17 April, 2024

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Lula’s Comeback & What It Means

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is President of Brazil again. On Sunday he defeated Jair Bolsonaro by the thinnest of margins since 1989, when the country held its first election after the end of a 20-year military dictatorship. Lula won 60.3 million votes, as opposed to Bolsonaro’s 58.2 million. To put this in perspective, Bolsonaro won by a lead of 11 million in the 2018 general election; the Worker’s Party (PT), led at the time by Fernando Haddad, got only 47 million votes. In that sense, last Sunday’s results show that while Lula is back, the right-wing forces that tried to run him and his party down haven’t entirely lost.

At the time of writing this article, Bolsonaro still had not conceded defeat. This has led some to speculate that he and his allies may conspire with the military to organise a coup, or at least an “uprising” similar to the 6 January 2021 attack on Capitol Hill in the US. Certainly, the results point at a deeply divided society: the electoral map shows that while Lula won the north and north-east, the more marginalised regions in the country, Bolsonaro won the south and south-west, the more affluent, privileged regions.

Like the rest of Latin America, Brazil is a land of contrasts: not just between affluence and poverty, but between those who see themselves as part of the marginalised and those who do not want to be a part of them. This is why the rich-poor divide, pertinent as it is to an analysis of the election results, is not enough to explain the Pink Tide or Lula’s return to power. After the 1989 election, at which his party lost, Lula noted that he was defeated “by the periphery” and not the rich. André Singer, Lula’s former press secretary and the man who coined the term “Lulismo”, observes that while the working class in Brazil was poor, the poor also formed a “sub-proletariat” and a deprived middle-class.

Any analysis of Lula’s rise to power and his subsequent decline must, I believe, include an analysis of the class preferences of this sub-proletarian, intermediate class. During his first term (2003-2006), Lula da Silva oversaw the most ambitious transformation ever attempted in Brazil’s recent history. Through minimum wage hikes and programmes like Bolsa Familia, his government paved the way for a substantial reduction of poverty.

Yet, laudable as this transformation was, it aimed not so much at as the proletariat as it did at middle-classes and the sub-proletariat, or the lower middle-classes. This was dictated by necessity: Lula’s government was trying to achieve a clean break from the neoliberal policies of its predecessors, and to bring about such a break it was imperative, paradoxical as it may seem, to not reverse or revoke those policies immediately, but to implement reforms that could be implemented within their framework. This is how, as Singer puts it in an interview with Jacobin Magazine, the government could pursue poverty reduction while keeping “the central tenets of neoliberalism”, such as high interest rates, intact.

All this has led some Marxist commentators to describe Lula’s government as Bonapartist, centre-left, and reformist. Certainly, the administration attempted to appeal to different class interests, typical of a Bonapartist balancing act. This has led some of its Left critics, like the editors of WSWS, to call it “pseudo-left.” Here we must take note of what went wrong with Lula’s reforms. The failures of Lulismo began to emerge during his second term (2007-2010), when his electoral base shifted from the sub-proletariat to the proletariat, and when, in the wake of the global recession, he began enacting policies aimed at the proletariat. To uplift the poor in a context of worldwide recession, the PT had to revisit the “central tenets” of neoliberalism that it had maintained for so long.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, fired the first shot by lowering interest rates in 2012. Later she oversaw policies such as the devaluation of the currency, in a bid to strengthen national industries. Leftist critics of the PT administration contend that this pointed more at the PT’s “national bourgeois” credentials than at its socialist credentials, but the end-result of these policies was that the PT gained many enemies on the right. The protests which erupted in 2013 indicated this right-leaning tendency among the government’s critics: they began as a campaign by leftists for greater change, but soon deteriorated into a leaderless movement – not unlike the aragayala in Sri Lanka – hijacked by right-wing elements that concealed their reactionary tendencies within the rhetoric of anti-corruption.

Anti-corruption took centre-stage with Operation Lava Jato, an ambitious investigation into corruption in the country’s oil and gas sectors which later deteriorated into a right-wing campaign against Dilma, Lula, and the PT. It even struck at mainstream conservative parties. As is typical in a context of widening distrust with the political establishment – and as had happened in the US in 2016, the year Dilma resigned – a right-wing neo-fascist fringe moved to the centre. Vincent Bevins has written that on the day he voted for Dilma’s impeachment, Bolsonaro told him that Brazil could become like North Korea, if the PT wasn’t stopped. The result was that while the PT won the north-east at the 2018 elections, it lost large chunks of the north, and much of the south, to Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL).

There are some important lessons here, obviously. Primarily, that any reform programme which appeases the middle-classes, and then antagonises them, will sooner or later turn the tables on a radical administration. Lula engaged in a balancing act during his first term that could be described as reformist, Bonapartist, or even pseudo-leftist. But he had the benefit of two key international developments: China’s ascendancy, and an upsurge in commodity prices. These boosted his government’s prospects as much as the worldwide recession after 2008 strangled them. I am not in agreement with the WSWS’s analysis. But I do concur that his programme was limited, if not by choice then by necessity, and that it overreached itself by focusing too much on the middle-classes. There is a lesson there, somewhere. One hopes that as he begins his third term as President, Lula will have learnt it.

