Jair Bolsonaro’s exhausting 4-year term finally approaches its end, leaving behind an array of challenges for his successor Lula da Silva. Despite this, the president-elect hopes to reform the country and reintroduce it to the world stage.
Throughout his presidency Bolsonaro purposefully neglected the country’s most pressing problems. At the peak of the pandemic, Brazil’s Covid death toll was the second highest in the world. Hospitals were on the brink of collapse. Yet when Bolsonaro discussed the pandemic, it was to endorse conspiracy theories, ineffective drug treatments (anti-malarial pill, anyone?), and non-compliance with local government lockdowns. He failed to protect Brazil’s most vulnerable groups from the consequences of the pandemic. Indigenous populations struggled to access vaccines, while research shows areas with the least hospitalisations were those with white, wealthy residents.
His environmental policies follow a similar trajectory of ineptitude. The minister responsible, Ricardo Salles, dubbed climate change a “secondary issue”, and under his leadership deforestation rates have reached record highs. To give an idea of the severity of this crisis: one recent study found that the South-Eastern Amazon has been releasing more carbon dioxide than it absorbed. Researchers fear that the Amazon ecosystem is reaching its tipping point – a word climate scientists use to designate a point of no return, when the effects of climate change are irreversible.
Instead of taking meaningful action against these critical issues, Bolsonaro concentrated on his self-interests. He enacted a series of far-right, Trumpian policies, and blurred the lines of Brazilian democracy with claims of army loyalty to his regime. Those who denied that military support was tied to his leadership, such as former Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, were removed from power. In a country freed from military dictatorship less than 40 years ago, those threats do not feel so far removed from reality.
Lula da Silva’s term as President promises an entirely different kind of leadership for Brazil. His election campaign focussed on indigenous rights, with a promise to create a new ministry of Indigenous People. He visited a protest camp in Brasilia, representing more than 200 indigenous tribes, back in October to pledge to respect indigenous land territories and stop illegal mining on Indigenous lands, one of the leading causes of deforestation. He also promoted low carbon agriculture and other climate change issues as part of his campaign.
What’s more promising is that he has a proven track record of success. In his 1st and 2nd terms as president, from 2003 to 2010, deforestation rates fell by 70%.
But Da Silva’s political record has its fair share of controversy. He was in prison for 18 months from 2018, having been implicated in corruption during the Petrobas scandal. Although the UN Human Rights Committee found that the da Silva’s trial was biased against him from the start, the trial and prison sentence massively affected his public image. He was only recently allowed to participate in political elections again, as of March 2021, because charges against him had to be formally reversed.
All of this and more contributed to the result of the highly contested election – Da Silva won his 3rd term by a narrow margin of just 1.8%. Many Bolsonaro supporters took to the streets to protest, fuelled by Bolsonaro’s previous statements regarding the untrustworthiness of the electoral system, and his delay in formally conceding after his loss. Brazilians endured two days of roadblocks, some made from piles of burning tires, which halted the transport of key goods across the country. Such protests represent the massive internal division that da Silva must overcome as president. Although da Silva secured the popular vote, 58 million people still voted for Bolsonaro, many of whom provide him unwavering support. As political scientist, Oliver Stuenkel says: “Brazilian democracy has stepped back from the cliff, but it still faces a profound threat from destructive polarization.” Opposition to da Silva’s presidency is not limited to popular protest, but dominates his Congress, which remains the most right-wing in recent history. Clearly, the populist wave that put Bolsonaro into power hasn’t yet crashed. Yet as Stuenkel points out, da Silva’s running party (which includes a centre-right running mate) is constructed to appeal to all political persuasions of the Brazilian population and should help him reconcile the two groups of voters in future.
Internal recuperation is not the only thing on da Silva’s agenda. After a 4-year period of international isolationism during Bolsonaro’s presidency, he is already planning on sending his representatives to COP27 this November. After all, it’s a great opportunity for Brazil’s resurgence on the global scene, as well as to show his voters how serious he is about fulfilling his election promises. After Bolsonaro’s election and consequent mass deforestation, many countries stopped contributing to the Amazon fund, a conservation effort operated by the Brazilian government. But now, Norway, which formerly contributed a total of $1.2bn to the fund, has confirmed they are open to renegotiation. Securing large scale international funding for climate change would be monumental for da Silva’s approval ratings.
Despite the massive challenges da Silva faces, one cannot help but feel optimistic about Brazil’s president-elect. His policies towards the environment and indigenous people are a breath of fresh air relative to his predecessor, as are his endeavours to reintroduce Brazil to international politics.
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