Brazil Under Construction: Lula’s Challenges in Rebuilding after Bolsonaro and Despite Bolsonarism

Bianca Sola Claudio

Recent and consequential elections in countries such as Colombia and Chile could perhaps be compared to the existential drama that Brazilian democracy has experienced during its last election cycle. This drama results from the threat that hangs over the survival of democracy itself. The threat stems from the public statements and mobilizations of Jair Bolsonaro and his followers, who have been strategically questioning the transparency of the electoral scrutiny, acclaiming a possible coup d'état, and appealing to the Armed Forces to intervene by taking over or closing democratic institutions, such as the Federal Supreme Court – one of the main institutions in charge of assuring democratic normality in the current context[1].

Despite what felt like an apocalyptic scenario for Brazilian democracy, there is still much to celebrate, with significant thanks going to the activists and opponents of Bolsonaro, who were decisive in a moment of unprecedented and radical political polarization. However, Lula’s victory in this fragmented election is one of rebuilding what was already a slow process. Because of Brazil’s colonial heritage, its labour market was already constituted based on – more often than not – racist exploitation due its long legacy of slavery. Amidst this background, the last four years were dedicated to dismantling the institutions that support workers – racialized and marginalized groups. Lula is therefore facing a mandate of reconstruction, a call to strengthen such institutions and restore collective aspirations.


What can we learn from electoral segmentation?


These elections showed us that the country is divided into three: the 60 million who voted for Lula, 58 million for Bolsonaro and 38 million who either did not vote or annulled their vote[2] in some way. The political mobilizations of these groups are not only combined with but also take place in the digital environment of social media, which is highly polluted by fake news, hate speech, and religious notions of the salvation of and redemption through the Fatherland and the Family. With the campaign slogan ‘Brazil above all, God above everyone!’, Bolsonarism has led to the creation of an intimidating environment, allowing the fear of a possible coup d'état to hover over political discourse.  For those in opposition to Bolsonarism, the elections have also created concerns involving the electoral results and whether they would be peacefully recognized if inconsistent with Bolsonarist interests. The fanatic response to the elections also further incites concerns of how marginalized groups are to be treated at the current stage of Bolsonarism even during Lula’s future administration. Although much of the fears which were incited through the Bolsonarist discourse of fear and accusations work in the field of the imaginary with the purpose of preventing those opposing this rhetoric from focusing on a concrete agenda, the electoral chaos can show us possible hurdles Lula’s government may encounter.

These electoral differences have been simmering since the beginning of the last decade and have represented increasingly segmented groups in terms of class, gender, race, religiosity, and regionality. The strategy of Bolsonaro’s opponents was to acknowledge the different gaps that could be filled while targeting voter profiles, particularly those who were undecided in their own Bolsonarism or just in general. Conservative evangelical women from lower classes, for example, were often torn between traditional values and what Bolsonaro´s economic policies might mean for their families[3]. Another interesting group is the so-called ‘ungrateful classes’, that is, the lower-middle classes that rose during the years of the Worker’s Party administration due to certain socio-economic policies. The increase in Bolsonarism within these classes could be explained by ‘Bolsa Familia’ (family grant), the Worker’s Party social program which the Bolsonaro government took over, simply changing its name while presenting it as its own. Another factor affecting the rise of Bolsonarism is the evangelical tendencies amongst these classes. It remains interesting to understand what the aspirations of these segments are and how to approach them from a progressive perspective, as anthropologist Rosana Pinheiro-Machado[4] has defended. 

Amongst the lower classes, Bolsonarism rises due to conservative and religious values and an acclaimed meritocracy-based discipline, distancing people from class-conscious voting. The recent electoral campaign from Lula’s side was directly aimed at the lower classes. Often mentioned were goals like taking the country off the UN hunger map (which is an issue the country dealt with during Bolsonaro’s government) and increasing employment and access to health care. However, from 2003 to 2011 class ascension might have happened without enough of a class struggle and thus lack of class consciousness, leaving room for conservative values to permeate the electorate of lower classes, who now adopt a meritocrat discourse. Considering that Brazilian society already has a tendency towards an economy of social and racial exploitation, and that Bolsonaro annihilated institutions that support workers and marginalized groups, a mandate of reconstruction stands before Lula.   


