Political Futurity in Brazil in the Wake of Lula’s Victory

Written by
Nikhil Pandhi
Nov. 7, 2022

On Wednesday, November 2, 2022, the Brazil LAB hosted an online panel discussion with Ilona Szabó, Patricia Campo Mello and Brian Winter. The event vividly discussed the politics of futurity and democracy in Brazil against the backdrop of its fraught and fragmented socio-cultural and political-ecological landscape, including the historic victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) over far-right rival Jair Bolsonaro just days before, in a nail-biting election considered the most significant in Brazil’s contemporary history. Moderated by Brazil LAB’s director João Biehl, the discussion is available at the Brazil LAB YouTube channel. 

Ilona Szabó, a globally recognized civic entrepreneur, international studies scholar and co-founder and executive director of Igarapé, a leading think-and-do-tank on security, climate, and development issues in the Global South, began her remarks by highlighting the political contingency and expediency of the current election. According to Szabó, “Lula’s victory comes at a time Brazil was out of many leading multi-lateral forums” fundamental for the developing world on issues such as climate change, ecology, systemic inequality and supply chains. 

Gesturing to the deep rooted structural damage four years of ‘Bolsonarismo’ have done to Brazil and its “shrinking civic space and civil society”, Szabó drew attention to the manner in which the victory of Lula can serve as a critical turning point for Brazil to recuperate its position as a leading player in international affairs. Hunger and food security, for Szabó, are two issues radically exacerbated by the political violence of elected authoritarianism in Brazil during the past few years, the true magnitude of which is only now becoming apparent. 

In the past year alone 33 million Brazilians have newly become food insecure, raising several questions for the need to develop “a multi-sector approach” to solving food security, civic participation and democracy in Brazil. For Szabó, the issue of food is connected critically with the preservation of the Amazon and the engagement with locally mediated indigenous knowledges. Lula’s election, Szabó argued, can serve as a critical juncture to turn Brazil into the first country with a model of “forested development” where an emphasis on biodiversity, biosecurity, indigenous conservation and food security can help break the neck of “the many illicit economies” and agribusiness bureaucracies and transform the country into “a food basket for the entire world.”

Patrícia Campos Mello, an award winning author and investigative journalist at Folha de São Paulo, currently a research fellow at Columbia University, drew attention to the myriad mechanisms of “disinformation” that have historically played and continue to govern electoral politics, media representations and the transmission of political action in Brazil. For Campo, “disinformation campaigns [waged by ‘Bolsonaristas’] cannot be blamed on technology alone,” for they potentialize existing social and structural inequalities. 

Disinformation in Brazil is now more complicated than before and covers not just the manipulation of media, fake news, and propaganda but a complex web of corruption involving wealthy actors, politicians, mainstream media, online platforms and legal loopholes, which give vent to conspiracy theories rather than strong legislations against disinformation. Campo argued that “the [Brazilian] right is decades ahead of the left in creating political disinformation.” The Brazillian left needs to overcome its own internal authoritarian power structures, which have kept political communication centralized and tightly controlled thereby preventing a democratic engagement with social media. Campos Mello also drew attention to Bolsonaro’s continued use of “political ambiguities” to keep his conservative colleagues mobilized while barely registering a recognition of his own electoral defeat. Such disinformation campaigns, Campos Mello argued, need to be critically examined for they are likely to influence even the future of Brazilian democracy.

Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and one of Latin America’s most influential political analysts, highlighted a range of elements that deepen the fragmented nature of political transition in the wake of Lula’s victory. While Bolsonaro has consistently blamed Brazil’s electronic voting system, the same system has allowed a number of Bolsonaro’s former ministers and conservative associates to retain their seats and win. Thus, according to Winter, “Bolsonaro’s brand of electoral criticism has done very well for the conservative movement despite Bolsonaro’s loss.” Not only does the Brazilian right have more elected seats than before this also gives them “a wider stake” in the political opposition that Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT) now have to face. Another key contradiction, according to Winter was the way conservatives, including Bolsonaristas and key evangelical pastors, were quick to accept the defeat of Bolsonaro suggesting that not only is ‘Bolsonarismo’ itself more complicated than is conventionally thought but also that the stakes and scales of the cultural, political, religious and social roots of authoritarianism in Brazil (in a post-Bolsonaro era) need to be radically (re)evaluated.

A rich discussion with the audience followed in which crucial issues germane to Brazil’s political futurity were deliberated. These included questions pertaining to the new role of the military, judiciary, and policing forces; the everyday civic challenges for Lula’s presidency; the continuing threat of political violence in Brazil; the role of the international community in containing violence and promoting democratic engagement; the challenges for the Brazilian left and the Workers’ Party to redesign their communication strategy and the stakes of Brazilian democracy especially in the face of deep rooted ecological precarity for the Amazon. 

The event was co-organized with the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology, the Program in Latin American Studies and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.