President Lula’s election, the confrontation with the extreme right and the tasks of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT Brasil)


The victory of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Brazilian presidential election last 30 October is our most extraordinary political epic since, at least, the redemocratization of the country and the enactment of the citizens' constitution of 1988.

In recent years, Lula was persecuted by a relentless lawfare campaign and unjustly imprisoned for 580 days due to the decisions of a far-right former judge who colluded with prosecutors, significant sectors of the corporate media and domestic capital to pave the way for Jair Bolsonaro’s neo-fascist government. 

The 60,345,999 Brazilians who voted for Lula in the second round did more than elect the 39th president of the Republic and grant a third term to the president-elect. It was these citizens and voters, from all corners of Brazil, who prevented an autocratic turn and saved our young and still imperfect democracy from a mortal blow. It was a victory above all for working men and women, Black men and women, Native peoples, people from the Northeast of the country, and poor people — it was the “não tem mais nada” ("have-nots”) who saved Brazilian democracy.

There is no doubt that if he had been legitimized by his re-election, Bolsonaro, like other authoritarian leaders, planned for a second term to bring about the definitive end to the democratic model, emptying and even extinguishing democratic institutions and social, civil and political rights.

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A historical victory

The victory for the left and the entire anti-Bolsonaro opposition — with 50.90% of the valid votes, against 49.10% for Bolsonaro — may seem narrow at first glance. However, one must consider the electoral role of the scandalous and illegal use of the state such as welfare established on the eve of the election, loans to social program beneficiaries, billions of reais for the “secret budget,” the artificial reduction of fuel prices, and the manipulation of one of Brazil’s largest public banks for electioneering

This is to say nothing of vote buying; electoral harassment by employers who threatened to fire workers who voted for Lula; political violence that escalated throughout the campaign and which already in the pre-campaign cost the life of Marcelo Aloizio de Arruda, a city guard, trade unionist, and local leader of the Workers Party (PT), murdered by a Bolsonarista. This all culminated on the day of the second round when Federal Highway Police (PRF), through operations on the highways of largely Lula-supporting regions, attempted to prevent and hinder voters from exercising their democratic right to vote. 

Yet, despite all of this, Bolsonaro was the first president since redemocratization to lose his bid for re-election. Only when we put the scale of abuses and crimes into perspective, can we understand the real dimension of the enormous and exceptional victory President Lula’s election represents. 

Bolsonaro: An infamous government

Bolsonaro was the worst president in the history of our Republic. First of all, he was an economic disaster: interest rates and inflation  — especially in food and energy prices — exploded in 2022. Unemployment remained close to 10% throughout his mandate, adding to deindustrialization and an ever increasing economic dependence on export of commodities and primary goods. 

Brazil is back on the UN Hunger Map and food insecurity affects more than 33 million people. Workers, in addition to unemployment, suffer in precarious jobs and without any social protection. Indeed, Bolsonaro affirmed that jobs and rights are incompatible. Bolsonaro's political project was the destruction of all social and labor rights won through the struggles of the Brazilian working class.

Bolsonaro’s government has promoted spending cuts in education and health, a pension reform that attacked the right to a decent retirement, privatizations harmful to the public interest — such as the sale of the largest company in the country's electricity sector, Eletrobras. He has forced historic setbacks in the fight against child labor and labor conditions that resemble slavery, attacks on social and trade union movements and the encouragement of anti-union practices, in addition to successive attacks against labor rights. His government, contrary to official propaganda, and despite its control of judicial institutions and the Public Ministry, was marked by several corruption scandals including his, and his family’s, involvement in a scheme to divert public money known as "rachadinha". This was known even before his election in 2018. According to press reports, Bolsonaro and his family members bought dozens of properties in cash with millions of reais

The Bolsonaro government has also undermined environmental legislation and its enforcement mechanisms, resulting in historic deforestation and record numbers of fires in the Amazon and Pantanal. His government froze initiatives to demarcate Indigenous lands while attacking the rights of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples, closed social participation councils; encouraged the use of personal weapons and police violence; neglected policies to fight racial and gender inequality;  and promoted hate speech against the LGBTQIA+ population. Bolsonaro also promoted an erratic foreign policy resulting in Brazil’s isolation on the world stage. And, as we have already highlighted, the soon to be ex-president systematically attacked democracy and its institutions on a daily basis, to the extent of jeopardizing our electoral system. 

Brazil was one of the countries most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolsonaro boycotted all initiatives by states and municipalities to combat the pandemic, and made countless statements downplaying its severity. Moreover, he promoted drugs with no scientific evidence to suggest their effectiveness against COVID-19, questioned the effectiveness of vaccines, and actively hindered government vaccine procurement. The result of these disastrous actions was the death of more than 688,000 Brazilians, registering more than 34 million cases, and further decimating our economy.

