President Lula being sworn in President Lula being sworn in. Photo: Mídia NINJA / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

While the left welcomes the defeat of far right Bolsonaro, Lula’s electoral victory was narrow –  this is not the time for compromise but for mass working class mobilisation to defeat the right, argues John Clarke

By the time Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returned to power as Brazil’s president on January 1, his defeated rival, Jair Bolsonaro, had already taken refuge in Florida. As hundreds of thousands took to the streets to celebrate this transition, Lula offered a message of ‘hope and reconstruction.’

There is no doubt as to the importance of having driven Bolsonaro from office. He represented a massively regressive right-wing direction and an authoritarian threat to democratic rights. Though he will face a Congress still dominated by the right, Lula will use his power to curtail the most extreme elements of the political agenda that dominated Brazil under his predecessor. On his second day in office, he cancelled the planned privatisation of eight state owned companies.

However, it would be hopelessly naive to imagine that the danger from the right has passed or that Lula can be expected to function as any stalwart champion of the interests of working-class Brazilians. His campaign failed to draw class lines by challenging the dominant economic interests. Rather, he ‘campaigned on a message of democracy and pragmatism, defending political unity, and a valorisation of human and civil rights.’

Lula picked, as his vice presidential candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, who had been his opponent in the 2006 election, and he worked for ‘a diverse coalition, encompassing figures that ranged from socialists to neoliberals.’ He demonstrated this very clearly when he declared that “This is not a victory for PT (the Workers’ Party), not a victory for political parties, but a victory for the democratic movement.” The situation is one of ‘a “Brazilian Biden”, so to speak, putting an end to a Trumpist interlude’ rather than the start of any bold new left direction.

Economic crisis and right wing base

It must be noted how narrow Lula’s victory over Bolsonaro was. He took 51% of the vote, compared to the 49% that went to his rival. ‘Bolsonarismo—the far-right ideology punctuated by fascist traits and enthusiastically supported by the higher ranks of the Armed Forces—continues as strong as ever.’

While ‘Lula won handily among the poor, women, Blacks and Indigenous peoples, as well as in many large cities,’ Bolsonaro was able to dominate the vote in whole regions of the country. His base has shown, moreover, that it is more interested in enforcing its will than in respecting electoral outcomes. On election day, his supporters among the Federal Highway Police ‘actively tried to prevent voters in the Lula-dominated northeast from arriving at the polling booths.’

Bolsonaro’s ‘violent shock troops,’ emboldened by his groundless claims of electoral fraud, went into action after the result was declared. A grouping of ‘independent owner truckers and bosses of large trucking firms’ organised over 500 blockades of highways around the country in the first three days after the elections, calling for military intervention against the election results.’

This formidable right wing social base regrettably remains a dynamic component of Brazil’s political life. It would be ready to exploit to the full the confusion and demoralisation that retreats and betrayals by the new president would generate. To make matters worse, Lula takes power in the face of major economic difficulties that will further encourage backsliding on his part. Inflation in Brazil is still not under control, even as interest rates are pushed up. At the same time, ‘High borrowing costs look set to constrain investment and consumption, just as concerns over an impending global recession have started to undercut commodity markets.’ This will drive down the prices of Brazil’s key exports with serious results.

In Brazil, as elsewhere, this harsh economic climate poses the question of who will bear the burden and Lula’s decision to embrace a ‘consensus politics’ suggests that a readiness to confront powerful elites on his part is going to be sadly lacking in the months ahead. The alternative approach of imposing the impacts of the crisis on the workers and poor communities seems far more likely.

Sadly, previous PT governments have ‘embraced neoliberal remedies.’ After 2014, under adverse economic conditions, the PT leaders responded by ‘reducing pensions and labour rights, slashing social programs and crafting alliances with dubious centrist parties.’ In doing this, they ‘alienated the party’s very base among the working class and paved the way for the right-wing backlash from 2016 to the present.’ Both economically and politically the dangers and challenges of the present moment are obviously far more serious.

Social action

The only possible response in this situation lies in mass social action. Any ‘leave it to Lula’ approach would be a terrible mistake that would ensure hardship for working class people and open the door for the return of the right. In this regard, it is vital that trade unions and social movements reject pressure to subordinate the need to build social resistance to the requirements of Lula’s political compromises.

When Bolsonaro’s street army set up blockades and challenged the election results, resistance was taken up to this right wing threat. At least four associations of football fans, ‘broke through Bolsonarista barricades in the states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Paraná in their efforts to reach Brasileirão games, Brazil’s main football league competition.’

The wave of resistance to the danger from the right, however, has to be set against the failure of the PT to rally its base and the hesitation of PT led unions and social movements to participate in the mobilisation. This is an indication of ‘the conflicts to come between the top-down parliamentary approach and radical, grass-roots mobilizations.’

That the right in Brazil has a mass base that by no means confines itself to polite electoral politics is glaringly clear. United mass working class action to confront and defeat the deployment of that base must be unleashed, regardless of any attempts to discourage or divert it. The right won’t be contained by parliamentary games and political deal making. Bolsonaro’s supporters must be driven off the streets. The right, however, will only continue to make gains unless measures are won that halt and reverse the attack on working class living standards. This will require a refusal to accept vacillation and retreat on the part of Lula. There must be a readiness to place demands before him and to mobilise decisively in order to win them.

The situation in Brazil is particularly sharp and it has its own very distinct features. However, the dangers posed by avowed leftist political leaders who sow demoralisation and prepare the ground for attacks by the right are evident in other South American countries. Most notably, the recent removal of Pedro Castillo from the office of president in Peru offers dire lessons. In that country heroic struggles are underway against imperialist interests and oligarchic forces that were emboldened and enabled by the retreats and compromises of the deposed president. Comparable dangers exist in the present situation in Brazil.

The political defeat of Jair Bolsonaro is of huge importance but none of the economic, social and political factors that created such a monster have been eliminated. The politics of appeasement that Lula offers will neither placate the political right nor meet the needs of hard-pressed working-class people. The risk that he will disappoint his base and open the way for the return of the right is a serious one indeed. Only mass working-class action can ensure Bolsonaro and all he stands for remain an ugly memory.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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