Richard Nixon, who served as President Eisenhower’s Vice President, lost the 1960 US presidential election to John F. Kennedy and then the California Governorship to Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown in 1962. The post-election press conference was quite dramatic, a dejected Nixon even announced his complete withdrawal from politics. But history would vow differently.
The 1968 US presidential election saw one of the greatest political comebacks in history when Republican Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey. There are other unbelievable political comebacks, for sure. ‘Comeback kid’ Bill Clinton could overcome the Monica Lewinsky saga as well as claims of infidelity and draft-dodging in the run-up for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1991.
In India also, Indira Gandhi could stage an unbelievable comeback in the 1980 general elections after severe setbacks in 1977-78. Lula da Silva had to stop studying after grade 5 because he needed to work full-time. He subsequently became the head of a steelworkers’ union in São Paulo in the 1970s and the co-founder of the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980 which would become the main left-wing political force in Brazil. Lula then served as Brazilian president for two terms, from 2003 to 2006 and 2007 to 2011. He led Brazil through a commodities boom that helped huge social welfare programmes such as Bolsa Família, which provided direct cash transfers to low-income families in exchange for ensuring children’s attendance in school.
These lifted millions out of poverty and cemented Lula’s popularity with poorer Brazilians. Lula, however, had to leave office in 2011 as Brazilian law doesn’t allow a third consecutive presidential term. Not many world leaders can end up having an astonishingly high 90 per cent approval rating after two terms! The next decade, however, was tumultuous for both Lula and his country. Lula had to fight against throat cancer. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and removed from office in 2016. And Lula’s reputation took a severe hit in 2017 with Brazil’s largest corruption probe dubbed ‘Operação Lava Joto’ or ‘Operation Car Wash’ that led to charges against hundreds of high-ranking politicians and businesspeople across Latin America.
Lula was convicted of charges of corruption and money laundering in an investigation into the working of state-run oil giant Petrobras and was sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison for accepting a luxury apartment as a bribe, a charge he has always labelled as politically motivated. Incidentally, the judge who convicted Lula would later become Bolsonaro’s justice minister. In 2021, Brazil’s Supreme Court overturned Lula’s conviction, saying his right to a fair trial had been compromised. This was agreed upon by the UN’s human rights council. He was allowed to run for re-election against Bolsonaro in 2022. A stage for his political rebound was set after serving 580 days in prison. But Lula’s is not a story of personal rebound only.
As Latin America’s largest nation has now embraced leftwing governance, it’s a resurgence of the ‘pink tide’ in the region once again. At the beginning of this century, Lula certainly ascended to power in 2003 amid a major political wave and perception of a turn toward leftist governments in Latin American democracies moving away from the neoliberal economic model. That ‘pink tide’ was led by Hugo Chávez when he was elected president of Venezuela in 1998. Chávez, Lula, and Evo Morales of Bolivia are widely celebrated as ‘the three musketeers of the left in Latin America. The shift this time, however, began with Mexico’s 2018 election which saw the victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. This was followed by Alberto Fernández in Argentina, Gabriel Boric in Chile, Pedro Castillo in Peru, and Gustavo Petro in Colombia.
Incidentally, exactly two decades after his first presidential victory, Lala’s comeback has completed the pink resurgence in the region. Six of the region’s biggest economies will now be run by leftist governments. About three decades ago, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and amid the changing geopolitical environment, the left in many places embraced the core tenets of capitalism, and consequently, the attitude of the Latin American elite towards the left also changed. This was highly instrumental for the left wave in Latin America in the 1990s and 2000s. But it’s a different geo-political environment now. It’s a recovery period for every country in this post-Covid world, more so for the more severely hit countries.
A commodities boom in Lula’s upcoming tenure is quite unlikely. Also, at an important juncture when a large part of Europe is embracing far-right ideology, the resurgence of pink on the other shore of the Atlantic is important, indeed, in keeping checks and balances in the world order. Leaders like Lula may provide a different outlook and opinion when they come on the world stage. For example, Lula criticized both Joe Biden and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky for failing to negotiate with Russia’s Vladimir Putin before the Ukraine war broke out. Lula has vowed to bring deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon under control; it saw a 60 per cent increase in deforestation rates in the first three years of Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Bolsanaro even had a bitter relationship with the EU for his refusal to protect the Amazon. Lula ushering in a green economy for Brazil might heal Brazil’s frayed relationship with the EU. While Alberto Fernández termed Lula’s victory as “a new era in Latin American history”, it should be remembered that Brazilians remain deeply divided over Lula’s guilt or innocence. According to a September poll, 44 per cent of voters still believe Lula was rightfully convicted, while 40 per cent believe his conviction was unjust. Thus, it may be worthwhile to acknowledge that in addition to a pink resurgence in the region, it’s more of a defeat for Bolsanaro than Lula’s victory in Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s approach to Covid, combined with his attacks on Brazil’s democracy, allowed Lula to stage an astonishing political comeback. While the pandemic gave an advantage to most of the incumbents in global elections, both Donald Trump and Bolsonaro saw their popularity levels taking a hit over their poor handling of the pandemic. With Lula bagging less than 2 per cent more votes – just over 2 million more votes – than Bolsonaro, one should keep in mind that about half the Brazilians joined Lula’s comeback carnival. On the campaign trail, Lula framed this election as a choice between “democracy and fascism, democracy and barbarism.” He won, but nearly half the voters preferred what he termed ‘fascism’ and ‘barbarism’.
Bolsonaro is defeated, but his ideology lives in Brazil – exactly how Trump is still very much inscribed within American society. And as Trump is all set to strengthen his grip in the coming mid-term elections on November 8, Bolsonaro might fight back again. That’s a democracy, of course, even if the likes of Trump or Bolsonaro didn’t show full respect for its values in the past. It’s “Viva Lula”, for the time being.