It is a June afternoon and thousands of people have gathered in front of the football stadium in Natal, a city in northeastern Brazil. Red, the color of the Workers’ Party (Pt, left), is everywhere and matches the pink hues of the sunset that illuminate the facade of the structure. Everyone wants to hear the speech of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or more simply Lula, a nickname that the former union president officially began to use in 1982.
The music of a maracatu group entertains those in line. She drinks, eats and on flags, posters and even on the refrigerators of street vendors is Lula’s face. “She is the best president we’ve ever had,” says Aracina, who arrived with her two children. “For people like me who live in a shack, he is the hope. And, God willing, he’ll get us out of our predicament. After all, he has done it once before, ”she adds.
Lula’s political history is confused with that of the PT, which he helped create in 1980 in São Paulo and of which he is the absolute leader today. In the election campaign for the presidential elections on October 2, Lula seems even more centralized than in the past and less and less willing to delegate decisions and power. Inside the party, his word is law and outside he exercises a decisive influence on the progressive camp. “Lula occupies an indisputable central role. On the left, no one can compete with him, above all thanks to the bond of trust he has been able to establish with the poorest voters. It was one of his great successes and it is something that cannot be passed on, ”explains André Singer, spokesman for the first Lula government, professor of political science and author of the book Os sentidos do lulismo (“The meanings of Lulism”, released in 2012).
In addition to the social policies carried out during his two presidential terms (from 2002 to 2006 and from 2006 to 2010), this privileged relationship is also explained through its history, says Singer. Lula soon stopped studying and yet he became president, turning his path into a winning weapon. An anomaly in an unequal country like Brazil.
“It’s his trademark, there’s nothing like it in Brazilian history,” says Singer. “No leading politician has known misery, the majority are part of the elite. Lula’s story coincides with that of a large part of the population, which is why he knows how to communicate with the poorest electorate ”.
Lula was born in Caetés, in the state of Pernambuco, on October 27, 1945. At the edge of this small village, at the end of a dirt road, there is a replica of the shack where he was born and raised. You quickly go around the place: a few square meters of sandy earth, three tiny rooms connected to each other, two doors and a window. The wear and tear of time has consumed the original house, where the eight da Silva brothers lived. This replica was built after Lula’s first victory in 2002 and has recently been restored. One of his cousins, Eraldo Ferreira, wants to transform it into a place of memory.
Ferreira is a well-known local figure, at first he seems a bit gruff, but he comes alive in the course of the chat. He was not yet born when Lula left Caetés. She only met him in the late 1960s, when he followed the same path as his cousin and hundreds of thousands of other Brazilians, leaving his poor region to go to work in the south of the country. He moved to São Paulo as Lula, worked like him in the metallurgical sector and joined the Workers’ Party soon after its founding.
But unlike Lula, Ferreira returned to Pernambuco because he was unable to adapt to life in the big cities. “The thing that makes me most proud is not that we are from the same family, but that we come from the same place. Lula left in order not to die of hunger and now he returns as a great national and international political figure ”. In the nearby town of Garanhuns, the origins of the PT leader are the subject of a small local controversy, “because many are proud that he was born here,” says city councilor Fany Bernal. In the past Caetés depended on Garanhuns and according to the inhabitants of the municipality technically Lula was born in their home. “Garanhuns is not a Pt city, it is a city of Lula,” Bernal points out. He then he explains that she is the second representative of the PT to have been elected in this city in forty years. In Garanhuns people vote for Lula in the presidential elections, but the party does not get many preferences in local elections.
Beyond the place of birth, Lula’s entire story has influenced his political path and allowed him to forge ties with a part of the Brazilian population. The absence of his father led him to unite a lot with his mother, the passion for football that cost him his first girlfriend, an accident at work made him lose a finger and the Catholic faith has distinguished him in a country where religion has always had a political importance. As a young man he was deeply marked by the death during the birth of his wife and their first child.
