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  • Writer's picturehenriquecb

Lula’s close victory, the fall of the political center and their impacts on environmental advocacy

Judging by its face value, most international media outlets and analysts highlighted how tight the 2022 Brazilian presidential elections turned out to be. Lula won by a small margin, 50.9% versus Bolsonaro’s 49.1% of valid votes, or 60.3 million votes versus 58.2 million on the election runoffs, never before the results were so close.

Thin, but huge

This tightness, however, underestimates the magnitude of Lula`s victory against an incumbent president that used all tools available, some of them arguably illegal, to remain in power. For instance, a few months before the October 2022 elections, Bolsonaro’s administration issued a national economic emergency decree, later approved by Congress, to return the initial pandemic monthly handouts of R$ 600 reais, which were limited after the worst initial months of the pandemic. This measure directly benefited more than 21 million poor households, meaning it reached a huge proportion of the 215 million population. This came even as the same government resisted giving handouts during Covid-19 initial waves, when millions weren’t fully vaccinated, but decided it became an emergency just a few months before national elections, on a moment when all Brazilians already had access to booster shots and the pandemic was well under control, and the economy was back on track.

The handouts were followed by federal and state tax cuts on fossil fuels and electricity, besides unofficial but substantial price controls at the pump set by the state-controlled oil major Petrobras, against the company’s compliance and shareholders agreement, and in sharp contrast with the free market policy set by Bolsonaro’s administration until a few months before the elections. In the weeks leading to the pools, the federal government also used public banks to give loans using the social welfare transfers for people in poverty as collateral, with real interest rates on the double digits. His administration also gave handouts to lorry and taxi drivers, a key segment of society in a country that largely depends on roads for cargo and people transportation. Last, but certainly not least, a number of unorthodox measures were applied, such as an unforeseen dirty fake-news campaign that took an already toxic debate to new lows.

And what did all of this use of the public machine mean in terms of votes? In 2018 Bolsonaro got 57.8 million votes, in 2022, 58.2, an extra 400k. Meanwhile, Lula´s Workers Party (PT) went from 47 million to 60.3 million, an extra 13.3 million.

So yes, the results were tight, but even so, Jair Bolsonaro entered history as the first democratically elected Brazilian President not to gain reelection. Meanwhile, Lula became the first person to be democratically elected President for a third non-consecutive term.

The fall of the political center and the growth of the far right

By counting the numbers of elected House Representatives and Senators according to the political spectrum, from left to far right, the center-left and the center-right were the main losers of the 2022 Congressional elections, while the main winners were the far right (a.k.a. Bolsonaristas).

Since redemocratization in the mid 1980’s until 2016, the far right was a rarity on Brazilian politics. They started gaining visibility after Dilma Rousseff’s (PT) impeachment in 2016 and with Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, but have now gained momentum and account for around 25% of the two chambers of Congress. For the first time in Brazilian democratic history, the far right has more congressional seats than the traditional left.

Naturally, this has a direct effect on the prospects of the environmental agenda in Congress for the next eight years (the duration of a Senator mandate). A number of prominent legislators from the Environmental Parliamentary Front such as Rodrigo Agostinho (PSB-SP), Molon (PSB-RJ), both center-left, and center-right Marcelo Ramos (PL-AM), lost their reelection bids for the House and a seat on the Senate. As shown by a study coordinated by André Lima, from Farol Verde and Instituto Democracia e Sustentabilidade, around 49 environmentally sound House Representatives that ran for reelection failed.

This loss was somehow compensated by the election of new names for the House (eight, in total), but civil society will have to work hard in order to bring new names from outside the already environmentally sensitive left and center. The real challenge will be to convince the right that it is in their economic interest to promote public policies and regulations that protect the environment and provide the environmental services that their businesses (and lifes) depend on. The scientific and economic arguments abound, but the heightened polarization of Brazilian society will make it even harder for the message to get across.

On the one hand, iconic names of the environmental and indigenous protection movements were elected to Congress, such as Marina Silva, Lula´s Environmental Minister responsible for implementing a complex environmental protection system that brought down deforestation rates by more than 80% and, on the other, Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s infamous Environmental Minister known for his efforts to all but destroy Brazil´s environmental protection institutions and by investigations under way that point to his direct involvement in environmental crimes related to deforestation in the Amazon.

While this direct clash of worldviews will certainly make the headlines, the main challenge for environmental advocates will be to gain support from the less ideological right, known misleadingly as “Centrão”, or the “big center”. These are the parties that will likely control key commissions of the House and Senate. Lula´s victory will play a key role in allowing these otherwise hostile political actors to promote or tolerate policies that protect the environment and bring real economic prosperity to the regions where deforestation is taking place.

The broad environmental agenda must not be mistaken by a convern “of the left”, see the United Kingdom, which despite currently having a right-wing government, is very committed to promoting a substantial energy transition, considering it as a matter of energy sovereignty, economic opportunity and, by the way, an existential threat.

In Brazil, the modern agribusiness is, to a great extent, in the Center-South of the country, whose rain cycle depends directly from the humid air that flows from the Amazon, sliding southwards by the Andes. If you cut down the rainforest, you cut down the amount of rain in one of the world's main breadbaskets. Even with wide scientific consensus over this issue, with growing and more frequent droughts (worsened by climate change itself), and with a growing outcry from national and international think-tanks, media and civil society, right-wing politicians from the Center-South showed strong support for the actions to dismantle the environmental conservation apparatus promoted by Bolsonaro’s government in the last four years.

And what´s the (green) deal?

Despite a Congress that is more polarized and less sensitive to environmental and climate issues, the Presidential system in Brazil has sufficient weight to rebalance the anti-environmental trend. A lot could still happen in the next two months, with important environmentally destructive laws that could yet be approved before the lights are shut in December 2022. But withstanding any major legislative blow, Lula will be able to repeal most of Bolsonaro´s decrees and administrative measures that paralysed Brazil's once exemplary environmental protection apparatus, especially regarding deforestation control.

However, even in Command and Control policies Brazil will need international carrots and sticks in order for its federal and local governments to accomplish the zero deforestation target set for 2030. Most Amazon states where the “Arc of Deforestation'' is will be run by Bolsonarista governors and have elected local legislators that openly support the unsustainable exploitation of the Amazon. Besides, Bolsonaro’s violent rhetoric towards environmentalists, indigenenous and traditional populations, coupled with an unprecedented armament of civil society, will make peace and the implementation of environmental protection much harder than it was during Lula’s first two terms in the early 2000’s.

To counterbalance these challenges, it is undeniable that the environmental agenda has changed radically since Lula’s last administration, and the topic has become a priority in international policy discussions. The international reputation of the next government will largely depend on its performance in the environment, and Lula seems to have understood the stakes well by going to COP 27 in Egypt as his first international trip as elected President. As the transition government is starting to be formed, he is sending all signs that environmental protection and poverty reduction will be his two main priorities.

This is why developed nations must quickly show financial and reputational support for these policies, while also implementing trade measures that signal to Brazilian elites that either they protect the environment or they will lose international markets. Only if we combine Lula’s domestic and international support with an active civil society, we will gain new allies to combat deforestation, strengthen Brazil’s unique competitiveness in renewable energies and promote a sustainable and carbon-neutral economic growth model. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

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