Brazil’s presidential election is already being widely billed in advance as a paradigm shift for the region but although it is hard to imagine a change of government not happening and not being for the better, a few caveats would be in order. While any result in Brazil would be of paramount importance for the region as housing almost half of South American population and while a return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would see the centre-left governing some 93 percent of that population and perhaps an even higher territorial percentage (with the centre-right reduced to Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay), today might very well not be the moment of truth if the election goes to a run-off on the last Sunday of this month.
Even if Lula does win then or even tomorrow, certain cyclical and institutional factors would make that victory somewhat relative. As Heraclitus told us 25 centuries ago, no man ever steps in the same river twice since neither the man nor the river are the same – Lula would be returning to the presidency in very different times to the global commodity price boom he rode so successfully in the first decade of this century (with considerably more sagacity than his counterparts here in Argentina, according to most opinions). Recent victors all along the Pacific rim have ran into very early trouble in this new post-pandemic context of inflation and Eastern European war and while a polarised Brazil will give its winner a far sturdier percentage than those mostly fragmented contests, any electoral honeymoon will be minimal.
On the institutional side, while the bicentenary of the birth of the Brazilian Empire was marked less than a month ago, the future ruler of Brazil will be anything but imperial. Above all, he will be hamstrung by a Congress which has dumped two presidents in the past three decades and where both the main candidates are weak – Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) commands little more than 10 percent of the seats while President Jair Bolsonaro barely has a deputy to his name beyond circumstantial allies.
The judicial branch has also been a major protagonist in Brazil’s recent history and on that subject it is probably worth both highlighting the issue of corruption and maintaining a balanced perspective. Lula’s clearance to run is frequently confused with a blanket acquittal of all the graft cases against him but there is a broad distinction between the Supreme Court ruling that a Paraná courtroom had no jurisdiction to try him on charges originating in the state of São Paulo and the corruption accusations being dismissed as lawfare pure and simple, as is often assumed. Lula has shrugged off his negative image for corruption in many, if not all, eyes (far less his party) but the Odebrecht and Petrobras scandals destroying presidential careers and even lives across the region cannot be forgotten. At the same time Bolsonaro has forfeited his right to throw his 2018 stones against corruption even if his mostly petty nepotism is not on the same scale as continental scams like Odebrecht.
Given the flaws of the major candidates, perhaps the Brazilian voter should be urged not to be blinded by polarisation but take a closer look at the other candidates, some of whom outperformed both Lula and Bolsonaro in the recent presidential debates – in particular there are good reasons to expect Brazil’s second woman president to do a better job than Dilma Rousseff.
In conclusion, how should this election be viewed here in Argentina? Brazil is our leading trade partner (with only occasional interruptions from China) while the ongoing tyre production crisis serves as a fresh reminder of just how intertwined the Argentine auto industry is with the Brazilian. If Lula does win at either end of this month, it will be positive for Argentina to have the two main Mercosur governments aligned even if that could change in little over a year. Of rather greater and more permanent relevance would be seeing Brazil governed by somebody who not only is actually interested in global leadership, international relations and policy but has a past record of making his country a world presence. All hinging on tomorrow’s vote.