Lula vs Bolsonaro: A clash of titans in Brazil

If ever there were a knock-down, drag-out, heavyweight clash of populist titans brewing — this is going to be it.

A Brazilian court on Monday overturned a 2018 corruption conviction against former president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, clearing the way for the polarizing but immensely popular leftist to run in the 2022 presidential election. If he does, he'll almost certainly be the main challenger for current president Jair Bolsonaro, a bomb-throwing far right populist.

Let's get ready to rumble.


Who is Lula again? The rough-spoken former union boss was president from 2003 to 2011, when a commodities boom enabled him to massively expand state support for the poor while also enjoying one of the headiest periods of economic growth in Brazil's history. His critics, however, accused his Workers Party of graft and incompetence. After he left office the wheels came off — his successor Dilma Rousseff was impeached amid massive protests over corruption, and Lula himself was convicted of graft in a polarizing and politicized trial that occurred just before the 2018 presidential election, preventing him from competing.

His supporters cried foul: he was the most popular candidate at the time. His jailing cleared the way for Jair Bolsonaro to sweep to power on a rightwing populist platform of anti-corruption, strong arm policing, fiscal discipline, and provocative statements about women, gays, and minorities.

Lula is still the most popular politician in Brazil. According to a poll published by the daily O Estado de São Paulo, 50 percent of likely voters would choose Lula, against just 38 percent for Bolsonaro (Portuguese, paywall). But Lula also has a very high rate of disapproval, meaning that, just like with Bolsonaro, people love or hate him in equal measure — there's no middle ground (Spanish).

Brazilians are fed up and deeply polarized. After all the upheavals of the past ten years, Brazilians in general still feel alienated from their leaders, and divisions are deep: a 2019 IPSOS/BBC study found that a third of Brazilians say it's not even worth having a conversation with people who hold opposing political views — only India and South Africa had higher rates of intolerance on that score.

This will be a historic battle. Lula still needs to clear a few more legal hurdles before he can run, but a Lula candidacy would make for a presidential race unlike any other in the world in recent years.

The global resurgence of populism over the past 15 years has tended to pit upstarts from the ideological fringes against centrist political establishments fighting for survival. That was true of Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton — and then Joe Biden. It was true of the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, and Mexico's Andres Manuel López Obrador. All of them won (and, in Trump's case, lost) against establishment centrists.

But at no time in recent memory has a country of Brazil's size and clout (it's Latin America's largest economy) seen a face-off between two charismatic populists representing opposite sides of the political spectrum at the same time. What's more, GloboNews international affairs commentator Guga Chacra points out, these are two figures who are well known outside of Brazil, meaning there will be a lot of international attention on the race.

Would facing Lula be bad for Bolsonaro? Lula's campaign would likely focus on jobs and inequality, a message that can land well after the economic carnage of the past year. And while Lula still commands broad popularity, Bolsonaro has recently seen his approval ratings fall, in part because of his disastrous handling of the pandemic and vaccine rollout.

But Bolsonaro has some cards to play. His pandemic relief checks have started to eat into Lula's once rock-solid base in the poorer reaches of Brazil's Northeast, Chacra told us.

And more than anything, Bolsonaro is a politician who loves to have enemies, and Lula is his — and his supporters' — greatest political nemesis. A Bolsonaro-Lula matchup would quickly become an ideological and cultural war reflecting deep rifts within Brazilian society.

And that, for better or worse, is the type of fight in which both of these populist titans can land an awful lot of punches.

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