How then do we explain Bolsonaro’s competitive candidacy, winning around 49% of the valid votes in the second round — beyond the aforementioned scandalous use of state machinery for electoral purposes.

First of all, Bolsonaro hegemonized the Brazilian right wing. Despite the honorable exceptions of former president Fernando Henrique Cardozo (PSDB), the so-called "old school" Toucans (as the PSDB are known) and economists of the Real Plan, the vast majority of the right and even the center-right capitulated, cowered or joined Bolsonaro. Significant sectors of the business community — especially agribusiness — enthusiastically supported the coup and electoral adventures of Bolsonarismo. Financial capital was likewise delighted with the ultraneoliberal minister of the economy, Paulo Guedes. Bolsonarismo benefited from a long reactionary tradition: three centuries of slavery; structural authoritarianism; the history of a prolonged military dictatorship marked by torture and murder; and the systemic disrespect for human dignity. In short, the extreme right synthesizes a drive for destruction and death that pervades Brazilian society.

The Bolsonaro government was, above all, a military government. According to official data, under Bolsonaro's presidency, the federal government more than doubled the presence of military personnel in positions previously held by civilians. There were many moments in which the military tried to pressure civil authorities, exceeding their constitutional responsibilities and covering for Bolsonaro's antidemocratic attacks and threats, such as when they encouraged Bolsonaro's unfounded attacks on the electronic voting system.

Bolsonaro also had the support of much of the "traditional press" — which in some cases became mere cogs in the official propaganda structure. The Brazilian bourgeoisie embraced Bolsonaro and his extremist project. Moreover, Bolsonarism, as in other far-right experiments around the world, has built a huge ecosystem of fake news, organized and trained in social networks and messaging apps. Along the lines of QAnon, millions live in a parallel reality in which Bolsonaro is a statesman sent by God, COVID-19 is a Chinese conspiracy, and political opponents are Satan worshiping pedophiles. 

Finally, evangelical pastors — especially those of Pentecostal denomination, but also traditional Protestants — who had already supported Bolsonaro in 2018, decided to start a kind of "holy war". Churches were turned into real campaign committees promoting moral panic and ultraconservative discourse on issues such as reproductive and LGBTQIA+ rights, all while accusing the left of wanting to close churches and persecuting believers who dared to declare their votes for the left. These factors led Bolsonaro to win — according to opinion polls on the eve of the election — about two-thirds of the vote among evangelicals. 

The Brazil we want

Lula — and only Lula, with his undisputed leadership on the left, international respectability and the strong memory of his successful governments — won the election by assembling an alliance of ten parties in the first round of elections and six more parties in the second round. He built unity among the social movements and all of the country's union centrals. And he produced a broad democratic front with intellectuals, activists, artists and scientists from sectors of all ideological spectrums — such as when he invited a defeated former opponent, Geraldo Alckmin, to be his vice-president, or in the second round, when he won the support of the candidate and senator Simone Tebet (PMDB). Lula, at the age of 77, was our last defense against authoritarianism and the end of democracy.

Besides his extraordinary personal qualities, Lula is the great symbol of a long process of struggle, beginning in the resistance to the military dictatorship, through the first years of the New Republic, the democratic opposition to the governments of the PSDB, the successful PT mandates (2003-2015), the battles against the parliamentary coup that deposed President Dilma Rousseff and, finally, the Free Lula campaign and the tough opposition to the neo-fascist government of Jair Bolsonaro. 

It was at the beginning of this process where the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), the PT (Workers Party), the MST (Movement of Landless Rural Workers), and so many other social movements, unions, and leftist organizations emerged. A mixture of unionists, intellectuals, members of the armed struggle against the military dictatorship, progressive religious communities — especially Catholics organized in the CEBs (Comunidades Eclesiais de Base, or Ecclesiastical Grassroots Communities), but also evangelicals, Protestants and others — students, leftist politicians and leaders of social movements were present in the process.

As society modernized, the Brazilian left and progressive sectors diversified their agendas and claims, and new organizations, parties, and social movements emerged. As President Lula said — on that fateful afternoon of April 7, 2018, hours before he presented himself to the Federal Police to serve the arrest warrant issued by the then judge and later minister of the Bolsonarist regime, Sergio Moro — "There is no point in them thinking they are going to make me stop, I won't stop because I am not a human being, I am an idea, an idea mixed with the ideas of all of you." Lula symbolizes struggles, organizations, unions, social movements, concepts, and ideas — and it was this whole set of expressions of the Brazilian people that allowed him to emerge from the Lava Jato prison sentence to lead the opposition and defeat Bolsonaro at the polls. 

