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Lula's rhetoric also threatens Brazilian democracy

Deutschland/Brasilien Der freie Lateinamerika-Korrespondent Tobias Käufer V2
Tobias Käufer
October 1, 2022

Ahead of Brazil's election, both President Jair Bolsonaro and his rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are deploying increasingly escalatory rhetoric. Both populists are doing so for a reason, says Tobias Käufer.

A man walks past presidential campaign materials depicting Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Brazil
No matter the outcome, populism will win yet againImage: Adriano Machado/REUTERS

If presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil's left-wing PT Worker's Party is to believed, Brazil's upcoming election this Sunday will be a vote on the country's very independence. Losing the election, in his view, would bring an end to Brazilian democracy. This is a curious understanding of free elections. One that is not too dissimilar to that of right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro, who claims Brazil faces a rigged election — an accusation for which he has presented no evidence.

Several days ago, Brazilian news outlet Estadao wrote that Lula was insulting anyone who will not vote for him, treating them like "enemies." Lula, who governed the country between 2003 and 2011, has deliberately chosen this aggressive campaign rhetoric, opting for an approach similar to divisive President Bolsonaro. As such, classifying them as left-wing and right-wing populist figures, respectively, make sense — even though the Lula camp disagrees. Neither side wishes to be labeled populist.

Shrill rhetoric

If polls are accurate, Lula will win the vote, taking charge of a deeply polarized country from January 1, 2023. This polarization, mind you, is attributable not only to Bolsonaro's controversial comments, but also to Lula's sharp rhetoric. He has, for instance, compared participants of pro-Bolsonaro rallies to Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. While Bolsonaro and is wife Michelle claim they must protect Brazil from demons, the devil and Communism, and accuse Lula of being a thief, Lula says the country faces the danger of fascism, the Ku Klux Klan, and illiberalism. He even accuses Bolsonaro of committing genocide.

DW's Tobias Käufer
DW's Tobias KäuferImage: Privat

How are both camps supposed to re-unite after the election, when they a variously framed as fascists, Communists, devils, demons, thieves, agents of genocide, or Ku Klux Klan sympathizers?

Disastrous track records

Both figures' dismal track records explain why this election campaign has been accompanied by such shrill populist rhetoric. After four years under the inept leadership of Bolsonaro, Brazilian society finds itself in crisis. At this time, it would be necessary for the rival camp to pursue a reconciliatory course to build bridges.

But instead, Lula's verbal attacks are designed to distract Brazilians from his own failings, and those of his party. After all, after 13 years under PT rule, Brazil found itself in such a bad state that voters turned to Bolsonaro in 2018 — after a brief stint by President Michel Temer, that is. Bolsonaro's victory was not the result of fake news, as is so commonly claimed by populists. The truth of the matters is that never in Brazil's history has there been greater destruction of rainforest than under Lula. Until this day, his involvement in the huge Odebrechtand Petrobras corruption scandals has not been properly investigated. And his decision to have Brazil host the football world cup and Olympic games, while the country's hospitals and schools fell into disrepair, caused severe economic problems and social tensions. While Lula is right to attack Bolsonaro for trivializing Brazil's former military dictatorship, one should likewise criticize Lula for supporting the brutally oppressive left-wing regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, from which people flee constantly, some of them dying as they make their escape.

Moderates are drowned out

Lambasting political rivals sparks fiery exchanges on social networks, distracting from real issues. This prevents much-needed debates over the root causes of Brazil's problems, to which both front-running candidates have contributed.

The biggest tragedy of this vitriolic campaign, however, is that more moderate candidates running for Brazil's top job are being drowned out. And that means populism wins, yet again.

This opinion piece was originally written in German.

A previous version of this article mistakenly said the incoming president would take over the post from December 1, 2023 — the elected president will, however, take office on January 1, 2023. Additionally, the piece stated President Bolsonaro came to power following a 2019 election — the vote where he was elected president took place in 2018 and he assumed office on January 1, 2019. This has now been corrected. The department apologizes for the error.