Analysis of Brazil’s conjuncture is rendered useless by pretense that the 2022 election is business as usual.
On April 9 Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) and the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) held a special press conference. It was a quietly sensational event. After months of rumour and noise, it was the first official confirmation that Lula’s former presidential adversary Geraldo Alckmin would be the vice on his 2022 election ticket.
It unleashed a furore which had long been brewing among Brazil’s progressives. To some it is beyond the pale, while many see an alliance of Lula and Alckmin as essential realpolitik in desperate times.
But those who have most trouble understanding the Lula/Alckmin candidacy are those who think this election is a normal one. These analysts disregard the military and US shadow over the coming vote, and seem intent to pretend the democratic rupture of the past six years never happened.
What many are missing is the existential long term rationale behind this move. Lula is trying to build not simply a vote winning electoral package, but the closest thing he can to a unity government of reconciliation for extraordinary circumstances, namely a need to restore and sustain Brazilian democracy in the face of fascism.
In very different times, Alckmin was himself once called a fascist by some on the left. As Governor he was widely blamed for the brutality of the São Paulo Military Police, in particular when they were smashing the June 2013 protests, and then later when coming down to crush further demonstrations against the coup which Junho had gone on to help precipitate. It was even insinuated that Alckmin may have deliberately incited protests with such police brutality, for political ends. These accusations belong to another Brazil, and have not dated well, given what else is now known, but it is entirely understandable that people are anxious about what comes next if anything happens to Lula. ‘Is this another coup in waiting?’ they wonder.
Some are comparing the Lula-Alckmin alliance more positively with that of Tancredo Neves and José Sarney in 1985, which was elected by parliament, ushering in a four year transition to direct democratic elections in 1989.
This analogy is imperfect as Sarney had actually been part of the ARENA dictatorship government. Say what you will about Geraldo Alckmin’s politics, but he was São Paulo governor until 2018 and played no direct part in either the post-coup governments of Temer and Bolsonaro, though his former party the PSDB did. It was a key protagonist in the coup against Rousseff, before being decimated at the 2018 general election. It is forgotten however, that in 2016 Alckmin was actually harassed by anti-Rousseff protesters, who amidst the far-right radicalisation taking place, considered the PSDB opportunist, or no different to the PT.
Increasingly isolated in his old party, Alckmin has now migrated to the soft left PSB, and is said to have undergone a political shift, away from the PSDB’s neoliberal present, and back towards its origins of bourgeois Social Democracy under founder Mario Covas, who eventually backed Lula in 1989, and with whom Alckmin served as vice governor of São Paulo. That wasn’t a normal election either.
Yet regardless, to a commentariat who still do not even acknowledge what has actually happened to Brazil, let alone the military hand and US role in it, this alliance is bizarre. Because they are pretending that this is a normal election.
Others more astute are also struggling to accept it, because they are pretending this is a normal election.
To ideological purists it is a betrayal, because they’re pretending this is a normal election.
The PT was always a coalition of progressive forces, never a pure ideological base, yet even to many Lula loyalists, Alckmin on the ticket is deeply uncomfortable. Because they want to believe this is a normal election.
To others it is another political masterstroke of Lula the grand conciliator.
Even that assumes this is a normal election.
Misunderstood in purely electoral terms, Alckmin is unlikely to win Lula many votes outside the state of São Paulo, though that should not be underestimated as the polls get tighter. But also overlooked is that a Lula-Alckmin candidacy comes with the support of crusading Supreme Court Minister Alexandre de Moraes built in.
De Moraes, once arch-nemesis of São Paulo social movements as secretary of security under Alckmin, has transformed into an anti-Bolsonaro ally and is a target of constant fascist threats. He will assume the presidency of the electoral court in September, one month before the first round, and will thus will potentially be guarantor of a Lula victory at the ballot box in the face of any rejection of the result, or worse.
For years, and right through the 2016 coup and 2018 election, we would regularly hear from the most dubious of foreign commentators that the Brazilian left must “move beyond Lula and the PT”.
It sounds so easy: move beyond the most electorally successful left wing political project in Brazil’s history, if not the hemisphere, and put faith in tiny parties with no chance of taking power, nor genuine plan for doing so.
Lula-Alckmin is certainly a move beyond the PT, but perhaps not what they had in mind. Had the instruction been obeyed, in the literal manner then suggested, Brazilian progressives would now be staring into the abyss of a second Bolsonaro term. Some insist Brazil needs to “get over the coup”, or “get over 2016 politics” but appear unhappy with how that actually looks in reality. Yet most of the left, including the PSOL, are on board with Lula in the first round and the rest will, for the most part, back him in the second.
