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IN FOCUS: What can Filipino progressives learn from Lula’s re-election and Bolsonaro’s defeat in Brazil?

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Brazil’s 2022 Presidential Election is one of the most polarizing and divisive elections in recent history. It stirred some of the biggest controversies between political rivals and top two frontrunners, incumbent and far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro and left wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known mononymously as Lula. The stakes are high between the two political giants as the future of Brazil’s democracy hangs in balance.

The two rounds of election became increasingly ugly as supporters of both camps traded insults on social media and jabs during campaigns. Bolsonaro was accused of being a cannibal while Lula faced allegations of satanism. At one point during a debate with four other hopefuls, Lula and Bolsonaro had to be physically separated after an intense shouting match.[1] These farcical sparring matches and dirty attacks in an attempt to discredit political opponents are not new (particularly for us, Filipinos), but the real battle is just about to begin. 

The polls leading up to the first round predicted a comfortable win for Lula. While he was, in fact, the leading candidate in the first round, his votes were not enough (less than 50%) to declare him winner. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro outperformed forecasts predicting his immediate defeat and placed himself in a horse race with Lula for the runoff election. By the end of the second round on October 30, Lula secured a historic comeback by a narrow margin—50.9% compared to Bolsonaro’s 49.1%, despite alleged incidents of voter suppression [2] by pro-Bolsonaro police officers.

Before drawing conclusions and claiming parallels, we have to understand that Lula’s win did not happen overnight. He did not rise from the oppressed class one day to gracefully topple Bolsonaro’s regime the next. It took decades of shrewd political tactics to convince the electorate (most of which identify as conservatives) to support a left-leaning candidate. The Philippine opposition can learn so much from what transpired in Brazil’s most crucial election to date. We start by asking: what led to Bolsonaro’s downfall and Lula’s return?

From Humble Beginnings to a Monumental Rise to Power

Before rising as a left-wing politician, Lula was a factory metalworker, union leader, and a great orator. By the 80s, he emerged as the most prominent symbol of the working class’ fight for democracy [3]. He organized thousands of trade union supporters, labor militants, and activists from other social movements into a political party Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) or the Workers’ Party. 

Drawing from the political left, PT aimed to represent the low income working class, left-leaning Catholics, indigenous peoples, Afro Brazilians, and other marginalized sectors of the country. This unique arrangement of constituencies enabled PT to become a strong force to be reckoned with soon after its foundation. 

In 1989, Lula ran for the first time and, even as a neophyte politician at the time, made it to the runoff election/second round. However, he was short by four million votes and ultimately lost to Fernando Collor de Mello. He ran again in 1994 and 1998, but also lost both elections in the first round. While his base was gradually growing, it was not enough to afford him the presidential seat. 

Determined to win despite his consecutive defeats, Lula ran for the fourth time in 2002. This time around, he tried an unusual political tactic—Lula further expanded his coalition and earned the support of the business community. Even his running mate at the time was a textiles magnate who was affiliated with the conservative party of Brazil, Jose Alencar.[4] Because of this, Lula was able to bring former political foes and center-right voters into his campaign, combined with an already strong base of working class supporters. After long and arduous attempts to be the first left-wing president, Lula won a landslide victory with 61.2% of the total votes [5], signaling Brazil’s decisive turn to the left.

In office, Lula inherited the problems of previous administrations and was faced with the challenge of consolidating the fragile regime in his term. At the time, Brazil was experiencing an economic crisis due to hyperinflation and investors’ loss of confidence in the country’s overvalued currency.[6] As a response, Lula initiated government efforts to reduce vulnerabilities. According to the International Monetary Fund, Brazil’s fiscal performance improved with Lula in office.[7] He developed trade relations with countries (particularly China [8]), raised interest rates to reduce inflation, gained investors’ confidence back, and maintained a high budget surplus. With steadfast economic policies, Lula’s administration was able to lift Brazil from an impending collapse.

The government, under Lula, also strengthened the internal market by investing locally, raising the minimum wage, providing pensions and social security benefits, and expanding his conditional cash transfer program Bolsa Familia which supported families living in poverty or extreme poverty (about 25% of the population). These programs further broadened the Workers’ Party and encouraged more Brazilians to support left and center-left politicians and coalitions across the country. 

During his term, Lula was an unstoppable force, maneuvering Brazil’s massive period of growth. Despite accusations of bribery and corruption [9], Lula was reelected in 2006. By the end of his second term, GDP was the highest in Brazil’s history and Lula left office with a record-high approval rating of 83%.

