European and Global Implications of Elections in Brazil [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Cecilia Gebara Zahran and Vitor Tomaz of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. They talk about the 2022 Brazilian elections, their political and ecological context and importance, and implications for Europe and the world.

L: People have been following the 2022 Brazilian elections and it is clear that the stakes are very high. Why?

Vitor Tomaz
Vitor Tomaz

Vitor Tomaz (VT): The stakes are really high for a number of reasons. Bolsonaro was trying to perfect his victory by playing by the playbook that Donald Trump more or less had tried to follow as well. His winning or losing would be a testament to the effectiveness of this playbook.

The fact that he was able to actually increase his popularity after the pandemic and the disastrous handling of it, when more than 700,000 Brazilians had died and when different types of scandals had occurred, involving corruption in the purchase of vaccines, is significant. He was able to come out more popular than at the beginning. This fact was confirmed in the election, as he lost by less than 2% of the vote, which is less than 2 million votes out of one hundred and twenty million voters.


Cecilia Gebara Zahran
Cecilia Gebara Zahran

Cecilia Gebara Zahran (CGZ): Vitor’s point is useful in a larger context to show the polarization in the world, because we do have very polarized environment right now. The popularity stems also from the fact that the other side has a great hatred in Brazil because of the whole process we had of facing corruption, fake news, and how it was built up over the last maybe 10 years.

Consequently, now we have very polarized election because both sides have a lot of disapproval. This is why it was really close. When you look at Brazil’s polarization index, it is the highest ever. Now, the hope is that we will be able to engage in a dialogue in politics, talk to each other and citizens. What Vitor brings up is very important, how is it that we have a government so unsuccessful that it is almost re-elected.

LJ: It can be said to be a failure of Bolsonaro’s message. But it is only 2 percentage points, so is it really a failure? Or he simply had a worse day? Actually, the future of polarization in Brazil does not look so bright, because it still has a lot of support.

VT: I would not say that it was a defeat. It just was not the optimal outcome, but Bolsonaro left presidency in a really strong stand, and he took the time to recognize Lula’s victory. It was a very skillful move on his part, as he asserted his power and the strength of the right-wing movement. In his announcement, which was less than 2 minutes long, he claimed that: “Brazil finally has a right-wing movement, and I am proud to be the leader of this movement.”

When we think that Bolsonaro left with less than a 2% margin behind Lula, he has his eldest son in the senate and his second eldest son in congress, and two other sons in politics, I do not see it is a loss. He might not be in a leading position, but he is not going away any time soon.

CGZ: You have his direct family in the power position, and you also have a lot of politicians that identify with bolsonarismo and the right-wing movement. People support this, so they are identifying more and more with Bolsonaro so that he can be elected. Now we will see who will actually continue Bolsonaro-type politics or move to the center now that Lula has been elected. Even though it was a small difference, this is the first time we did not re-elect a president.

VT: On that note, two other things are important. Firstly, never before in Brazilian history has a president used a public machine to advance his own election, namely the share of money he used to buy votes from a secret budget. He used a lot of money to actually buy votes.

LJ: Do you see it as a political move?

CGZ: It was a political move, because now we have a big hole in the budget, so it is going to be a really tough economic scenario for Lula for a couple of years.

LJ: Now, let us talk about Lula a little bit. To what extent was his difficult past an issue in the campaign? To what extent did his personal problems trouble voters in the campaign, and to what extent were they basically forgotten?

CGZ: It was a big issue.

LJ: But it did not prevent him from being a president.

CGZ: It almost did. Much of the disapproval of his person stems from the corruption scandals and how people have attached him to it and how he was arrested. People also have the problem of what to pay attention to in this sphere.

The half of the country that does not support him seems to have forgotten what Lula’s actual government was, because when we think about the indicators for the country, for the environment, even anti-corruption, it was quite a successful government. Some people actually wish it had been more to the left. However, those scandals took over the narratives and people’s minds, so I believe it was the main issue when it comes to the elections.

VT: In Brazil, we have a saying that Brazil is not for the beginners. Trying to make sense of what has happened over the past 8 years is not an easy task, because the amount of details in these stories is extremely complex. Even in Brazil it is difficult for people to understand this, and we will never be able to understand what happened.

So, you have half the population supporting Bolsonaro in the elections. The question is how it is possible that on Monday Lula was in jail and the next day he was not. Moreover, another question is how the judge was able to use the public machine to unfairly prosecute Lula. Was it unjust? Was Lula guilty of what he was accused of? It is extremely difficult to pinpoint.

However, what I think is less hard to look at is how politics evolved during the impeachment process of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, as well as the prosecution of Lula, in which it was very clear that both sides were willing to use any weapon at hand to prevail over the other.

It was imperative moment in which our democracy started to fracture. The case of Dilma to this day is a coup d’etat – half the public thinks so, and half strongly supports it.

LJ: Cecilia, what is your take on this? Is it possible to say whether the criminal charges against Lula were justified?

