Lula and his opponents

Image: Adrien Olichon
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By PAULO NOGUEIRA BATISTA JR.*

The fundamental objective of the Lula government's opponents is to weaken it so that it can be defeated in the 2026 election

The situation of the Lula government, difficult since day one, appears to have deteriorated somewhat in recent months. It's not surprising. There is always a honeymoon and it always ends. More importantly, the legacy received from previous governments is heavy, there are many difficulties in recovering the public sector and – a point I want to address today – the government's political opponents are powerful.

I even thought about titling the article “Government under siege”, but it seemed too heavy and dark. Then I thought about softening it by putting a question mark, but that didn't help either. There is no point in spreading pessimism and discouragement. The opponents are powerful, but the Lula government has its resources and can prevail.

Before getting into the subject, however, I make a warning. Questions of politics and political economy are always swampy, obscure, subject to radical uncertainty. Anyone who ventures to write or speak about this needs to warn the reader that what is said or put on paper is always in the realm of conjecture and hypotheses. Many of those who take the plunge do not do so and, worse, let themselves be carried away by their own rhetoric and not only make exhaustive statements about the present and the past, but also launch into predictions, sometimes adopting a prophetic tone. And history shows that even the greatest prophets are mistaken.

The five power blocks

But let's get to the point. The fundamental objective of the Lula government's opponents is clear and crystal clear: to weaken it so that it reaches the 2026 election in a defeatable state. Defeatable means for them not only the possibility of winning the election. If this is not possible, they would like to find a weakened Lula, susceptible to making important concessions.

Obviously, the opponents form a very heterogeneous group, which makes it easier to face them. Lula, with his vast experience and great skill, knows how to take advantage of these differences to advance.

To facilitate the exposition, I will distinguish four major political blocs, or five if we include the center-left led by the President of the Republic. The main opponents are:

(i) The extreme right, which emerges after 2018 with the election of Bolsonaro. (ii) The traditional right or center-right, that is, the establishment, the owners of power and capital, whose hegemonic fraction is financial capital, the so-called “market”. (iii) The physiological right, the so-called “Centrão”, which has no defined ideology, but controls Congress and acts consistently, always seeking to grab pieces of power and budgetary resources. (iv) The military, almost always hostile to the left and historically prone to coups d'état.

With the exception of the physiological right, all of these power blocs have important international ramifications. The Bolsonarist extreme right finds an echo and support in Donald Trump in the United States, in Javier Milei, in Argentina, and in several European countries, where the extreme right governs or grows in popularity and threatens to win elections.

The traditional right has always had umbilical links with the US and finds influential counterparts in all developed countries and the rest of Latin America. The military, in turn, maintains historical ties with the American military, and its training is greatly influenced by the political and strategic conceptions of the Department of Defense.

Any taxonomy is always a simplification. The boundaries between political blocs are fluid. There are many intermediate figures, with their feet in more than one canoe. Often, the blocs mix, establishing different political alliances and variable combinations over time. The word “block” itself is perhaps not the most appropriate, as it conveys a misleading sensation of solidity and uniformity.

Noah's Ark

Therefore, the challenge for Lula is immense. When one criticizes the current government, and I myself do so quite often, one must not lose sight of this political context – especially since Lula and the center-left, with all their deficiencies and limitations, are the only ones who offer a perspective of development with justice. Politically speaking, remember, there is nothing significant to Lula's left. The extreme left exists, but it has no real political weight and also does not offer convincing solutions to our problems.

The best that can be hoped for in this very complicated scenario is that the Lula government is able to negotiate with some opponents, strengthening its position – without, however, compromising on essentials and without losing its character. This requirement is fundamental, as I try to explain below.

Lula's strategy, since 2021 or 2022, has been to isolate his main opponent, the extreme right. That's how he won the election. He worked with the traditional right to defeat Jair Bolsonaro who, in seeking re-election, counted on the government machine and the loyalty, or at least the sympathy, of a very significant part of the electorate. Lula won by a small margin, which suggests he made the right choice.

It should be noted, by the way, that those in power always have a small difficulty in Brazil: they rarely win presidential elections. Its candidates are not usually competitive and do not always do well in these disputes. Historically, those in power have resorted to two dark methods. They support caricatured candidates, but good voters (Jânio Quadros in 1960, Fernando Collor in 1989 and Jair Bolsonaro in 2018). If this alternative is not available, they are not embarrassed to discard their supposed “democratic credentials” to sponsor military coups (as they did against Getúlio, Juscelino and Jango) or parliamentary coups (as they did against Dilma Rousseff).