In 2016, Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff faced accusations of corruption and poor governance. An investigation claimed that many officials of the Workers’ Party were involved in a corruption scheme. Rousseff was removed from office and Lula was implicated for allegedly taking bribes. In a controversial trial in 2017, he was convicted of money-laundering and corruption, and was sentenced nine and a half years in prison. 

With no one to hold the coalition together, a movement from the right led by retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro emerged. In 2018, he ran for president and was supported by a coalition of evangelical Christians, wealthy businessmen, moderates, and far-right voters. He also gained the support of some leftist voters who were dissatisfied with the Workers’ Party—signaling Brazil’s decisive shift to the right.

In office, his far-right politics drew both flak and praise. For one, he advocated close relations with the United States and Israel. As a result, he embraced neoliberal and pro-market policies. Bolsonaro was also known for his vocal opposition of same-sex marriage, abortion, and secularism. He also supervised the degradation and further exploitation of the Amazon forest for economic gain. Considering the stark contrast to Lula’s policies, Bolsonaro’s policies can be seen as resembling that of Trumpist tendencies–with what; widespread systematic attack on the environment, democratic institutions, and minorities. 

In 2019, Lula’s conviction (by Justice Sergio Moro, who later became the Minister of Justice and Public Security in Bolsonaro’s administration) was overturned by Brazil’s Supreme Court in June 2021, allowing him to run again in the 2022 presidential election.

Once again, Lula worked on organizing his coalition and creating a front that, perhaps, could not get broader. His running mate was his former rival in the 2006 election, center-right administrator Geraldo Alckmin. Eight former presidential candidates across political spectrums also endorsed him for a ‘tactical vote’. He also campaigned among progressive evangelicals, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized sectors. Bit by bit, he was building a broad front which shattered political purism. For all he believed, it was an “us” vs “them” fight, with the definition of “us” not limited to the left. 

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro attempted to employ the same tactic by engaging with and gaining the support of some low income working class who generally fall under Lula’s base. However, it appeared the tactic was more effective for Lula. Many members of the former President’s broad unity coalition went against him for his unscientific approach during the height of the pandemic, crackdown against environmentalists and journalists, and relentless attacks on the country’s democracy. The citizens’ disillusionment with Bolsonaro’s regime ultimately alienated his very own supporters.

And just as everyone (well, except Bolsonaro’s camp) predicted, Lula won with about two million votes more than his opponent. Here’s a caveat: the majority of Brazil’s Congress today are right-wing candidates who are generally aligned with Bolsonaro. Amid his successful reelection, the challenge for Lula now is facing a stronger opposition unlike anything he has known before. In a Congress dominated by center-right to right wing conservatives, it is likely that he will face resistance against his progressive reforms. What Lula does in resolution is something we are yet to witness. 

Image: 2022 Brazilian Elections Turnout

What is next for the Philippine Opposition? 

Closely considering the events that led to Lula’s return to the executive seat, the Philippine opposition has a long way to go in terms of mending its electoral defeats in the most recent elections. Here are some lessons for Filipino progressives vis-a-vis the 2022 Brazilian elections. 

1. Coalition/Alliance-Building

Consolidating a grassroots campaign in a predominantly conservative country with a traditional political system takes time, valuable resources, and concerted social efforts. Remember, it took Lula more than thirty years to build a robust opposition from the ground up. Even when he was unjustifiably convicted and sent to prison, he was able to unite Brazilian citizens. The Philippine opposition needs to set aside the differences among its line and understand that the fight is neither against each other nor the voters who support the present administration, but the same political system that enables incompetent politicians to rise in the first place. So long as political groups continue to insist on their moral and ideological ascendancy without considering the complex power and social relations within our political system, the opposition will remain fragmented.

At the same time, the opposition must acknowledge that no winnable and broad united front will emerge if they keep shutting down potential allies for ideological differences. This is precisely where the Philippine opposition was hit during the 2022 Philippine National Elections. The opposition was divided into splintered groups, with each unwilling to back down and support a single candidate. There were attempts to unite, but were still futile as self-interests ultimately prevailed. As a result, the whole movement (that which is considered legitimate) was placed in a position that is relatively weaker than what it was up against. 