Lula’s political contortionism in accommodating the richest and including the poorest


Lula’s strength is promoting social inclusion while negotiating effectively with the elites. His past mandates were marked by the fact that much of the migration from poorer to the middle classes occurred without much class struggle or direct conflict and this could in part explain the ‘ungrateful classes’ voter profile. Those who made it into a squeezed core benefited from social inclusion policies promoted by Lula. However, the mediation involving calming the elites and simultaneous social inclusion, started to appear as a squeezed-in class once economic growth slowed down. For the richest and poorest to amplify their gains at the same time, someone would have to lose. The cramped space of social inclusion without a more direct class struggle had worked but is not sustainable; it created great discomfort among the classes. This cramped space cannot be exactly comfortable. As argued by Rodrigo Andrés, relevant sections of the country’s highest strata opted for privatist solutions based on privileges. The universalization of such solutions would render them redundant, or even have effects opposite to those desired[5]. As with any other elites, the way of life of the Brazilian upper class was never designed as a perfect fit for all. Due to Brazil’s colonial roots and slave economy, the shift from a model of society based on privileges to one based on rights would hardly be sustainable through peaceful mediation of the elites. Even if this is one of the few options towards achieving some social inclusion, the good life of the wealthiest Brazilians has not been designed to democratize, but rather to exploit.

Even if one sees the goal of this mandate to accommodate the elite and promote social inclusion, it could be more difficult for Lula´s government now than during previous administrations. In addition to the fact that he enters this administration already allied to many liberal candidates, he mentioned while introducing his fundamental policies during the 2022 elections that the beginning of his mandate it might necessitate his government engaging in redistribution in a more direct way. Social inclusion, in Lula’s terms, has been previously implemented by minimum wage increases and an expansion of the credit offer carried out during his government – policies that benefited the poorest population in the country and set in motion a process of social mobility between 2006 and 2014. Although during his first administration in 2003, the state of the economy was critical, it remains interesting to think what the effects would be if this repertoire is repeated or if it is possible to accomplish at all. A tax reform correcting unfair taxation seems to be a plausible first step towards social equality but would inevitably bring with it a great level of dissatisfaction among the most privileged due to profit loss. During the elections, Lula’s government program mentions  broad tax reforms, which would simplify taxation, reduce consumption taxes, and guarantee tax progressivity[6]. This could cause even more discord amongst the elites as well as the loss of political alliances. This could be particularly significant as Lula has joined forces with liberal candidates to obstruct Bolsonaro during the elections. Even if successful in producing a new cycle of inclusion the way he did in his previous administrations, there might be a need for the government to dedicate itself to their next steps. In case Lula increases social mobility and allows for a massive move to the middle classes, Brazilians wishing for this change are still left to deal with many questions, such as how this ascension can be made sustainable and how to create models for such mobility within the current economy.


Dealing with the bullet, the ox and the Bible


Apart from the difficulties in promoting social inclusion, a more institutional threat to the progressive vision comes from the fact that the values of  Bolsonarism are represented within the institutions themselves. The electorate gathered in Bolsonaro´s candidacy is in favour of the so-called ‘Ox, the bullet and Bible benches’. The ‘Ox bench’, is a term used to refer to the parliamentary front representing the profit of agricultural businesses, the ‘bullet bench’, which is a term used to refer to the parliamentary front composed of politicians who defend civil armament and the ‘bible bench’, which is the term used for congress members who are self-proclaimed evangelicals. The alliance between “the three benches” was first mentioned by federal deputy Erika Kokay at a Worker’s Party meeting in the Chamber of Deputies in early 2015, drawing laughter from her colleagues, as she refers to the parliamentary and congressional seats occupied by representatives in favour of these values. The expression “the three benches” is used among parliamentarians from leftist parties and media, who see in this articulation a threat to human and minority rights in the country. During the previous Lula and Dilma governments, these benches or their powers were accommodated in various ways in the broader governing coalition. Representatives of the agricultural businesses led the Ministry of Agriculture in producing policies favourable to their sector. The parties and television networks belonging to neo-Pentecostal groups were important allies of the ruling government, but with the end of Lula’s earlier administration, the three benches did not hesitate before joining the authoritarian Right and it remains unclear whether accommodating such conflicting trends is possible in the next administration due to the polarization created by Bolsonarism. Furthermore, if Bolsonaro aims for a possible return in 2026, these benches might be more hopeful than ever that such a return is possible and thus be more hesitant to accommodate to Lula’s government.

