/ 1 November 2022

Brazil’s Lula win over Bolsonaro celebrated by the left globally, but beware a right backlash

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Candidate Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva of Workers’ Party (PT) greets supporters as he leaves Escola Estadual Firmino Correia De Araújo after casting his vote and giving a press conference on October 30, 2022 in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil. Photo: Getty Images

On election day in Brazil on Saturday Lula da Silva, a former factory worker, was carried aloft by trade unionists and members of the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), the giant movement of the landless. Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer, cut a very different figure as his wife Michelle went to vote in a T-shirt emblazoned with an Israeli flag.

On the one side was a former trade unionist brought into power by unions, a social movement and all kinds of grassroots organisations, as well as students and other progressive actors. On the other was a man who openly celebrated the United States-backed military dictatorship that held Brazil in its clutches from 1965 to 1985.

Bolsonaro is often, correctly, compared with Donald Trump but Lula is no Joe Biden. On the contrary, Lula is a genuine leftist who, when he was previously in power, lifted millions of Brazilians from poverty, broke racial barriers in Brazilian society and worked with other progressive governments to counter US power in Latin America and globally.

The final result of Saturday’s election was a relatively close call, but Lula won and the result has thrilled the left around the world. It will be a moment of global significance.

In the first decade of the new century, the “pink tide” brought left governments to power across Latin America, and offered hope for a bloc that could challenge US domination of the Americas, and spark a left renaissance elsewhere in the world.

But when Trump took the US presidency in 2016 and Bolsonaro took the Brazilian presidency in 2019 the right was suddenly ascendant and in a very, very ugly form. The right still holds power in countries like India, Israel, Hungary and Poland, is strong in France and has recently taken Italy. And both Trump and Bolsonaro had the support of many millions of people when they lost the elections. The threat from the right is not over.

Nonetheless, the defeat of Trump and Bolsonaro is a huge step forward for humanity, and the election of Lula opens up a new vista of possibility for the left in Brazil, in Latin America and internationally. Coming soon after the victory of Gustavo Petro in Colombia in June this year and the rolling back of the US-supported coup in Bolivia the Latin American left is on a roll, and will move quickly to reduce US influence in the region.

Lula’s victory will also open political space for grassroots organising in Brazil, including the world’s largest social movement, the MST, which in recent years has taken a leading role in connecting progressive movements across the globe.

Formed in 1984, the MST has led more than 2 500 land occupations, ensuring that about 370 000 families are settled on 7.5 million hectares of land. Their struggles have centred on schooling and healthcare for the landless and the poor.  And of course, they have been at the forefront of offering critical support for Lula and his Workers’ Party.

A few days before the election I was privileged to be included in an invitation-only Zoom meeting for activists hosted by the MST. The meeting began with the organisation pledging solidarity with struggles from Zambia to Palestine.

In the context of an anticipated victory for Lula, Cassia Bechara of the MST spoke of the need to intensify the process of recovering alliances and rebuilding solidarity with progressive formations in Asia, Africa and Palestine. It is this stress on internationalism that makes the advances of the Brazilian movements such a boon for struggle elsewhere, including here in Africa. Activists from across Africa have visited the MST’s famous political school in Sao Paulo, and there are MST solidarity brigades working in many African countries.

Speaking with great confidence, Joao Paulo Rodrigues, also an MST leader, described the first round of the elections as a “beautiful victory” for the Workers’ Party. He also made the important point that most who abstained from the polls would have voted for Lula, according to available data. “Poor people did not have money or transport to get themselves to voting stations,” he said. 

In a euphoric atmosphere of an impending victory, he also cautioned that attempted coups were possible and there was a need to be prepared for that. This is something that will be watched closely in the coming days, especially after Trump’s failed attempt at a coup

Bolsonaro’s Trumpian pronouncements prior to the election results seem to have been aimed at laying the foundation for contesting the results of the elections. Among a range of issues, he focused his energies on the idea that the media gave Lula an unfair advantage in terms of airtime for advertising. With more than 60% of Bolsonaro’s supporters indicating that they would not accept the result of the elections if Lula emerges victorious, we should keep a close eye on developments.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro is such an appalling figure that it’s difficult for progressives to understand how he got the number of votes that he did. But, again like Trump, he traded in conspiracy theories and influenced the moralisation of the public debate in a way that suited his agenda. And with the support of the Pentecostal churches, from the urban centres to the periphery of Brazilian society, Bolsonaro’s ideas were effectively disseminated and popularised through WhatsApp.

Last Saturday the International People’s Assembly (IPA), a project of the MST, hosted an open online seminar on challenges facing the left. Speaking at the event Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader in the United Kingdom, pointed out: “Lula’s victory in Brazil will not be the end of the story, it’s the end of one story and the beginning of a difficult second chapter where we struggle to transform society in the image of the working class and the rural masses around the world.”

This is certainly true. We have to think globally, and while the victory in Brazil is a heady moment, no one country can fight climate change, build a fair economy or democratise international relations on its own. And as we have seen with the US-backed attempts at regime change in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia, a country with a left-wing government that is isolated is vulnerable.

Speaking at the same event, Stephanie Weatherbee of the IPA, emphasised the need for the left to address the needs of the masses, but also said that the left had several challenges. 

“The working class needs to take state power,” she said. “ We believe in building an internationalism against US imperialism that impacts the sovereignty of nations around the world.”

If the recent advances for humanity in Colombia and Brazil are to become the base for advances for humanity as a whole we need more left governments and we need a left bloc that can oppose US hegemony and build a democratic international order. 

There was a time when many placed their hopes in the Brics bloc (Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa) to create a counterpole to US power. But with India ruled by an outright fascist government, Russia under the tyrannical control of a corrupt and murderous authoritarian nationalist and South Africa run by a dithering president, Brics is a lost cause.

No doubt the Brazilian state will try to build a counter-hegemonic bloc with left Latin American states such as Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. But building a worldwide movement will also require building alliances between progressive movements, and this is the task that the MST has set for itself.

This is a wonderful moment for the left. But once we have taken the time to let this victory sink in we need to go back to organising, and building the kinds of movements and parties that can secure a decent future for humanity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.