Lula’s supporters and voters were not just from the left, but from a combination of interclass forces. Without this force, it is uncertain if Lula would even be able to win his first bid in 2002. Brazil’s opposition understood the workings of coalition-building. So instead of engaging in keyboard wars and pointless “bardagulan” online, our energy must be spent elsewhere—in strengthening our communities, supporting vulnerable sectors, and forming strong alliances. In the end, Lula’s victory is a testament to the power of solidarity and a wake up call for our opposition to set aside differences and unite for a common goal. 

2. Creating a Disciplined and Cohesive Political Organization that sticks through Ups and Downs

Forming a broad coalition is one thing, making sure that coalition sticks together despite instability, failures, and challenges is another. It must be emphasized that it took decades of patient and arduous organizing before Lula was able to create a cohesive political organization. And in all these years, he made sure that the feats of the Workers’ Party are not only attributed to him, but is considered a culmination of people’s combined efforts. 

Over time, this came into fruition as Lula stood, not above, but among supporters ranging from the working class to the business community. Lula disproved the seeming impossibility of an interclass coalition by strategically identifying and embodying the collective identity of groups or segments of society that are generally opposed to one another. He knew how to keep a political organization together and get them to support him despite his numerous failed presidential runs. This level of political hierarchy manipulation is something worth emulating for Filipino progressives. 

In the end, there really is no way to expedite the creation of a cohesive political organization, and any attempts (as has been proven in the past) will be ultimately counterproductive. Revolution does not happen overnight, particularly in political systems that are disorganized and weak: instead it is a product of careful and strategic political organization. 

3. Finding a Charismatic and Cunning Opposition Leader  

Discounting Lula’s politics and ideological leanings, he emerged as a political figure oozing with so much charisma and relatability that political actors, even those that are generally opposed to his beliefs, are willing to engage with him—the Lula effect, if you will. Even former US President Barack Obama heralded him as “one of the most popular politicians on earth.” 

From his roots as a skilled factory worker, to a gifted organizer and orator, up until he became a dominant politician, he was loved and respected by many. Lula did not claim to be the working class’ messiah, but fearfully served as a fearless voice of thousands of Brazillians seeking social mobility. He knew that the citizens do not just need a leader who has the best intentions, but one that is on their side and one that would join them in their struggle for democracy.

Filipinos are not new to this game of political courtships. In fact, our political history is one that is heavily driven by it. The common denominator for most politicians today has little to do with their policies and more with their capacity to appeal to the people. This explains why, as preposterous as it sounds, a politician was able to dance his way into a senatorial seat. 

As basic as it may sound, in challenging the status quo and building a strong political organization, Filipino progressives must find a charismatic and cunning leader who has the skills to communicate their platforms and inspire the people. This does not necessarily mean, as is the case for most politicians today, making a fool out of themselves for the sake of publicity. Charisma and cunning tactics must go hand in hand in order to effectively tap into the hearts and souls of the electorate.

4. Empowering Critical Voters

Lula’s re-election would not be possible if it were not for the thousands and millions of Brazilians who stood with him during his neophyte days until he was unjustifiably imprisoned as an outspoken progressive political figure. Lula, rallying behind the labor movement, shaped a broad and massive line of critical citizens who refuse to give in to empty promises and ulterior motives hidden in the facade of decent politics.  

In all this, there needs to be an understanding that the empowerment of critical voters must go beyond voter education campaigns, despite their evident importance. The electoral process in the Philippines, whether we acknowledge it or not, remains driven by patronage instead of policy evaluation. Truth be told, many of us cannot afford the luxury of sitting down and critically analyzing who has the best policy among political candidates. This is why most lower-income voters tend to support politicians who are quick with providing short-term patronage as long as it would feed their families for the day. To put it bluntly, it is easier to buy votes when the people have exhausted all their possible means of survival. 

It all boils down to the fact that we can only truly empower critical voters, particularly those living in poverty or below the poverty line (in other words, majority of the Filipinos), by uplifting their socio-economic status. 

5. Cunning use of “Us vs Them” or “Oppressed vs the Oppressor” rhetoric 

While we have some center-left to left leaning candidates and political parties (at least, that is what they claim), major parties are still, well, traditional and conservative. 1Sambayan’s horrible failure, for example, proved that the alliance in the Philippine opposition remains fragile, unlike Lula’s alliance forged with trust and unity. This alliance is precisely what enabled him to pull an “us vs them”/the oppressed vs the oppressors mentality.

