness is also a big part of Brazilian politics: the agribusiness lobby has ties to about half of lawmakers in Congress, up from one in five in 2010. Many in the industry are wary of Lula, even though he cemented ties with China under the previous two administrations, between 2003 and 2010, leading to an agricultural boom. Brazil is now the world’s largest soybean exporter, 70 percent of which goes to China. Under Mr Bolsonaro, diplomatic relations with China have cooled even more. Still, some agribusiness has sided with the former president. He rode horses at rodeos, branded activists demanding land reform “terrorists” and expanded subsidized government loans to farmers. Investigators are looking into whether people linked to the agribusiness helped supply trucks, tractors and food to the insurgents in January.
Lula’s response Bolsonaroism Will partly determine whether it remains a formidable force. His rhetoric and policies have worked against him thus far. The president flippantly called protesters “Nazis” in January. In his first week in office, he created two departments that worried opposition politicians and free speech advocates alike. People can sue to “combat disinformation about public policy.” The broad mandate has raised concerns about the impact on free speech. Another is an agreement with social media platforms to regulate fake news online. Meanwhile, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes has banned the accounts of dozens of people he deems a threat to democracy. Supporters of Mr Bolsonaro have denounced it as censorship.
The economy will not help Lula either. The post-COVID-19 recovery gives Brazil a boost in 2021. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine propped up prices for commodity exports last year. But inflation remains stubbornly high and commodity prices are set to soften this year. In December, Lula led Congress through a constitutional amendment exempting certain spending from caps on annual budget increases. This will increase the budget deficit.
On Feb. 27, Finance Minister Fernando Haddad said he would reintroduce the fuel tax, which Mr. Bolsonaro scrapped before last year’s election. The Workers’ Party leader criticized Mr Haddad for raising prices at a time of high inflation. Such bickering within the party could make it harder for Lula to govern.
So could a right-turning Congress. Lula won the election by just 1.8 percent, the tightest result since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party gained 66 seats last year than in 2018, making it the biggest seat in the lower house. Candidates aligned with Mr Bolsonaro also won 13 of the 27 seats in the Senate. Overall, allies of Mr Bolsonaro now control about a third of seats in both chambers. Three of the country’s most populous and wealthiest states are governed by governors aligned with Mr Bolsonaro.
Lula’s best hope is that Mr Bolsonaro’s legal troubles may prevent him from running for office. But even if that happens, right-wing candidates to replace the former president are already circling. “Jair is very popular, but it’s no longer a matter of personality,” says Luiz Philippe de Orléans e Bragança, Bolsonaroist cCongressman. He believes that if a leftist government starts to stutter, people “will come to us for solutions”. This may come much sooner than Lula hopes. ■