Lula’s victory is dependent on mobilising Brazil's poor and depoliticised masses

Lula’s victory is dependent on mobilising Brazil's poor and depoliticised masses
Despite Lula leading in the first round of Brazil's elections, his victory will depend on whether he and his allies can mobilise amongst the poor and those masses depoliticised by the pernicious regime of Bolsonaro, argues Hilary Wainwright.
6 min read
19 Oct, 2022
Brazil's former President (2003-2010) and presidential candidate for the leftist Workers Party (PT) Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva waves a national flag during a campaign rally in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state, Brazil on October 9, 2022. [GETTY]

The results of the first round of the Brazilian elections were a shock, with leftist candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva only just over 5% ahead of the extreme right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and falling short of the 50% plus, necessary to win on the first round.

A first round victory had been the hope and based on the polls, the expectation, of all those wanting an end to a regime that had produced deep economic crisis, social devastation – with 33 million Brazilians facing starvation – and irreversible environmental destruction, especially in the Amazon.

Supporters of Lula had, it turned out, seriously under-estimated Bolsonarism. Something that commentator Valerio Arcary described as “the most serious mistake ever made by the Brazilian left.”

Three months ahead of the election, 51% of Brazilian were reported as saying that Bolsonaro was doing a “terrible job”. But such a poll said nothing of the way that in the run up to the pole his appeal to large swathes of the population grew through spending millions of Real to win votes, including paying 600 Real ($115.94) per month to the poorest families and paying for a mass reduction of fuel.

''It is forces closely rooted in popular movements who represent Lula’s best hope in the next two weeks of countering Bolsonaro’s toxic mix of economy bribery, social media character assassination, and fear.''

This is a strategy Bolsonaro continues to pursue following the first-round of the election. He recently announced that the Federal Savings Bank, the largest government-owned financial institution in Latin America, would cancel the debts of around four million people.

At the same time as building a base through creating a mass economic vested interest in his continued Presidency, Bolsonaro’s campaign used the massive presence that, imitating Trump, he and his base have built up on social media to destroy the loyalty that millions of working-class people, rural and urban, felt for Lula.

The line of attack was potent in the face of the growing influence of religious evangelism. Lula is presented as a major threat to so-called Christian family values. On top of this they depicted him as a persecutor of Christians, intent on closing churches, as well as a thief backed by major drug mafias.

A sign of the seriousness of these social media campaigns is that Brazil’s electoral justice has launched a misinformation alert system and has worked closely with the main social media platforms to remove fake content.

This increased polarisation has in reality generated violence, and with it fear. Prominent Lula supporters have been killed. Others have been victims of racism and physical abuse.


Amongst Lula’s base there is an under-estimation of Bolsonarism in all its forms, from the far-right figure’s close allies, to his street level zealots. There is also an over reliance on the continued political potency of memories of Lula’s past successes. His campaign messages have tended to look backwards and he has not made a single policy commitment throughout his campaign.

Moreover, Lula’s tactics have focused inwards to the political institutions, where his priority has been to build a broad alliance on the basis of a minimal platform of simply getting rid of Bolsonaro. Geraldo Alckmin, who was once Lula’s opponent, was chosen as a running mate mainly on the grounds that he is now opposed to Bolsonaro, for example.

‘The left’ in Brazil, however, now takes multiple forms. Lula’s party the Partido Trabaladores (PT) no longer has the monopoly on working-class political representation – a dominance it gained through its leadership of the opposition to the dictatorship. Since 2004, an activist radical left party, Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) has been emphasising popular mobilisation. PSOL was formed after the expulsion of key left-wing members of Congress who voted against Lula’s pension reform, and has since attracted other movement leaders, most notably Guilherme Boulos, the modest and popular leader of Brazil’s homeless movement (MTST).

Boulos and the PSOL recognised, in a way, what Lula’s campaign did not: that Bolsonaro was not a freak anomaly, it was the result of the instability that followed the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. This meant that they did not assume that underneath this institutional crisis the consciousness of the masses had somehow remained the same: loyal to Lula and the PT but lacking the opportunity, until now, to vote for them.

Indeed, the rootedness of Boulos and many PSOL activists mean that they were aware of a deeper problem of depoliticisation. The necessities of the struggle for houses – one that could not be won through institutional deals – led Boulos, in his campaign to be a Deputy, to reach out to the homeless, not simply for their votes but to contribute to their politicisation through building a self-organised movement. Through this, they gained a sense of their own agency – both potent antidotes to the appeal of a reactionary demagogue like Bolsonaro. Unsurprisingly, Boulos won overwhelmingly against the son of Bolsonaro (Eduardo Bolsonaro) and joined the growing ranks of left deputies in the Congress.


The success of Boulos is part of a general renovation of left representation in the Chamber of Deputies, where it controls a third of the seats. A good number of these Deputies are from outside the political parties. They are actively involved in movements of indigenous and LGBTQ+ people, feminists and people of colour.

It is these forces closely rooted in popular movements who represent Lula’s best hope in the next two weeks of countering Bolsonaro’s toxic mix of economy bribery, social media character assassination, and fear. Boulos for example, is leading a “caravan” going to the poverty-stricken outskirts of Sao Paulo and cities across the state of Sao Paulo. Lula needs to win these cities where,  in the first round, support was low.

For Boulos, other social movement leaders and PSOL activists, a Lula presidency will not itself bring social transformation. However, his victory is an essential pre-condition for a viable future for the mass of Brazilians, their environment, and their livelihoods and hence a context in which new transformative leaders can broaden their base and enhance the capacity of their activists to bring about the radical change of which the Brazilian state is incapable.

Hilary Wainwright is a Research Associate of the Transnational Institute and Co-editor of Red Pepper Magazine. She is author of several books on social movements - especially feminist and trade union - and political change. She has written widely on the experiences and challenges of the Brazilian Workers Party.

Follow her on Twitter: @hilarypepper

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