Lula Has to Start Repairing the Damage Jair Bolsonaro Inflicted on Brazil

Lula began his third term as Brazil’s president this week while his predecessor scurried off to Florida. The new administration rests on a broad alliance of left-wing and centrist forces that faces a powerful hard-right opposition inspired by Jair Bolsonaro.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during his inauguration ceremony in Brasilia, Brazil, on January 1, 2023. (Wang Tiancong / Xinhua via Getty Images)

On January 1, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was inaugurated as Brazil’s new president in a ceremony marked by shows of political unity and social consciousness, beginning his third term in office after previously completing two between 2002 and 2010.

Meanwhile, Jair Bolsonaro became the first sitting president since the last military dictator of Brazil not to attend the inauguration of his successor, preferring instead to leave the country for self-imposed exile in Florida. Following a two-month transition period, Lula now takes the helm of a polarized nation whose conservative congress can pose a dangerous challenge to his social and economic plans.

Having already built a wide coalition, spreading a message of hope and unity, the veteran politician wishes not only to undo the damage done by Bolsonaro’s reactionary policies, but also to bring about a new period of growth and cooperation in Brazil and Latin America as a whole.

The Inauguration

Dismissing unprecedented security concerns, which included threats that Bolsonaro’s base might attempt a riot in the capital, Lula preferred to conduct the presidential procession without a bulletproof vest, riding the traditional convertible Rolls-Royce that has been the staple of the event since the 1950s. At his side were his wife, Rosângela, and his former political rival turned vice president, Geraldo Alckmin, in a sign of unity among the democratic forces of Brazilian politics.

The procession went from Brasília’s Cathedral to Congress, where Lula entered a building crowded with political allies and supporters, having at times to fight his way through selfie-taking politicians to reach the podium. There was a minute of silence dedicated to the recently deceased Pope Benedict XVI and Brazil’s greatest footballer, Pelé, followed by the performance of the national anthem, after which Lula and Alckmin swore their oaths.

Lula then delivered a speech where he highlighted the return to republican values and defense of constitutional rule, promising that his government would “answer hatred with love, lies with truth and violence, and threats with the full extent of the law.”

The new president stressed the damage caused by the previous administration:

When I was first elected twenty years, I made a commitment that my job would be done when every Brazilian could boast eating three meals a day. The fact that I must reaffirm that commitment today is proof enough of the devastation that has taken place before today.

The president then focused on detailing the many policies he would implement to restore national stability. These promises included a commitment to cooperation between the government, workers’ unions, and business interests, as well as giving priority to environmental protection and the establishment of a sustainable growth model.

Lula also pledged to restore several ministries that were scrapped under Bolsonaro, such as those of culture and of women, impose stricter restrictions on gun possession, increase spending on the national health service, and lead Brazil back into the international diplomatic arena. In a speech centered on a rejection of authoritarianism, the new Brazilian leader included the following words: “In the past, we would shout Dictatorship never again! From now on, we should proclaim Democracy forever!

Proceeding to the presidential palace, Lula received the presidential ribbon not from his predecessor, in line with tradition, but from a group of civilians representing the many facets of Brazilian society. A woman, a child, and an indigenous man were among the small group that handed Lula the ribbon, in an attempt to symbolize the inclusivity that Lula’s new administration promises to foster.

In the second speech he delivered, now in front of a public audience instead of Brazil’s congress, Lula prioritized economic justice, speaking of the need for equality and railing against the wealth gap that currently plagues Brazil, being driven to tears by his comparisons between the poor and the few ultrarich. He condemned the way in which the social progress accomplished under the rule of his Workers’ Party (PT) was destroyed, through a combination of the coup that removed his successor Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the four years of “national destruction,” as Lula refers to Bolsonaro’s term in office.

There were various shouts from the crowd, from a call for “no amnesty” when he spoke about Bolsonaro’s negligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic to praise of Lula himself. The new president then made his way into the presidential palace.

Bolsonaro’s Flight

Unlike Donald Trump, who immediately questioned the results of his lost election on social media, Bolsonaro has adopted a policy of silent denial. After failing to concede publicly on election night, Bolsonaro delivered a short speech the following day where he did not touch upon the question of the succession or vocally concede.