Progressive candidates in the Philippines rarely grow big enough to win in a popular election primarily because the opposition is heavily demonized across all corners by political figures (including some liberals). Employing what we learn from Lula’s strategy, Filipino progressives need to capitalize on this weakness and turn antagonism against them into antagonism against the values they fight for—be it equality before the law, social justice, promotion of freedom, and the like. The fight, it bears repeating, is not between ordinary voters but against the flawed political system and those that perpetuate it. 

6. Grounding Platforms on Issues that matter to Juan/Juana Dela Cruz

As previously stated in this article, the first thing Lula did when he came into power was to consolidate the fragile regime in 2002. He did this by understanding the plight of his people. He listened to and addressed the demands of minority groups and accommodated economic drivers, thereby effectively creating a system of compromise and consensus. This essentially disproves commonly held concerns that Lula might be too radical or is a closet communist (there is a belief that he is actually becoming more and more moderate given the many compromises he made to get himself elected, but that is for another conversation).

The whole point is that he did not sweep issues of poverty, hunger, and economic instability under the rug by locating himself in a position of understanding. As a result, he gained people’s trust and respect—the kind that would endure the test of time and re-elect him twenty years later.

Social movements are borne out of a shared understanding among the electorate and the candidates. In a political system infested with trapo or traditional politicians, this can only be possible if Filipino progressives are able to locate their policies and platforms with issues that matter to an ordinary citizen. 

7. Genuine Fight Against Disinformation

Disinformation is a problem plaguing both Brazil and the Philippines. What makes matters worse is that it is, more often than not, peddled by the same people mandated to fight it. What is interesting with the Brazilian elections is that Lula still decisively won despite being pitted against an incumbent president who was notorious for using political machinery to spread disinformation. 

It is, however, unfair to make comparisons and immediately conclude that our voters do not learn from history. We have to understand that the political reality accessed by most of us was a culmination of years and decades of fake news, propaganda, and systemic historical revisionism enabled by state machinery and the media. We are, in essence, fighting a bigger monster. To combat this, the opposition must launch genuine campaigns against disinformation and historical revisionism. 

We stand in a delicate precipice with the advent of various social media platforms. Since such platforms have been historically used to spread disinformation, the opposition must focus on changing this view and introducing social media’s progressive potential.

Ultimate Power resides in the People and the Movement

Lula’s political success was made possible not just by his charisma and capacity for coalition-building. The movement has existed long before Lula’s rise to power or any progressive candidate in the Philippines right now. His campaign, and this is something that the Philippine opposition must acknowledge, depended on the strength of the labor movement combined with all other progressive movements. In order to beat a reactionary political system from its own game, the opposition must learn from Lula’s strategies and apply them within our own unique political context. 

Politicians come and go, but the movement will stay and will be kept alive by people whose names we, perhaps, may never know. We may have lost now and we may have wept for a time, but now it is time to move forward. How can we give up when a progressive candidate halfway across the world just reminded us of the power of solidarity?


[1] BBC. (2022). “Brazil election: Bolsonaro and Lula trade insults in the first debate”. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-62710526 

[2] Portefield, C. (2022). “Brazil Election: Police Accused Of Pro-Bolsonaro Voter Suppression In High-Stakes Presidential Race.” Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2022/10/30/brazil-election-police-accused-of-pro-bolsonaro-voter-suppression-in-high-stakes-presidential-race/?sh=767ae5be67da 

[3] French, J & Fortes, A. (2005). “Another World is Possible: The Rise of the Brazilian Workers’ Party and the Prospects for Lula’s Government.” Retrieved from: https://fds.duke.edu/db/attachment/73 

[4] Phillips, T. (2011). “Jose Alencar obituary”. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/apr/01/jose-alencar-obituary

[5] Rohter, L. (2002). “Leftist Handily Wins Brazilian Presidential Race”. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/28/world/leftist-handily-wins-brazilian-presidential-race.html 

[6] Ito, T. (1999). “Brazil: A history of Political and Economic Turmoil”. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/brazil/overview.htm  

[7] International Monetary Fund. (2002). “Brazil—Letter of Intent, Memorandum of Economic Policies, and Technical Memorandum of Understanding.” Retrieved from: https://www.imf.org/external/np/loi/2002/bra/04/index.htm#:~:text=Brazil%27s%20fiscal%20performance%20improved%20markedly,criterion%20under%20the%20Fund%20program

[8] Harris, J. (2005). “Emerging Third World Superpowers: China, India, and Brazil.” Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0306396805050014

[9] Zobel, G. (2005). “Lula hit as top aide quits over bribes”. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jun/18/brazil

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