In the case of Jair Bolsonaro, as well as those of Jânio Quadros and Fernando Collor, it is assumed that it would be possible to control them after the election. From 2019 onwards, however, the disorder was greater than expected and the possibility of controlling Jair Bolsonaro was smaller than expected. O establishment Brazilian, or a significant part of it, seems to have realized that another term for Jair Bolsonaro could be disastrous for its interests.

They tried a third way, which didn't take off. Lula was perceived as an alternative, as long as he was willing to negotiate with them. They found receptivity. Lula made it clear that he would not be revanchist or radical. Noah's Ark (Lula's own expression) was then formed, the broad and heterogeneous coalition that would win the elections in 2022.

Unwilling and unable to commit electoral fraud, Lula had to form a heterogeneous government, as heterogeneous as Noah's Ark. In the economic area, the presence of neoliberals is clearly felt. Not only at the first level, but also at the second level of ministries and the Central Bank.

As the physiological right controls Congress, Lula also had to house it in the ministry and even in a financial institution of the strategic importance of Caixa Econômica Federal. Thus, the first and second levels of government are an indigestible mixture of cadres from the center-left, center-right and physiological right.

At the same time, Lula seeks to placate the military. She is not willing to confront them; on the contrary, it wants to co-opt or at least neutralize them. That was why he decided not to sponsor events condemning the 1964 military coup, on his 60th birthday. Part of the left was outraged, without taking due account, perhaps, of the adverse political situation that I tried to describe above.

On the way to the 2026 elections

The perception prevails in the government (or so it seems to me) that the main and most destructive face of the opposition continues to be the Bolsonarist extreme right. Imagine, reader, that she returns to power in 2027, either with Jair Bolsonaro, or with someone he nominates. I do not need to say anything else.

Time will tell, but the other blocs do not seem to have the electoral strength to oppose the center-left in the 2026 elections. It will probably be as difficult as it was in 2018 and 2022 to build a competitive third way.

Thus, the alliance formed for the 2022 elections tends to be repeated in 2026. Lula should not be expected to make any move to dislodge the traditional right from their positions of power in the government. Nor try to break with the physiological right. Or neglect the always problematic relations with the Armed Forces.

Confrontation has never been a personality trait of the President of the Republic. He got where he is by picking his battles and eating on the sidelines. Why would you change this team that is winning?

The mask clings to the face

Finally, an alert that seems important to me. Despite everything I wrote above, there is a risk that cannot be neglected: that the Lula government and with it the entire center-left will lose its character and lose its strategic direction. And this risk is especially relevant in the dispute with the extreme right.

Where does the political and electoral strength of figures like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Javier Milei lie? In large part, in the dissemination of the idea that they are opposed to a “system”, a set of corrupt institutions and interests that exclude the great mass of the population, including the middle class. In Europe, for example, socialist and social democratic parties became confused with the establishment and in recent decades they have co-sponsored exclusionary economic and social policies, the so-called neoliberal agenda. Thus, those who grew up with the crisis of neoliberalism were the extreme right. The center-left declined, as it was seen as an integral part of this damned “system”.

The PT is Brazilian social democracy and runs the risk of falling into the same trap. I'm going to say something a little unpleasant. In Brazil, in general, there is a lot of flexibility and little backbone. The center-left is no exception to this rule. She believes, or says she believes, that she remains faithful to her purposes. That all concessions are a price to pay in the circumstances. Cautious measures and conformist rhetoric would thus be a mask, to be removed when conditions are more favorable.

I understand. But let's not forget Fernando Pessoa's poem:

“I made of myself what I didn’t know,
And what I could have done with myself, I didn't do.
The domino I wore was wrong.
They immediately knew me for who I wasn't and I didn't deny it, and I got lost.
When I wanted to take off the mask,
It was stuck in the face.
When I took it off and saw myself in the mirror,
He had already grown old.
He was drunk, he no longer knew how to put on the dominoes he hadn't taken off.
I threw away the mask and slept in the locker room
Like a dog tolerated by management
Because it's harmless
And I will write this story to prove that I am sublime.”

The poem fit like a glove, didn't it?

*Paulo Nogueira Batista Jr. is an economist. He was vice-president of the New Development Bank, established by the BRICS. Author, among other books, of Brazil doesn't fit in anyone's backyard (LeYa) [https://amzn.to/44KpUfp]

Extended version of article published in the journal Capital letter, on April 05, 2024.


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