*The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 1
    2

    I have been to Rio once. what I find admirable (other than the spectacular beauty and the amazing people) is that in vehicles and stuff unlike in Sri Lanka they all use small cars built in Brazil. no huge land cruisers and beemers and Benzes. I think they are all locally made. ofcouse this is not possible in Sri Lanka. but I hope no matter it is Lula or Kanaya that comes to power I hope the Brazilian people the best.

  • 3
    4

    The author seems indifferent to the contexts of the elections concerned.
    NED played its dirty game as usual and Bolsonaro spent liberally from state funds.
    The media in controlled by the right.
    The questions that need addressing concern how Lula’s impressive 7% or so lead shrank to 1.75% in a matter of a week or so.
    *
    Lula’s compromise with the system was his weakness. He is no Chavez, but one could learn from the experiences of others.
    As we see now in Peru, compromising with the right is to buy disaster.
    Defiance of imperialism as in Bolivia and Nicaragua are the way forward.
    There is no unanimous ‘Left’, the dogmatists only help the Right. but there is a wide section of the Left that is supportive of Lula for his anti-imperialist reformism.

  • 6
    1

    “Lula’s Comeback”

    Uditha,

    I, a diehard Rajapakse supporter like you, am pining for a Rajapakse comeback …….. to put things right …….. now that Ranil has screwed up things right royally

    Has reality changed …….. or has our perception of reality changed?


    Who has the bigger collection of books: you or Ranil?

    All social renewals/upheavals …….. were preceded by burning of books.

    Do you know why Pol Pot wanted to start from Year Zero? ………. Well, it’s a sorta “System Change” ……… the best there is!

    • 5
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      nimal fernando

      “All social renewals/upheavals …….. were preceded by burning of books.”

      You got it somewhat right.
      Esteemed serving ministers set fire to the Jaffna Library and books, followed by unleashing of all sorts of destructive forces, a few became multi billionaires inside and outside the island, many were killed and made to disappear, lot of them were promoted to the rank of Generals, …… we are still enjoying the rise and effect of fascism.

      “Do you know why Pol Pot wanted to start from Year Zero? “

      I am told SJ used to be an admirer of Pol Pot and a follower of his ideology.

      By the way do you admire any Fascists?
      Incidentally, Churchill did admire Mussolini.

      • 4
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        Native,

        “Incidentally, Churchill did admire Mussolini.”

        Who is Churchill? ……… Ranil?

        “By the way do you admire any Fascists?”

        Why are you questioning others ……… while admiring the biggest Fascist at home, Ranil?

        Measure yourself by the same yardstick you try to measure others.

        One’s truth can’t be based on personalities! Truth can’t change to fit/suit one’s support/partiality/love for someone.

        There is truth and there is untruth: nothing in-between ………….. everything else is just bullshit.

        It’s black and white ……… It’s so stark.

        it’s that simple.

        • 2
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          nimal, nimal,
          Fact is scientifically provable truth. Truth is a belief around a fact;
          As such, truth is based on personalities!

          • 3
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            Oh! Nathan,

            “As such, truth is based on personalities!”

            Give an example ….. to prove your point.

            Now, please dont run away ……. I’m waiting. :))

            • 1
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              70 percent of all goods are sold through channels is a fact. Goods are sold thru retailers / dealers.
              We buy even a toilet paper from a corner shop.

              • 3
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                Sorry, I don’t know what you are saying, Nathan.

                Here’s what I’m saying,

                “One’s truth can’t be based on personalities! Truth can’t change to fit/suit one’s support/partiality/love for someone.”

                For some people, the same thing ……… when the Rajapakses do it is wrong …….. but when Ranil does it is right.

                Their truth/untruth is based on personalities. Can you counter that?

                Need evidence? :))

                • 1
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                  nimal,
                  Truth is a ‘belief’ around a fact. (as mentioned earlier.)
                  Belief is a personal opinion.
                  (I cannot make it simpler than that.)

                  • 3
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                    Nathan,

                    “Truth is a ‘belief’ around a fact.
                    Belief is a personal opinion.”

                    If one believes that the world is flat ……… then is that true? :))

                    • 3
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                      If one believes that the earth is flat ……… then is that true? :))

                    • 0
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                      nimal,
                      Now, you are getting there.
                      At some point of time people believed that the earth was flat, AND thought it to be TRUE!
                      In FACT it was NOT.

              • 1
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                nimal,
                You are coming up with your ‘childish’ remarks.
                You may find yourself left alone if you your behaviour persists.

                • 3
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                  Nathan,

                  “You are coming up with your ‘childish’ remarks.”

                  Please leave name calling aside. That’s what people do when they can’t win an argument. :))

                  “You may find yourself left alone”

                  I have been alone all my life and done quite well. That’s the price one has to pay when one seeks the truth.

                  • 0
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                    You are being Jury and Judge, nimal.

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