Brazil inauguration: Lula da Silva made a historic comeback. He now faces a divided president

Sao Paulo, Brazil

The mood is hostile at an encampment outside a military barracks in Brazil’s most populous city of Sao Paulo, where Brazil’s national anthem plays on a loop and dozens of supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro mill around. They tote placards that read: “SOS Armed Forces,” “military intervention with Bolsonaro in power,” and “save us from communism.”

“Bolsonaro (drew) large crowds to his (campaign) events. Then the other guy comes and wins the election? How is this possible? It’s absurd! That was fraud – it’s already been proven,” an elderly supporter, wearing jeans and a black polo shirt, told CNN. They, like other Bolsonaro supporters interviewed by CNN, refused to give their names or have their pictures taken.

Nearly two months since leftist former leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was elected Brazil’s next president – reviving hopes that the country would restore environmental protections and see a less divisive political landscape – the anger among Bolsonaro’s most ardent fans is not abating.

Though Bolsonaro’s administration says it is cooperating with the transition of power, the far-right incumbent himself has stopped short of explicitly conceding his election loss on October 30. In protest, thousands of his supporters have gathered at military barracks across the country, asking the army to step in as they claim, with no evidence, that the election was stolen.

This is the embittered landscape Lula da Silva will inherit on his inauguration on January 1. With only the thinnest of mandates – having won just 50.9% of a run-off vote versus Bolsonaro’s 49.1% – Lula da Silva is in the unenviable position of presiding over a deeply divided Brazil.

Supporters of Lula da Silva are photographed on election night on October 30.

“To his party loyal, Lula is a sort of god-like figure, and for a lot of other people, Lula is going to need to try his best to win them back,” Ryan Berg, the director of the Americas at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told CNN.

“I think a significant portion of people are not really winnable – so any sign of weakness, any sign of lack of economic growth or tax increases or whatever (Lula da Silva) decides to do – they could be aggressive, and it’s going to be bumpier than when he was last president,” he added.

Violence has flared in other parts of the country ahead of his inauguration. On December 13, protesters clashed with police in the capital Brasilia as they attempted to break into a federal police building following the arrest of an outspoken Bolsonaro supporter.

While Bolsonaro has not urged his followers to dispute the election results, the former paratrooper has done little to stop them from calling for a military coup. Last Friday, he explained that his 40-day silence following the election loss “hurt my soul,” and ambiguously added that Brazil’s armed forces “are the last obstacle to socialism… and responsible for our freedom.”

Police officers stand guard  during a protest in Brasilia, on December 12.

For many ‘Bolsonaristas’, the current president represented a muscular, “Brazil First,” worldview in a region where foreign powers have often meddled. He appealed to social conservatives, vocally opposing abortion and LGBTQ rights, and claimed to be pro-business, though his administration also spent billions to boost poor Brazilians during the economic downturn of the pandemic.

The progressive Lula da Silva, a former union leader, will face an upward battle to convince them that he can also be their president — and to shed the taint of his 2017 corruption and money laundering convictions, which were annulled in 2021 by Brazil’s Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro’s allies in politics, meanwhile, have vowed to punch holes in Lula’s agenda. “We will be a fierce opposition,” Sen. Eduardo Girão, from the center-right Podemos party, told CNN. Girão shares the same ideological agenda as Bolsonaro: both men call themselves Christians, “pro-family,” are anti-abortion, and oppose the legalization of drugs.

Lula’s coalition lacks a majority in Congress. However, fears that the legislature could hold the executive hostage have yet to be realized.

A change to the 2023 budget requested by Lula da Silva’s allies was approved on December 7 by a majority of senators, with only 16 other senators – including Girão – voting against it. The constitutional amendment to increase government spending next year will help fund social payments to poor families. It will be voted in the lower house on Tuesday.

“I was surprised. There was a drastic change in the position of senators from the center – they changed sides very quickly. They seem to lack ideology and coherence,” Girão admits.

Still, that could change when the newly elected congressmen and senators begin their terms next year, says Bruna Santos, a senior advisor at the Wilson Institute’s Brazil Center.

The incoming president will inherit a country with multiple public institutions that have been weakened during Bolsonaro’s tenure, such as its environmental agencies. Brazil’s already struggling health system was kneecapped in the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw the country gain one of the worst track records in the outbreak as Bolsonaro downplayed the gravity of the virus.

And budget cuts to universities have piled pressure on Brazil’s already sliding education sector, where Brazilian teenagers rank lower than the OECD average in reading, maths, and science.

Writing on Twitter Wednesday, Lula da Silva said the previous government had “destroyed a lot of things.” He added that once in power “we are going to invest in education, in SUS (Universal Health system), to resume Minha Casa Minha Vida (Low Income Community Housing Support Project). Really important things for the people.”

Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a press conference two days after being defeated by Lula da Silva.

In the past week, the president-elect has announced key allies in important cabinet positions, giving Brazil watchers an indication of what his legislative agenda may look like, as Lula da Silva was light on details during the campaign trail.

Sao Paulo’s former Mayor Fernando Haddad was announced as incoming finance minister, Rui Costa as Lula da Silva’s chief of staff, and Mauro Vieira as foreign minister.

Santos expects Lula da Silva’s first “100 days to be focused on tax reform,” pointing to Haddad’s appointment of Bernard Appy as special secretary for tax reform, who is “not only an economist that is very respected but also someone who understands the legislative process.”

She reckons the incoming president may also seek to regulate the internet in a similar way to the European Union. “The main focus is regulating platforms, social media and messaging, in the fight against fake news,” adding that the Supreme Court and electoral court have been advocating for Lula to move fast. Her worry is that Brazil, “as a country in the developing world, cannot afford to create bottlenecks for technological progress.”

But Lula assumes the presidency in vastly different circumstances than his previous two terms from 2003 to 2010. Growth has been sluggish in recent years with exports forecasted to slow in 2023. Without the commodities boom that once helped fund his policies, Lula da Silva may struggle to deliver on planned reforms and social spending promises.

If enacting domestic reforms proves difficult, “Lula 3.0 could be heavy on foreign policy” as a way to burnish his credentials, said Berg.

When last in the presidency, Lula became known as a major international statesman, pushing for reform of global institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, or demanding Brazil a seat in the United Nations Security Council.

“These are the types of things that make Brazil a very positively viewed country in many parts of the world,” Berg said.

Still, some of Lula’s comments have raised eyebrows in the West. in May, the president-elect told TIME magazine that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is equally to blame for Russia’s invasion of his country as Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Bolsonaro supporters are pictured at an encampment outside an army barracks in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Analysts say Bazil’s political opposition will likely work to keep Bolsonaro’s supporters mobilized, harnessing the political anger around the outgoing president.

Anger remains high at the encampment in Sao Paulo as it becomes apparent the army is not listening to their pleas. Soon after the elections, the Supreme Court asked the police to investigate the financiers of the dozens of pro-Bolsonaro encampments that have sprung up across the country.

The dragnet appears to be closing on them, but protesters CNN spoke to remained hopeful that Lula da Silva will not take office.

A female protester told CNN that her sons do not approve of her taking part in the protest. “In order to save my family, I have to save the country. They are young, they think differently. Later they will thank me,” she told CNN of her sons, whom she has not seen since joining the camp over a month ago.

Their movement won’t end even if Lula da Silva is inaugurated, says a Bolsonaro supporter next to her. “We will be right there to oppose him,” he said.

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