Experts react: Lula defeats Bolsonaro in Brazil. What should the region and the world expect?

It’s back to the future. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the left-wing former president of Brazil, recorded a narrow victory over right-wing current president Jair Bolsonaro in a runoff election Sunday. Lula, as he is known, called the victory a “resurrection;” after he served two terms as president, he spent time in jail for corruption before the conviction was overturned. The new administration will initiate an abrupt policy shift for Latin America’s biggest country both at home and abroad—and the transition could be rocky, as Bolsonaro has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the vote. How will this all play out on the world stage? We turned to our Latin America experts for the answers.

This post will be updated as the news develops and more reactions come in.

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Jason Marczak: A critical moment to shore up US-Brazil ties

Tatiana Prazeres: Expect closer cooperation between Brazil and China

Valentina Sader: The biggest winner? Brazil’s electronic voting system

Abrão Neto: Lula’s environmental stance will bring closer US ties

A critical moment to shore up US-Brazil ties

Brazilians and the world were on edge on Sunday, uncertain of how voting would play out following violence and polarization during the campaign. While there were a few incidents—which included highway police making it difficult to get to the polls in certain Lula strongholds—the day passed without major problems.

Lula’s win by over two million votes is a major development for Brazil: Bolsonaro is now the first president in the democratic history of Brazil to not win re-election. The rejection of an incumbent president—although by smaller margins than expected—shows the clear frustration in Brazilian society with the status quo, which continues to play out in democracies around the world.

When Lula becomes president again on January 1, 2023, his third term will signal a likely return to the South-South diplomacy that characterized his previous terms, in which Lula cast himself as the leader of the Global South. It is expected that he will increase collaboration between Brazil and other governments with similar perspectives such as those in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Colombia. Characterizing Lula’s election as part of a shift to the left in the region oversimplifies the state of regional politics. Rather, the shift is a sign that people want leaders who they think will govern with a deeper interest in making the average person’s life better, especially as inflation and high food and energy prices take hold. 

As in Colombia, the Biden administration will hopefully send a steady stream of high-level representatives to Brazil to meet with Lula and his team. It’s an essential moment to shore up the importance of US-Brazil ties. The White House took an important step in that direction with a quick statement congratulating Lula soon after he was declared the winner. With concerns about whether the results would be as expected, this was an important move by the United States; many European and Latin American governments have done the same. Lula has made it clear that he sees the United States and Europe as valuable partners for Brazil, especially in the areas of trade and environmental cooperation. In the next administration, Brazil’s engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean will depend on ideological affinity but also on pragmatic areas of collaboration. 

Jason Marczak is the senior director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Expect closer cooperation between Brazil and China

Under Lula, two new priorities are likely to emerge in Brazil’s foreign policy: sustainability, from a substantive standpoint, and South America, from a geographical one. Both priorities mark a departure from Bolsonaro’s worldview; both reflect Lula’s understanding that Brazil needs to rebuild its international reputation as well as its ability to influence global and regional discussions. Lula’s narrative is likely to put significant emphasis on restoring Brazil’s credibility abroad.

In addition, Lula is expected to take a different approach to China-Brazil relations, deepening bilateral relations in areas beyond the economy. 

Despite negative rhetoric against China during the Bolsonaro administration, trade and investment between the two countries evolved largely undisturbed. However, the political noise generated by the anti-China discourse prevented the deepening of bilateral relations in other policy areas, such as science and technology. The strong economic relationship between the two countries does not match their less intense political relationship; this deepened in Bolsonaro’s years. Under Lula, we can expect Brazil and China to explore other areas for cooperation.

The future of the BRICS grouping of developing economies may also take a different turn under Lula. While Bolsonaro has never rejected fellow BRICS countries, his priorities focused elsewhere, particularly on promoting Brazil’s accession to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It is unclear how the new administration will see China’s push to expand BRICS and shape it as a counterweight to the West. It is clear though that the Lula administration will see BRICS as an important platform not only to improve dialogue among its participants but also to influence global discussions. 

Some analysts are betting that, under Lula, Brazil would join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It remains to be seen how far Lula would go in that regard. It may well be that Brazil takes a more positive approach toward the Chinese initiative. Having said that, Brazil could consider collaborating with or supporting BRI projects, including in other countries, without formally joining the initiative, in a somewhat hedged support.

Lula’s efforts to promote Brazil’s reindustrialization may cause some friction with China but, by and large, that should not derail bilateral relations, in part because of the powerful agribusiness sector. A key challenge for Lula is to leverage Chinese investments and technologies to help reinvigorate Brazilian industry. Sustainability also provides renewed opportunities for cooperation with China, which Lula would be keen to explore.

—Tatiana Prazeres is director of trade and international relations for the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo and a columnist for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

The biggest winner? Brazil’s electronic voting system

With a two-million-vote difference between Lula and Bolsonaro, Brazil is clearly split down the middle. The hyperpolarization that marked the months leading up to the election was reflected in tonight’s results. As such, the biggest winner tonight may not have been Lula, but Brazil’s electronic voting system. It allowed for confidence in the results being released within hours of voting sites closing, effectively constraining any credible questioning of the result. The once again newly elected President Lula will be tasked with uniting a country that is split in half, and he must confront much more difficult economic and political circumstances than he faced when he was first elected in 2002. But if there is anything Brazilians should appreciate tonight, it is the efficiency and reliability of their voting system.

Valentina Sader is the associate director and Brazil lead at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Lula’s environmental stance will bring closer US ties

The election of Lula as president for a third term will lead, among other things, to a substantial change in Brazil’s environmental agenda. As a consequence, this is likely to benefit Brazil’s external image and improve its relationship with several countries, including the United States.

US-Brazil economic relations will continue to be driven by pragmatic mutual interests. The fact that bilateral trade and investment flows are so important to each of the countries is favorable for continuous and constructive engagement. A renewed stance from the Brazilian government on climate change and other environmental issues might offer an extended avenue for bilateral cooperation, with positive spillovers for the overall political and economic relationship between the United States and Brazil.

Abrão Neto is a nonresident senior fellow at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, executive vice president of Amcham Brasil, and former secretary of foreign trade of Brazil.

Further reading

Related Experts: Jason Marczak, Abrão Neto, and Valentina Sader

Image: Lula during a campaign act in Curitiba on September 17, 2022. Photo via Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters.