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What will Washington worry about if Lula returns?

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro walked into office with seemingly invulnerable approval ratings. His re-election in 2022 seemed all but guaranteed, no matter what he did or said. Despite contracting and recovering from the coronavirus in 2020, for example, Bolsonaro has been publicly skeptical of vaccination. He had these choice words for the Pfizer option: “There in the Pfizer contract, it is very clear that we (Pfizer) are not responsible for any side effect... If you turn into an alligator, it’s your problem.” 

Nevertheless, his approval rates were resilient. This was true in the some of the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, even as the world watched the pandemic devastate Brazil at one of the highest rates of any country. Throughout the late months of 2020, Bolsonaro’s popularity stayed at an all-time high. 

But seemingly overnight, Bolsonaro’s popularity is at the lowest it has ever been. Opinion polling from late March 2021 showed his approval ratings having sunk to 33%. The decrease, down from 41.2% in October, reflects Brazilians’ escalating distress at his handling of the pandemic. Since then, Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have dropped even lower, slumping to 25% in April and 24% in early May. 

The latest numbers reflect not only public frustration with Bolsonaro’s pandemic response, but also economic stress. Last year, 30% of Brazilians were sustained by government aid that the administration has since cut, making only 21% of the population eligible to receive it in 2021. 

The combination of economic uncertainty, a climbing death toll, and new revelations about government instability have led some experts to question whether Bolsonaro will bring Brazil to the verge of collapse, especially if he is elected to another term. 

Indeed, the government is already reeling from political crisis triggered by the pandemic: On March 30th, the heads of Brazil’s army, navy, and air force all resigned after coronavirus numbers hit their highest daily toll up to that time. They were replaced shortly thereafter, but the episode marked a turning point for the armed forces. Though Brazil’s military once embraced Bolsonaro’s hardline stance on “drug traffickers” and his calls for law and order, they are trying to disentangle their institutions from him now. 

On the heels of those developments, Brazil’s Senate has launched an inquiry into the level of negligence by Bolsonaro and his administration throughout the pandemic. Revelations that have already come out of the inquiry, such as the government’s lackluster response to a grave oxygen shortage in the northeastern state of Manaus early this year, could spell impeachment for Bolsonaro. If a criminal offense is deemed to have occurred, he could even be imprisoned. 

This leaves the president in a weakened position, but he remains dangerous for Brazilians.  He refuses to put the country on a new lockdown even as the known death toll has surpassed 450,000. 

Another threat to his re-election is coming from Brazil’s political left: former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula. Though he was sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges, Lula has been able to stay out of jail. While he appealed the conviction, Lula initially was ineligible to run for president (though many were convinced he would do so from jail). 

Last month, a Supreme Court justice overturned several corruption charges against him on the grounds that they were politically motivated. The judge in charge of the case later joined Bolsonaro’s cabinet as justice minister. 

Lula is now able to run for president again, and he is widely expected to challenge Bolsonaro next year. Lula governed Brazil from 2003 to 2010 and remains extremely popular, especially among poor and working-class voters. He has started to speak in public more often in recent months, fueling speculation of an imminent run. Notably, he has condemned Bolsonaro’s calls to develop the Amazon, and he called Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus a genocide of the Brazilian people. 

If he does run against Bolsonaro, there is a very good chance Lula will win. Put simply, there is a reason a Bolsonaro ally would want Lula imprisoned. His popularity among large portions of the electorate that previously voted for Bolsonaro is hard to overstate. The charges against him were deeply unpopular, and opinion polls indicate that at this stage of the pandemic, he would handily defeat Bolsonaro in an election. Lula would likely promise to work to end Brazil’s national nightmare of COVID devastation, as well as the embarrassment many Brazilians feel it has caused on the world stage. 

Lula’s return to power would be a security boon for the United States in one sense. Lula would be far more open to the Biden climate agenda, which the administration has prioritized as an existential national security threat, foreseeing widespread economic and political instability from future climate disasters, combined with scores of displaced people and climate refugees. Being home to the vast majority of the Amazon rainforest and depending on natural commodities to drive its export economy, Brazil has an enormous stake in climate security. Under a Lula government, climate change would be taken as a far more serious threat than under Bolsonaro, who has refuted scientific evidence of it.

In another sense, it would be a risk. Lula has taken almost the opposite stance from Bolsonaro on the authoritarian Maduro government in Venezuela. He has thanked him for humanitarian aid delivered to Brazil during the pandemic, and expressed support for him in 2013, in the earlier days of Venezuela’s own humanitarian crisis. 

If Lula takes the presidency, Washington will have to hope that he will alter his stance. He may do so now that the crisis created by Maduro has escalated so much, and it would be inexpedient in regional politics to back him. In the short term, the benefit of having Bolsonaro out of power may outweigh any inconvenience caused by Lula. 

Sarah White is a Senior Research Analyst at Arlington’s Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author’s own.