Brazilian journalist Fernando Morais, author of a biography of Lula, wrote that football and his union commitment helped him overcome this double bereavement. As a young man Lula was not at all interested in politics, he started trade union activity only to try to forget his personal tragedy. But that experience pushed him little by little into politics, especially after the great strikes of the late seventies, during the military dictatorship.
Today, for the first time, Lula is no longer the only candidate to stand out from the ruling political elite. Far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, elected in 2019, did not experience the same misery, but comes from a modest background. With his way of speaking and a well-tested communication strategy, he was able to cultivate the image of a simple and spontaneous man in a part of the population. “It is a new phenomenon. So far Lula was the only one using this advantage and he knew it very well, ”Singer points out.
In Natal, after a long wait, Lula finally arrives and begins to talk. The crowd is in a frenzy, her arms rise to greet him and there are shouts of enthusiasm. Yet on the stage the leader of the PT is not at his best, perhaps because he has recently recovered from covid-19. Time has passed for him too, who has always been a charismatic speaker: the hair is less thick, the voice is more hoarse, but above all Lula bears the weight of a heavy past. In April 2018 he was arrested on corruption charges and barred from running for the presidency. Fernando Haddad ran for him, but he was defeated by Bolsonaro. And Lula, who thought he was only going to stay in prison a few days, got out 580 days later. Only in March 2021 did a Brazilian supreme court judge overturn the four sentences that weighed on him. At that point, the leader of the PT regained his political rights and decided to run for the presidential elections against Bolsonaro.
After a few minutes Lula manages to excite those present, repeats that he feels better than ever and harshly criticizes the incumbent president Bolsonaro. As she has done since he got out of prison, she says not to feel a grudge: he wants to be conciliatory. After all, it is one of the characteristics of “lulism”, a political project that Singer defined as the promise of a state strong enough to reduce inequalities, but without calling its structures into question.
“In the early 2000s, during his first term in office, Lula benefited from a favorable economic environment thanks to the commodity boom. He used those conditions to revive the economy, multiplying social programs against poverty, ”says Singer. In return, he carried out a program without major changes, which calmed the elites and facilitated the alliances needed to manage national politics.
Hunger is on the rise
◆ On October 2, 2022, more than 150 million Brazilians will vote to choose the president of the republic. The two main candidates are the current far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and the leader of the Workers’ Party (left) Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. A possible second round will take place on October 30th. In the four years of the Bolsonaro government, the economic crisis in Brazil has worsened, also due to the covid-19 pandemic and the way the president handled it, denying the effectiveness of vaccines and protective measures. Today 33.1 million Brazilians are in a situation of food insecurity. The most hungry families live in the north and northeastern regions, and among blacks the situation is more serious, the national survey revealed. Vigisan.
This mediation, which is found today in the PT, and his talent as a negotiator, have always allowed Lula to forge unlikely alliances. A necessity in a system characterized by the proliferation of parties, often made up of parliamentarians without a specific ideology and united only by their interests.
“The culture of agreement is stronger in Brazil than elsewhere,” Singer explains. Aware of dominating the left, Lula tries to conquer the center and the industrial and financial sector, multiplying dinners and meetings. For these elections he has chosen a historic opponent as vice president, the former governor of the state of São Paulo Geraldo Alckmin, who has the task of opening the doors of the PT to the agro-industrial world. Not everyone liked the choice.
In Natal, during the rally, Alckmin’s name is booed. To calm the spirits Lula stands next to him when the latter takes the floor. In the end, even Alckmin ends up getting some applause. To justify these alliances, the PT has deleted from its program any reference to the “coup”, an expression with which the party refers to the process of impeachment and the dismissal of former president Dilma Rousseff, which took place in 2016 and supported by Alckmin himself.
Today Lula heads a nine-party coalition, the largest ever gathered around his name. This allowed him to have more coverage on TV during the election campaign. It is an advantage, even if less important than in the past: today social networks play a fundamental role.
At the local level, these alliances allow for the election of senators, deputies and governors. On the stage of Natal the rallies of many candidates alternate who take advantage of Lula’s presence to mobilize votes or make themselves known. In a country like Brazil where party loyalty is low, the former president is still key to the PT. ◆ adr