Brazil’s newly elected Lula has a chance to work with the Catholic Church to serve the common good
In his attempt to win another term as president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly attacked the country’s election system, particularly the use of electronic ballot boxes. He spread misinformation and incited numerous acts of political violence. But despite his efforts to call the legitimacy of the election into question, one of his predecessors, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, narrowly won the second round of Brazil’s presidential election on Oct. 30 and will return to office on Jan. 1 for his third term.
Mr. Lula was born in the city of Caetés in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. He won 60.3 million votes in this year’s run-off election—the most in Brazil’s history. His victory was possible because ideological opponents came together to defeat a powerful far-right populist party, achieving a victory for human rights and social justice.
Luiz Lula: “I will govern for all Brazilians, and not only for those who voted for me. There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.”
Priorities for Mr. Lula as he becomes president include addressing the food insecurity that affects more than half of the Brazilian population, as well as the restoration of the economy and democratic normalcy after Mr. Bolonaro’s populist rule. His victory speech recalled the sentiments President Joseph R. Biden Jr. conveyed when he won the 2020 U.S. election.
“I will govern for all Brazilians, and not only for those who voted for me,” Mr. Lula said. “There are not two Brazils. We are one country, one people, one great nation.”
Though Mr. Bolsonaro lost, his extremist ideology persists. Steve Bannon, repeating the role he played in the United States in 2016 when he was a political strategist for Donald J. Trump, helped to build support for the extreme right in Brazil, and Mr. Trump himself made a video that posted to Mr. Bolsonaro’s official Twitter account a day before the Oct. 30 election.
Mr. Trump told Brazilians, “Get out and vote for President Bolsonaro, he’s doing the job like few people could!” and “You have a chance to elect one of the great people in all of politics.”
The two conservative populist leaders have strikingly similar styles, both incorporating expressions of authoritarianism and statements that could be called sexist, racist and homophobic. Mr. Bolsonaro has cast doubt on the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s victory in 2020, and some of Mr. Trump’s supporters have in turn alleged that Mr. Lula’s election was fraudulent. Mr. Bannon told a Brazilian news outlet, “We need a ballot-by-ballot audit, even if it takes six months. In the meantime, the president should not agree to leave.”
Priorities for Mr. Lula include addressing food insecurity, as well as the restoration of the economy and democratic normalcy after Mr. Bolonaro’s populist rule.
In the aftermath of Mr. Bolsonaro’s defeat, some of his supporters attempted to shut down highways across the country, but so far police have acted quickly to free up the roads. These and other isolated protests have failed to prevent a transition of power. Mr. Lula’s victory was swiftly confirmed by Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court, as well as national and state political leaders, and the immediate recognition of his win by world leaders, including President Biden, reduced the capacity for reaction from the extreme right. “China attaches great importance to the development of China-Brazil relations and is ready to work with Lula,” announced Xi Jinping, president of China, Brazil’s largest trading partner.
President-elect Lula was supported by nine political parties in his election in an alliance to defeat the populist far right. His victory could mean a resumption of civil dialogue, but his first task is to seek allies within the legislature to stabilize democracy and discourage right-wing extremism.
The majority of the House of Representatives and the Senate are center-right, and Mr. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party is still the biggest bloc in Congress. Mr. Lula’s political base is lower-income voters, and he will need to build support among the middle class for his initiatives. But he has a great deal of political skill and experience working across parties.
To fight political violence, Mr. Lula must reconstruct the country’s legal framework. The 2022 election was marked by several assassinations, assaults on journalists and reports of the harassment and intimidation of voters. The Observatory of Political and Electoral Violence in Brazil, at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, tallied 212 cases of political violence between July and September 2022. Members of Mr. Lula’s Workers’ Party were the most frequent victims of violence.
The human rights organizations Justiça Global and Terra de Direitos also recorded 247 instances of political violence—400 percent higher than the number recorded in 2018. Seventy percent of Brazilians fear being assaulted because of their political views, according to the electoral research agency Datafolha.
Mr. Lula’s first task is to seek allies within the legislature to stabilize democracy and discourage right-wing extremism.
But since a strong economy is the foundation of a stable democratic order, recovering economic growth should also be a primary task. Mr. Lula must restore policies that combat hunger and destitution and that generate social inclusion, a model of economic and civil development model he managed during previous administrations.
