Analysis: Lula’s revival suits Bolsonaro, but Brazil 2022 is a different game

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© Reuters. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro leaves the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia

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By Anthony Boadle and Eduardo Simões

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ran for president for the first time in 1989.

Three decades later, it looks like the former union leader with the pebble voice is headed for another run in Brazil’s top position after a Supreme Court judge overturned his convictions and restored his political rights.

His resurrection from the political ashes sets the stage for a déjà vu election next year, in which he competes against right-wing extremist President Jair Bolsonaro and gives voters a choice between the most polarizing figures on the Brazilian political spectrum.

“This changes the big picture,” said Creomar de Souza, founder of Dharma Political Risk and Strategy in Brasilia. “It’s very early, obviously, but this chokes any momentum for a moderate centrist candidate.”

That should fit Bolsonaro well.

The former army captain won in 2018 with a vow to wipe out the left legacy of Lula’s Labor Party, which led Latin America’s largest economy from 2003 to 2016.

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric was simple, angry, and very effective: the left stormed Brazil on a one-way street to the same ruin as Venezuela, he warned. Politics in the capital Brasilia was rotten to the core. The country needed an unvarnished right-wing outsider like him with no ties to major political parties.

But as former U.S. President Donald Trump’s failed re-election efforts have shown, it’s harder to win on a swamp-draining platform when you’ve been in charge of the swamp for four years.

Brazil hurts, a quarter of a million are lost to COVID-19, an economy in worse shape than it was when it acquired Bolsonaro and anti-corruption measures down. It is not clear whether popular anger towards the Labor Party will remain as it was in 2018.

Even if he will take the chance to rant against the mistakes of the left in the past, Bolsonaro cannot avoid being judged on his own performance.

“Bolsonaro doesn’t have much to show for his presidency today,” said Leonardo Barreto, director of the Political Consultancy Vector in Brasilia. “The government must show results to keep Bolsonaro in power. This is more important than the presence or absence of Lula in the president’s race.”

For Barreto and many other political analysts, this means Bolsonaro may have an increasingly populist agenda to shore up support. Promises of economic reforms won by Bolsonaro supporters from the financial community are being shelved.

Financial markets reacted to the prospect of another populist shift. Brazil’s real currency, which this year was already the worst-performing currency in the world against the dollar after the Libyan dinar and the Sudanese pound, fell to 10 cents from its all-time low in May last year. [L8N2L74KZ]

It is also a question of which Lula decides to run. Its remarkable longevity is evidence of a knack for reinvention.

Will 2022 return the left arsonist who made a name for himself on the factory floor in the 1980s, or the deal-making unifier, who swapped blood-red T-shirts for bespoke suits when he hit the markets after a landslide victory in 2002 calmed down.

It’s too early to draw firm conclusions, but voter polls suggest Lula has a good shot and is currently voting in front of Bolsonaro.

Speaking to Reuters in September, Lula joked that he had “the energy of a 30-year-old and the political drive of a 20-year-old”.

However, it is the shrewd experience of a 75-year-old for life politician that Bolsonaro should be most cautious about.

“It’s a different game than 2018,” said Carlos Melo, professor of politics at the Insper Institute in Sao Paulo. “We have to see which way Lula is going.”

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