As Brazil looks to shake off four years of rightwing politics, what shape will the foreign policy of the thrice-elected Lula government take?
The return of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for a third term as Brazil’s president, after narrowly unseating far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, is not only a remarkable political comeback – but could be a significant moment for the future of South America’s largest country.
Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has seen its GDP fall since he was elected in 2018 – in 2010, Brazil was the world’s seventh largest economy and now it has slipped to 13th. There has been an increase in hunger, not to mention nearly 700,000 Covid deaths. Forest fires and deforestation soared in the Amazon, with the “lungs of the planet” transforming from a carbon sink to a source of emissions.
Bolsonaro was accused of polarising the Brazilian society for political gains and allowing people to have unchecked access to guns. He was also critcised for mishandling the pandemic.
Now, enough Brazilians have decided on a return to Lula – as he is universally known – and his Workers’ Party (PT), whose last stint in power from 2003 to 2010 delivered strong economic growth and a substantial reduction in inequality.
After a vast corruption scandal implicated much of the Brazilian political establishment, Lula was imprisoned in 2018, only for the country’s Supreme Court to order his release in 2019 and later annul the charges against him.
By abandoning Boslonaro’s far-right vision for the country, the Brazilian electorate has opted to go with Lula’s leftwing platform, which centres on poverty eradication and social justice, defence of democracy, safeguarding the environment and healing the country’s divisions.
After becoming the president again on January 1, 2023, Lula will have not only domestic issues to deal with but tasked with re-asserting Brazil on the world stage after four years of Bolsonaro’s anti-systemic foreign policy. At the regional level, it marks a second ‘pink tide’ of progressive South American governments returning to power in the hemisphere.
Lula’s campaign drew in a broad coalition of parties – not just the entire left opposition, but social democrats, conservative liberals and even former political adversaries.
But he will face several challenges in implementing his agenda.
While Bolsonaro might be gone, Lula will have to contend with significant legislative opposition given the dominance of parliamentary right-wing forces, which will make it difficult for him to push through progressive policies.
Furthermore, the commodities boom that allowed Lula to finance wide-ranging social programmes during his previous tenure is over.
A new foreign policy
Lula’s return to power comes at a moment in South American politics when the tide is turning left, with a swathe of leftwing governments coming back into power after the page turned on the ‘pink tide’ that swept the continent two decades earlier.
Since 2020, leftwing governments have taken power in Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Peru. Lula is expected to increase collaboration between Brazil and many of them, argued Tatiana Prazeres, director of trade and international relations for the Federation of Industries of the State of Sao Paulo.
But Prazeres believes that linking Lula’s win to the shift towards the left “oversimplifies” the state of regional politics at play. “Rather, the shift is a sign that people want leaders who they think will govern with a deeper interest in making the average person’s life better, especially as inflation and high food and energy prices take hold,” she said.
Environmental policies are set to be a key plank to improve Brazil’s image with the West, with Lula promising he will immediately start cracking down on illegal mining and logging and will attempt to revive the Amazon Fund – a large international fund that Norway and Germany contribute to. An analysis conducted by Carbon Brief forecasted that Lula’s victory could cut deforestation by nearly 90 percent over the next decade.
“Lula has made it clear that he sees the United States and Europe as valuable partners for Brazil, especially in the areas of trade and environmental cooperation. In the next administration, Brazil’s engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean will depend on ideological affinity but also on pragmatic areas of collaboration,” said Jason Marczak, senior director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
There is an understanding that Brazil will need to rebuild its international reputation, as well as its global and regional influence. Prazeres argues one of the key bilateral relations in the spotlight will be Brazil-China ties, given the anti-Beijing discourse fostered under the Bolsonaro government.
“The strong economic relationship between the two countries does not match their less intense political relationship; this deepened in Bolsonaro’s years. Under Lula, we can expect Brazil and China to explore other areas for cooperation,” she said.
Prazeres also believes the future of the BRICS grouping – that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – may take a different turn under Lula. During his previous tenure, Lula touted himself as a champion of the Global South, staking out independent positions on a number of geopolitical issues.
Regarding the biggest one at the moment, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Lula might look to strike a balanced stance. In an interview earlier this year, he claimed that both countries shared blame for the war.
When it comes to another thorny issue – Israel and Palestine – Lula is outspoken about his support for Palestine and is likely to break with Bolsonaro, who pandered to evangelical voters by embracing Israel. In 2010, Lula’s government formally recognised the state of Palestine.
Michelle Bolsonaro's wife turned up to vote in the country’s presidential election wearing a T-shirt depicting an Israeli regime flag. In the end, it was left-wing, pro-Palestine, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had the last laugh.#BrazilElections pic.twitter.com/aARrGdKmfC— Syed Zafar Mehdi (@mehdizafar) October 31, 2022