President Lula's election was an epic victory. However, the challenges of his third term will be no less epic. Bolsonaro, as expected, has only just (at the time of writing) formally and unequivocally acknowledged his defeat and the election of President Lula. Since Election Day, the most radical fringe of his supporters have promoted anti-democratic protests in which they question the fairness of the election, attack the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) and advocate a coup d'état and military dictatorship. The extreme right was defeated, but won some state governments, elected members of parliament, and still has mobilized activists, communication structures, and financing. 

It is now a matter of rebuilding the country and strengthening our democracy — fighting and making the extreme right responsible for all its crimes against democracy itself and also in public administration, such as, for example, those committed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the opinion of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT Brazil), the Lula government must prioritize a series of actions, measures and commitments in order to put the country back on the path of sustainable development generating jobs, income, dignified work, and international respectability: 

  • Define the defense of democracy, citizenship and human rights as structuring axes of the new government — commitment to the reduction of economic, social and regional inequalities and the defense of equality, sovereignty and peace;
  • Recognize, promote, and value the cultural diversity of the Brazilian people;
  • Restore the country's image abroad, strengthen multilateral organizations, and invest in the integration of Latin America and in our relations with the Global South and with the BRICS — an active foreign policy that relates to rich countries as equals, respecting our sovereignty and national interests;
  • Tax justice and transparency in defining and executing the public budget — prioritizing the demands and needs of the poorest and the working class;
  • Systematic struggle against inflation and price increases — recovering wages, purchasing power and remuneration for workers;
  • Resume the policy of increasing the value of the minimum wage in order to recover the purchasing power of workers and beneficiaries of social security and assistance policies;
  • Promote labor laws based on the concept of decent work and the fight against labor precarization that establish an extensive network of social protection to all forms of occupation, with special attention to freelancers, the self-employed, domestic workers, telecommuters and people working from home, and those whose work is mediated by applications and platforms;
  • Union restructuring that democratizes the system of labor relations in the public sector and private sector, urban and rural, respecting union autonomy and collective bargaining, ensuring the right to strike and ending anti-union practices;
  • Resuming infrastructure and housing investments;
  • A national reindustrialization on new technological and environmental foundations;
  • Confront and combat climate change and its effects;
  • Implement a just transition to a low-carbon economy, based on the conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of biodiversity across all the Brazilian biomes, combat deforestation, aiming for zero deforestation;
  • Respect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples; 
  • Commitment to agrarian reform, food security, the strengthening of family farming and healthy and sustainable food systems; 
  • Promote the reconstruction of social security and social welfare; 
  • Commitment to strengthening the Single Health System (SUS) and to valuing and training health professionals; 
  • Commitment to universal, democratic, free, quality, socially oriented, secular, and inclusive public education, valuing its workers;
  • The Brazilian state must ensure the comprehensive protection of women's human dignity, as well as develop public policies of prevention against gender violence. 
  • It is essential to implement a broad set of public policies to promote racial equality and combat structural racism, inseparable from the confrontation of poverty, hunger, and inequality, which guarantee affirmative action for the Black population and its integral development in the most diverse areas. 

In this article we have highlighted the reasons and motives of the national conjuncture that allowed the rise and subsequent electoral defeat of the extreme right. However, we cannot fail to note that the resurgence of the far-right as a relevant political force is a worldwide phenomenon — at least since Brexit and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. 

The brutal economic and social inequality and, the resulting impoverishment of the working class — increasingly suffering unemployment or precarious jobs and the loss of labor, social, and pension rights — and the inability of democracies to solve basic problems in areas such as health, education, housing, inflation, immigration, and the environmental crisis, seem to be the ideal scenario for the far-right's hate speech and resentment to be sold as a solution to the discouragement and insecurity that broad social sectors are experiencing. Issues such as the regulation of social networks, fighting fake news, and promoting education regarding human rights should also be on the agenda when it comes to fighting the extreme right — not only in Brazil, but worldwide.

CUT’s vision of unionism has always been guided by the defense of union autonomy and freedom, the fight for better working conditions, for the expansion of social and labor rights, and for the transformation of society. Besides the work of forming and organizing popular sectors in unions, parties and social movements, the current conjuncture demands the construction of a new development model that is sustainable, inclusive and respects the diversity of the working class in its multiple dimensions — these are the commitments that will guide CUT’s actions regarding the future of Lula's government, the political tasks of progressive sectors, and the construction of a truly just and democratic society.

Antonio Lisboa is the Secretary of International Relations of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT Brasil) and member of the Administrative Council of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Fernando Vicente Vivaldo is an advisor to the International Relations Secretariat of CUT Brasil.

Illustrations: Gabriel Silveira

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Antonio Lisboa and Fernando Vicente Vivaldo
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Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT)

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