CGZ: When talking about corruption scandals in Lula’s government, two issues arise. This was never actually traced back to him, but people do blame him a lot because he was president. And then there is his actual prosecution of the house on the beach that he got for corruption, which was an actual accusation. I do not feel comfortable claiming whether he did it or not. It is well established that judicial process was not how it should have been.

VT: It was extremely manipulated…

CGZ: … and politically used.

VT: Resolving the merits of whether Lula should have gone to jail or not is extremely difficult, especially for those looking in from the outside. But it is important to take a closer look at the process. A few examples will do. There are leaked recordings that emerged several years after the trial, in which the judge discussed a strategy to advance Lula’s prosecution. There are also selective leaks to the press designed to drive public opinion.

CGZ: There was even a leaked audio of the current president’s conversation with Lula, as there was an opportunity for him to become a minister in the government. This way, he would be judged in the Supreme Court.

They recorded Dilma’s phone call when it was already illegal and leaked more than a dozen of audio recordings. When a president’s private conversation is leaked, it is unthinkable, at least to me. And Brazil was fine with it.

LJ: Let us talk more about Lula’s agenda. To what extend is it a comeback to the good old days, and to what extend does he offer a new vision for Brazil? Is he able to implement it?

CGZ: He does not have a majority in Congress. But people who would have identified themselves as right-wingers, if Bolsonaro had been elected, might shift to the center now that Lula is in power. People are going with the flow in this case.

Furthermore, he is a good politician. Bringing these people closer together will be something interesting to see. His goal now will be to reconcile and have a very centrist government, trying to decrease polarization. Therefore, he is already meeting with a lot of politicians with different ideologies and spectrums. He is going to reach out to everyone to make this government the more diverse and politically wise as possible.

LJ: Is it possible for him to brag about this polarization?

VT: Absolutely. What happens now will be extremely defining for the years to come, not only for Brazil, but also for other countries that may be suffering from the erosion of democracy, because depending on how things unfold, if he manages to bring economic prosperity, to bring Brazil back on the path of development, while preventing corruption, then he might be successful in making Bolsonaro less relevant, because one important thing in Bolsonaro about Bolsonaro is that much of his importance comes from being in opposition to Lula.

However, if he fails, if there is corruption in his government, if he is unable to bring Brazil back on a healthy track of development, then Bolsonaro will emerge and be extremely strong in the second election.

CGZ: It will be difficult for Lula to succeed economically, given that every country is now experiencing hard times after the pandemic, which, I believe, is not a good scenario. We have a serious situation when it comes to the budget for the coming years, so it is a difficult task to accomplish.

Moreover, I do not think he will dissociate himself from what happened in the past, so his name as you said will always be polarizing. Thus, maybe it is a transition in the government so that we can see someone who can be a little more in the center and a little more pleasing to more people because I do not think Lula will ever be 100% detached from this kind of polarization.

LJ: To what extent can he try to do something similar to his previous presidency, perhaps in other areas as well? Will he have an ambitious presidency, or will he just try to obtain limited damage?

VT: Actually, he has a very ambitious project, which he is trying very hard to signal.

However, I would like to give one remark before we focus on this project. Although Congress is right-wing, the president of Congress, who is one of the most powerful people in Brazil, very quickly set the tone after the election that he is willing to work with Lula. As long as Lula is willing to deal with this very transactional relationship with Congress, I do not think that Congress will be a major barrier to his success.

Speaking of Lula’s agenda, the way he is trying to frame it is almost like a new deal. One of the priorities is actually to invalidate many of Bolsonaro’s presidential decrees, such as the carrying of weapons. Furthermore, he is bringing in very important people such as Pérsio Arida and André Lara Resende, two economists who helped Brazil recover from the inflation crisis in the 1990s. He is also bringing in Marina Silva, who was his Minister of the Environment.

CGZ: And she was a presidential candidate as well.

VT: She is a very important environmentalist with an internationally recognized view on how to make policy in the Amazon by balancing development and sustainability. He also has Simone Tebet.

CGZ: She was a candidate for the party that used to oppose Lula’s party in the past. They would have been the main opposition. So, it is really interesting.

VT: We can expect a lot of politics and sustainability in Amazon. Also, one of the things that Bolsonaro did, in my opinion, was one of the worse policies. We have one of the most important policies in Brazil – social policy, which was extremely successful. And Bolsonaro changed that.

CGZ: He had many conditions regarding children going to school, children being vaccinated, the type of person who can receive the money and the amount. Many of these were removed from the equation.

VT: Lula has signaled that he is returning to the old version of the policy. The number one priority is to get to a situation where no student faces hunger in school, something Brazil managed to overcome in its first terms, and now it is happening again.

LJ: You mentioned that Amazon is the number one issue for many people. To what extent it was simply Bolsonaro’s unfriendliest towards environmental issues? To what extend can Lula turn it around, or will he need outside support to do so?