Lula’s previous administration has already proven to be able to intermediate under difficult conditions and the next government will work towards some sort of appeasement with evangelical leaders, representatives of the agricultural business, and the economic elite. However, this administration can be taken as an interim stage of a long and arduous process of aiming towards progressive values while dealing with reactionary Bolsonarism.


Strengthening of trade unions and the importance of collective aspirations


Such a process relies on a collective vision for the poor and the marginalized. If Bolsonarism is already embodied in the three benches, collective aspirations and justice for the poorest need to be reinforced through institutions. This process only works if the lower classes simultaneously recognize themselves as such, otherwise one could easily recognize themselves again in a bolsonarist meritocratic logic. Reinforcing such a logic, the previous administration bet on economic liberalism, which led to drastic consequences such as throwing many workers into the informal economy, no increase in the minimum wage during the last 4 years, and to many Brazilians facing hunger. Rebuilding what Bolsonaro has destroyed and what Bolsonarism might yet attack will require structuring policies that effectively improve the lives of the lower classes, creating collective aspirations for the future connected amongst these classes.

Considering the current political scenario, any step towards tributary justice will cause great discord, particularly because Lula himself has joined forces with liberal politicians. But defensive yet sustainable steps towards collective aspirations can be seen in Lula’s attention to rebuilding and strengthening labour unions. Lula hints at the relevance of the unions in the shift towards collective aspirations, pointing out that the labour centrals must draw up proposals in a direct and objective way regarding the future that the working class wants for itself in the coming years. They are to do so in listing the various attacks that the workers and trade union movement have suffered since the 2016 coup – or impeachment – against Rousseff. This gives a boost of hope and courage to these classes in embracing collective goals whilst indicating actions that show that the past injustices committed towards them were never legitimate. Lula asserts his position in claiming that ‘[w]e live a difficult moment in Brazil. There was the impeachment and nothing else happened in the life of the union movement other than defeat after defeat such as the [Labour and Social Security] reforms, the dismantling of the Labour Court, the dismantling of the finances of the unions, the dismantling of the labour rights that were built since 1943’[7].

The good news is that if we look at its history, Brazil was always ‘under construction’. This construction site has a colonialist foundation which still permeates socio-economic relations bringing a culture of exploitation to the labour market. For this reason, amongst other institutions defending the rights of black and indigenous groups, the strengthening of trade unions can be a start towards encouraging hope and producing collective aspirations. Bolsonarism is not only a phenomenon linked to resentment, but also to desire. It is a reactionary project, which was able to give cohesion to conservative tendencies, pointing to a future. Although an illusory and unfeasible future, Bolsonarists have very clear collective aspirations, which are institutionalized through the three benches in congress. And as we can see in the case of Bolsonarism, these aspirations persist over the years once they are brought into the political arena. To weaken this reactionary project will require rebuilding institutions that produce prospects for the future that go beyond the return to the Golden Years of Lula’s first administration.


[1] De Sousa Santos, Bonaventura (2022) “Bonaventura: Contra o golpe do medo” [transl. Bonaventure: Against the coup of fear], Outras Palavras, [Accessed: 30.11.2022]

[2] TSE (2022) “Resultados Tribunal Superior Eleitoral” [transl. Results by Superior Electoral Court]

[3] “Como as mulheres evangélicas podem salvar o Brasil do bolsonarismo” [transl. How Evangelical Women Can Save Brazil from Bolsonarism], Simony dos Anjos (2022) Carta Capital,

[4] Rosana Pinheiro Machado (2019) "Brasil em transe: bolsonarismo, nova direita e desdemocratização", [transl. Brazil in a trance: bolsonarismo, new right and de-democratization:], Oficina Raquel : Rio de Janeiro

[5] Rodrigo Andrés (2022), "Os novos desafios do lulismo“ [transl. The New Challenges of Lulism], Piauí, [Accessed: 20.11.2022]

[6] Website:,  [Accessed: 20.11.2022]

[7] Partido dos Trabalhadores (2022) “Lula defende unidade das Centrais e ques propostas para plano de governo” [transl.: Lula defends the [Labour] centals and wants proposals for a government plan] Available at:  [Accessed: 25.11.2022]


Communications Team


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