Days before new president, old divisions tearing at Brazil
SAO PAULO (AP) — Trumpets and snares will play Brazil’s national anthem at Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s inauguration ceremony on January 1. Then another song will be heard on the streets, the lyrics of which shoot at outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro.
“It’s time for Jair, it’s time for Jair… to go!” say the lyrics. “Pack your bags, go and get out!”
When Lula won his election victory over Bolsonaro on October 30, tens of thousands of people sang the familiar tune all night, propelling the song to the top of the Spotify chart in Brazil and showing that many Brazilians are unwilling to extend Olive Branches.
Healing Brazil’s divided society is easier said than done. Lula’s cabinet appointments, which have so far favored leftists and supporters of his Labor Party, have deterred those who trusted the divisive 77-year-old to govern alongside the moderates and who were rallying after Bolsonaro repeatedly tested the guard rails of the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
“Governing Brazil means doing business with agribusiness, evangelicals and former Bolsonaro allies. That can be frustrating for half-hearted Lula voters, but that’s what they’re up against,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo.
Of course, Bolsonaro’s far-right supporters are hardly the picture of post-election bonhomie. Disagreeing with the results of the vote, many are camping out in front of military buildings nationwide, demanding that Lula’s inauguration be prevented.
October’s elections in Brazil were the closest in more than three decades, pitting two archrivals against each other. In Lula’s October 30 victory speech, he declared that “there are not two Brazilians” as tens of thousands gathered outside his Sao Paulo hotel to celebrate his win and Bolsonaro’s defeat.
A hopeful sign of Lula’s bridge-building ambitions came days later when leftists and moderates once again donned the nation’s yellow football shirt to cheer on their team at the World Cup. The jersey has been an anti-left symbol for almost a decade and is often used in protests against Lula and in favor of Bolsonaro.
Lula and his allies also wore the yellow shirt to reclaim it; Posting photos of himself on social media, he said green and yellow are “the colors of 213 million people who love this country”. Salesman Elias Gaspar said yellow jerseys flew off his rack as the team’s flamboyant performances trickled in.
“Before the World Cup, I sold an average of six blue shirts and four out of ten yellow shirts,” said Gaspar, 43, on December 4. “Now almost everything is yellow.”
Football was a short-lived unifying force. Brazil left the tournament earlier than expected after a surprise penalty shoot-out loss to Croatia in the quarter-finals, and most Brazilians stuffed their shirts back into their drawers. Bolsonaro’s supporters are the only ones still wearing the national colors.
Lula has avoided stoking tensions, largely eschewing public attacks on Bolsonaro or his supporters, instead focusing his speeches on helping Brazil’s most disadvantaged once he returns to the post he held from 2003 held until 2010. Sometimes, however, we against them comments slipped from his lips. On December 22, while announcing new ministers, he said Bolsonarismo remains alive and angry among those who refuse to acknowledge the election loss, so it must be defeated on Brazil’s streets.
Lula chose conservative José Múcio Monteiro as defense minister after four years of trying to secure allegiance to the armed forces.
Other Lula appointments seem to please his base and party, such as Anielle Franco, sister of assassinated Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco, as Minister for Racial Equality. He also signed longtime ally Aloizio Mercadante to head the country’s development bank — exactly the kind of position business leaders expected the Labor Party to keep away from.
Gleisi Hoffmann, leader of Lula’s Labor Party, said building a cabinet would be a challenge even if Lula voted only progressives. Complicating decisions further is the fact that some would-be ministers are likely to be presidential candidates for 2026, as Lula has indicated he will not run for re-election.
“We have our differences within the Workers’ Party, now imagine what happens if we bring a dozen other parties with us,” Hoffmann said on her social media channels Dec. 16. “It’s a puzzle, it takes time.”
That could explain why the number of ministries will almost double to 37.
Support for the center from former Environment Minister Marina Silva and Simone Tebet, who finished third in the first round of the presidential campaign, won votes from Brazil’s moderates — a demographic that has grown suspicious of Lula since the sweeping 2018 car wash corruption probe caught him With their support, he beat Bolsonaro by less than two percentage points. Many expected to be quickly announced as ministers, but negotiations have dragged on.
Thomas Traumann, a political adviser, said delays reflect the fact that the president-elect has played a central role in negotiating positions.
“People who helped him like Marina and Simone will have less stature than if they had been appointed shortly after his win,” Traumann said. “Lula is fortunate that the moderates see his administration the way many left-wing Democrats (US President Joe) see Biden: they may not like what they see, but it’s better than the alternative.”
Biden’s attempt to bridge the political divide could offer an instructive if daunting model, said Brian Ott, a professor of communications at Missouri State University who has studied the stratifying effects of social media on American political discourse.
Early in his presidency, Biden did not shy away from the fact that he was ruling in a polarized country, playing his bonafides as a throwback to another era when Democrats and Republicans could fight in the Senate before going to the dining room to negotiate compromises.
“The problem Biden faces, and the problem politicians face in 51% countries like Brazil, is that there may no longer be smart strategies to deliver big tent messages without alienating your base ‘ said Ott. “We are now in a time when politics is so culturally intense and so deeply divided that people don’t need to be exposed to different points.”
On December 22, Lula appointed 16 ministers, bringing his total to 21. Neither Tebet nor Silva are among them.
“Putting together a government is harder than winning elections,” he said, while advising his appointees to hire staff from diverse backgrounds. “We are trying to form a government that represents as much as possible the political forces that took part in our campaign.”
He added that people who have helped and have not yet been named will be considered and owed a debt for “daring to oppose fascism”.
Still, many new Lula voters are already feeling the urge to abandon ship. One is Thereza Bittencourt, 65, who was speaking at a military club in Rio and said early signs worried her.
“I got a lot of criticism from my friends at the club for voting for Lula. Everyone has chosen Bolsonaro. I told them the management of the economy would be better,” Bittencourt said while sipping her caipirinha. “If I only see members of the Labor Party in government, goodbye.” ___
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.
Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press