The president has remained silent on the issue since then, making only a few speeches to supporters praising his administration and criticizing the “absurdities that have been taking place.” In a notable speech, given immediately after Brazil’s elimination from the World Cup, Bolsonaro addressed the following message to his supporters: “What happens to me, to the Armed Forces, to the Senate, to the Supreme Court, is decided by you.”

On December 31, Vice President Hamilton Mourão, in lieu of Bolsonaro, made an official statement praising the peaceful transition of power. He implicitly criticized the outgoing president: “Through their silence, individuals have contributed to instability and disorder.” Mourão’s rhetoric of reserved acceptance of the election echoed that of Brazil’s armed forces and other more conventional conservative forces that were not ready to fully commit to Bolsonaro’s brand of denialism.

Though Bolsonaro has declined to openly deny the results, his veiled comments have stoked up his base. The former president’s supporters have been vocal in their efforts to overturn the election results through any means, usually calling for military intervention based on a flawed interpretation of an emergency clause in the constitution. As the Supreme Court and Congress both acknowledged the results of last October’s election in Lula’s favor, Bolsonaro’s hopes of subverting the democratic process fizzled out, leaving only the prospect of some desperate event taking place on inauguration day.

Having taken the presidential plane on an extended trip to Florida in what amounts to little short of a criminal getaway, Bolsonaro is scheduled to return to Brazil in late January. However, fears of prosecution, now that he is no longer protected by presidential office, cloud the future of the former president. Bolsonaro made many of his executive decrees secret for one hundred years, so the unveiling of those policies to public scrutiny became one of Lula’s strongest campaign promises.

With multiple corruption scandals plaguing the last months of Bolsonaro’s term, it seems unlikely that his trip to Florida is merely an innocent holiday, or that he will be able to return to Brazil without facing considerable legal fallout. His failure to attend or even acknowledge Lula’s inauguration ensured that the democratic transition of power has never been more polarized in the history of the current Brazilian republic.

Right-Wing Congress, Broad Coalition

Lula returns to a presidency much changed and will face difficulties unknown during his previous administration in the 2000s. The series of scandals that rocked the presidency in the 2010s, from Roussef’s impeachment to Bolsonaro’s legal battles, have also permanently changed the relationship between that office and the other powers of the land, from Congress to the Supreme Court. The left-wing president who once helmed the pink tide in Latin America will have to traverse a minefield of polarization, economic turmoil, and social change.

Lula’s earlier terms in office were defined by economic growth and a sense of forward progress. Yet the main priorities for the new administration appear to involve fixing the damage caused by Bolsonaro. On that score, Lula has already started work, making ample use of the transition period to assemble a governing coalition.

The congressional elections that took place alongside the presidential ones produced a deeply conservative, reactionary legislative. Out of the 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower congressional house, Bolsonaro’s misnamed Liberal Party holds the largest number (98), followed by the PT (68). Other right-wing parties like the Progressives and the Republicans have 102 seats between them.

In the past, the Brazilian conservative movement was dominated by neoliberals. Today, however, the right-wing opposition in Congress is comprised of far-right Bolsonaro supporters who are deeply opposed to the social policies of Lula’s previous administration.

The rest of the seats in Congress mostly went to big-tent parties that favor the status quo and are more preoccupied with their own political machines than with ideology or policy platforms. These parties could easily have banded together with the opposition, but they have opted to join Lula’s new governing coalition instead.

In line with his conciliatory rhetoric over the course of this election cycle, Lula has built alliances with the old establishment parties to counteract the conservative majority. The Brazil Union, the Social Democrats, and the Brazilian Democratic Movement have each received three cabinet seats in the new administration.

During his tenure, Bolsonaro decreased the number of ministries considerably, fusing them together into so-called “superministries” or simply eliminating them as part of a neoliberal drive to “clean the public machine.” Lula has taken the opposite approach, restoring the abolished ministries and introducing new ones such as the Ministry of Racial Equality and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples. In total, he has expanded the number of ministerial posts from twenty-two to thirty-seven.

Some critics have portrayed this as a classic political strategy of offering new ministerial jobs in return for political support. Others have defended the restoration of ministries that are badly needed to promote social transformation in Brazil.

Lula has also received support from figures like Simone Tebet, who finished third in the first round of the presidential election and has become minister of planning in his cabinet. His new government appears to have enough institutional backing to govern. It will not be a government strictly of the Left, yet it has a plan for reconstruction and social progress after the Bolsonaro years.