CGZ: Some people do believe we need to cut out the Amazon, especially agribusiness people who defend the opposition. However, many experts see that this will not actually bring sustainability in the long run. We will have big budgets from Europe. Marina Silva has many policies and ways to advance science in the Amazon. Thus, there is a lot, and we can take a lot from Amazon without tearing it down.

I do not think it is an actual trade between economics and the environment. It is just the way people choose to put it. In fact, Brazil has been a big transporter of commodities. It can be done, Lula’s government showed that. We were exporting, producing, and taking care of the environment. It is possible.

VT: This narrative that Bolsonaro brought is very old, at least from the second half of the 19th century, when we were exploring the center of the country in search of gold. We believed then that Brazil was a land of wealth, so we just had to explore it to be prosperous.

This narrative comes and goes with the time. And despite popular notions, if we look at the deforestation rate during Lula’s government, it is visible that at the beginning it was expansive, but then it changed with new policies to protect the Amazon and reduce the deforestation rate.

Most of the raising of the rate of deforestation in recent years has been largely about not enforcing these policies, and Bolsonaro publicly supports exploration.

CGZ: And it is interesting how fake news is used in this case. If you look at the amount of deforestation that happened during Lula and Bolsonaro governments, it is visible that there was more deforestation during Lula’s government. However, it is imperative to look at the trends. Lula made the index go down, whereas Bolsonaro has a very low index and made it go up.

That is the impact they had, but people like to have concrete numbers, so people are like “Lula was worse’, which is not true. This fake news is largely spreading now in Brazil.

LJ: I would like to ask you about the impact in foreign policy, especially the climate agreement, but also international cooperation. How can we view Brazilian foreign policy? What might be the priorities for Lula?

CGZ: Lula has already been invited to COP27, even when he was not president yet. That just shows how talented he is. But Brazil was very well known for its foreign policy of being a third party and negotiating cooperation agreements. Thus, foreign policy was really strong even before Lula.

VT: This is actually a long tradition.

CGZ: Now the management of international relations is one of the most professional and established. Of course, everyone has their problems, but Brazil was known for its foreign policy positions and successes. And then Bolsonaro had a very erratic foreign policy, insulting countries with which we had economic relations.

V: He used these international spaces to promote himself and his supporters. I do not remember which event it was, but once he only came to speak to his audience, and most of the international leaders did not even understand what he was talking about.

CGZ: It was very embarrassing.

LJ: Will it have an actual impact on how Brail engages in the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis?

VT: It is not part of Brazilian tradition. I might be wrong here, but Brazil may be involved in such a conflict with the sole intention of being a mediator. For instance, this happened in the case of Iran and the U.S., when Brazil helped mediate. It was a highly successful mediation, but without getting involved and making political positions.

By the way, there are also certain very controversial stances of the leftist party and Lula in terms of support for other countries, especially in the case of the governments of Venezuela and Cuba. The left party has this idea that the left should be united in Latin America. However, they do not acknowledge that some of those governments are autocratic.

LJ: What are your personal hopes for Brazil and your role after finishing this call here? What are you planning to do, as I assume you may want to return to the country at one point.

CGZ: Brazil is a beautiful country with amazing people and everything. I just hope that we can go past it. We say that politics is not football. Facing politics and public policy as it should be is complex and serious.

I hope we will get out of this environment of polarization and start simply communicating. Actually, it will never be easy, but I hope that we will start to discuss what we want for our country and start to think about what kind of future we want for our country, not what we do not want anymore, because that should now be a thing of the past.

I wish we could go back to the moment before Bolsonaro government, that is, before hunger, weapons, and environmental problems, so that we could start developing, namely investing in education, science, and technology, etc.

On a personal note, I am going back to Brazil just after the masters. This is my plan, so to be able to contribute to the rebuilding of Brazil.

VT: Before the election, I was terrified and very pessimistic, especially after the first round, in which we set the new composition of Congress.

It should be noted, however, that two minutes after the results are announced, there is a situation in which the leader recognizes the victory and says he is willing to cooperate with the government. Frankly speaking, it is a beautiful movement that brings together people that would have been in opposition movements in the past.

Therefore, the fact that the vice president and Lula were in opposing parties and are now in government together really makes me optimistic about the future. I cannot say that I do not have any concerns, but there are two things happening right now.

Firstly, we can again have a constructive dialogue, which was impossible in the past four years. Secondly, we now have a government that at least, I hope, will do things. It may not have the best policies. Personally, I am really concerned about monetary and fiscal policy because Lula’s proposals are extremely costly. We are coming from the COVID-19 crisis and Bolsonaro’s insane attempt to buy votes. But I am really optimistic about the future.

CGZ: If I may add one thing, we have not commented on the lack of representation for certain communities, aggressive narratives and things that have been happening with regard to LGBTQ+ rights, gender and race issues, and other underrepresented groups. So, I hope we can start to have a nation that is more inclusive, to have everyone at the table.

VT: I definitely want to go back and help rebuild our country and make sure that it gets back on track for development of society and government.

LJ: Brazil deserves to see such people return.

The podcast was recorded on November 10, 2022.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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