Lula insists that Alckmin, whom he defeated to win re-election in 2006, was always an adversary, not an enemy. The former president evokes an era of calm and normality, of democratic adversaries facing each other with respect in what now seems like a golden age for Brazil.
Questions remain. Is Alckmin as vice president enough of a concession to US concerns for them to give up on Bolsonaro, or does it just mean they are guaranteed more than one horse in the runoff. With what is being called a new ‘pink tide’ of left victories already in motion across the region, controlling policy of the resulting governments would be smarter statecraft than clumsy intervention, be it by sabotage, lawfare, or other means. We see a return of the “good left-bad left” paradigm, but the question is which side the State Department now considers Lula and the PT to be on.
Souverainism, and resource sovereignty in particular, is a US red line, and always will be. In the eyes of the United States, Bolsonaro is the outright winner in this regard. Lula said, upon his release from the political imprisonment that kept him out of the 2018 election, that Brazil is “returning to colonial times“. PT President Gleisi Hoffman emphasized protection of Brazilian sovereignty at the event which launched the partnership with Geraldo Alckmin.
With the ideal world US-backed candidate Sergio Moro out of race, on cue have come the first signals that Council of the Americas – the most visible representation of US extractive, business and banking interests in Lat Am – wants Bolsonaro to be reelected, which is in turn a tacit indication of the State Department’s wider view. An analysis in COA in-house propaganda platform Americas Quarterly which hand-wringingly identified self-evident weaknesses in Lula’s campaign appeal to conservatives, called the incumbent a “more disciplined candidate” and betrayed COA’s obvious preference for a continuation of the Bolsonaro/Guedes government. And of course the analysis by COA Vice President of policy whitewashed its support, even protagonism for the sacking of Brazil’s democracy over the last six years. The analysis also failed the fundamental test: it pretended that this is a normal election.
As usual, the most mediocre anglo correspondents followed COA’s lead, talking up Bolsonaro’s chances of victory in a manner which could actually help the fascist. Should the numbers be tight enough, and he carries out his threat to contest defeat, he will benefit if media (internal and external) has been amplifying the strength of his candidacy for six months prior to the vote. In the ongoing information war, “razor thin victories” of left candidates in Latin America are a common propaganda trope; see the example of Dilma’s “razor thin” 2014 victory over Aécio Neves, which was in fact a comparable margin to Obama’s over Mitt Romney. Repetition of this cast doubt on the legitimacy of Dilma’s mandate and was the first justification to dispute the result, which eventually led to the coup against her.
It was a wildly naive assumption that a Biden administrated United States would refuse to support Bolsonaro again, given that the 2016 coup happened on Obama’s watch, and considering the wide scope of advantages his government had brought the US since his inauguration.
Bolsonaro’s unprecedented submissiveness to US interests was described as a wishlist for its’ foreign policy, and the “holy grail” for the private sector, regardless of any recent superficial approximation with Vladimir Putin. 2021 meetings between the new head of the CIA and Secretary of State with the Bolsonaro administration were depicted as business as usual, but clear signals that Biden was fully prepared to accomodate Brazil’s far-right president.
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the notorious Victoria Nuland, recently visited Colombia. With an election imminent, Nuland met with all candidates except left wing frontrunner Gustavo Petro. At the same time she revealed she was talking to the Brazilian foreign minister. It is certainly difficult to imagine that she has anything good in mind for Brazil.
The other question being ignored is if the military will accept a Lula victory. It had been involved behind the scenes at every stage of the coup and its long term planning for 15 years. Would it go through all that just to relinquish the expansive political power it had regained? And would it do so peacefully and fairly?
Lula has reportedly enlisted Geraldo Alckmin with the task of building bridges with anti-Bolsonaro factions within the military. The possibility that former chief of staff and defence minister General Braga Netto will be Bolsonaro’s new vice does theoretically elevate the threat of Army intervention should the result be contested as feared. He is far more serious, influential and powerful a figure than current VP, General Mourão.
To ignore the military’s role in Brazil is denial of history itself. Yet any useful analysis now must acknowledge not only what has happened over the past decade, but what is at stake for the next. The 2022 vote will effectively be a plebiscite on the survival of Brazil itself, as another four years of this self-destructive kakistocracy is unthinkable.
Because this is not a normal election.
(Photo: PSDB’s Mario Covas and PDT’s Leonel Brizola endorse Lula at the 1989 election)