Lula’s opportunities for working with the church
During the campaign, Mr. Lula was literally demonized by Pentecostal and other evangelical Protestant supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro, some of whom spread rumors on social media that Mr. Lula would close Christian churches as president. In fact, he has promised to maintain freedom of worship and said that his government would encourage partnerships with churches in providing social services for Brazilians.
Some Catholic supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro have also attacked the Brazilian bishops, who have been especially critical of the president’s handling of the Covid pandemic, and one state legislator allied with Mr. Bolsonaro made news in 2020 by calling Pope Francis a “bum.” Both Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Lula are Catholic.
The Catholic Church has no party, but it does have a side—the side of the most impoverished, of social justice and of democracy. The presence of the church in the public square is inspired by its social doctrine in communion with Pope Francis. Its relationship with the state is characterized by cooperation in defense of human dignity and the common good.
Pope Francis’ exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” states that the church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (No. 183), quoting the 2005 encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” by Pope Benedict XVI. Some bishops took this message to heart and appeared to openly oppose Mr. Bolsonaro during the campaign.
Mr. Lula also plans to create a ministry of Indigenous peoples, a response to growing violence against Brazil’s more than 300 Indigenous communities.
Archbishop Odilo Scherer, cardinal archbishop of São Paulo, and Bishop Vicente Ferreira, auxiliary bishop of Belo Horizonte, warned of a fascist threat posed by the extreme right. Faced with a split within the Brazilian church, the hierarchy repudiated the manipulation of faith for political ends and defended the secular nature of the state.
Because there was no room for impartiality, many bishops came to believe that it was the church’s mission to support her faithful in discerning between two potential outcomes for the country: one democratic and the other authoritarian; one committed to the defense of life and dignity for the impoverished, the other committed to an economy that discards the most impoverished and degrades the environment.
“Christians cannot be indifferent to hunger and destitution, to the shortage of dignified work, to the lack of health and education,” said Bishop Jaime Spengler, vice-president of the Brazilian bishops’ conference.
It is the duty of governments to reduce the gap between the rich and the impoverished. Inequality is the structural evil of Brazil, and social inequality is Brazil’s greatest problem. The 20 richest billionaires in the country have more wealth than 128 million Brazilians—or 60 percent of the population. Unequal societies can become violent societies.
To achieve a just economy, Mr. Lula will have to adopt public policies that seek to reduce the social and economic differences among the population. It is urgent to tackle inequalities in the country, be they economic, racial or gender-related. And according to the federal Constitution, it is the duty of the state to guarantee equal social and economic rights, including education, health, work, leisure, security, social security, the protection of mothers and children, and assistance to the needy.
In the coming months, Brazil’s Catholic Church should be able to find common cause with the new president on matters of social justice.
Mr. Lula is also expected to restore the care of creation as a primary concern of his government. “Brazil and the planet need a living Amazon,” Mr. Lula said in a speech following his win. “It is possible to generate wealth without destroying the environment.” The president-elect is considered an authoritative leader on the issue of the climate emergency, and he has accepted the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s invitation to attend the World Summit on Climate Change, or COP27.
Because of Mr. Lula’s victory, Norway and Germany are planning to reactivate the Amazon Fund. Aimed at detecting and fighting environmental crimes, the fund had been suspended in 2019, after Mr. Bolsonaro had unilaterally shut down the independent local commissions that were administering its conservation initiatives. Under Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration, annual deforestation in the Amazon grew by 72 percent. (The Amazonian region extends across nine countries: Brazil, Columbia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Guyana, Suriname, Ecuador and French Guiana).
Mr. Lula also plans to create a ministry of Indigenous peoples, a response to growing violence against Brazil’s more than 300 Indigenous communities. “You are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home,” Pope Francis told the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon during his visit to Chile and Peru in 2018.
In the coming months, Brazil’s Catholic Church should also be able to find common cause with the new president on all of these matters of social justice. Only a state truly at the service of the nation is capable of guaranteeing rights to all people.
In short, the church hopes that the politics of the new government will be placed “truly at the service of the common good” (“Fratelli Tutti,” No.154).