Days before new president, old divisions tearing at Brazil
SAO PAULO (AP) — Trumpets and snares will play Brazil’s national anthem at Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s swearing-in on Jan. 1. Then, one will hear a different song on the streets, its lyrics taking a shot at outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro.
“It is time for Jair, it is time for Jair … to go away!” the lyrics say. “Pack your bags, hit the road and go away!”
When Lula clinched his election win over Bolsonaro on Oct. 30, tens of thousands of people sang the familiar tune throughout the night, pushing the song to the top of Spotify’s list in Brazil and showing one way that many Brazilians aren’t ready to extend olive branches.
Healing Brazil’s divided society will be easier said than done. Lula’s Cabinet appointments thus far favoring leftists and stalwarts of his Workers’ Party are turning off those who trusted the divisive 77-year-old to govern alongside moderates, and who joined forces after Bolsonaro repeatedly tested the guardrails of the world’s fourth-biggest democracy.
“Governing Brazil means deals with agribusiness, evangelicals, former Bolsonaro allies. It can be frustrating for half-hearted Lula voters, but that’s what they have before them,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo.
Of course, Bolsonaro’s far-right backers are hardly the picture of post-election bonhomie. Many reject results of the vote and remain camped outside military buildings nationwide, demanding that Lula’s inauguration be impeded.
Brazil’s October election was its closest in more than three decades, pitting two arch-rivals against one another. In Lula’s victory speech on Oct. 30, he declared that “there are not two Brazils,” as tens of thousands gathered outside his hotel in Sao Paulo to celebrate his victory and Bolsonaro’s defeat.
A hopeful sign for Lula’s bridge-building ambitions came days later, with leftists and moderates once again donning the nation’s yellow soccer jersey to cheer on their team at the World Cup. The shirt for almost a decade has been an anti-left symbol and often featured in protests against Lula and in favor of Bolsonaro.
Lula and his allies wore the yellow shirt, too, in an effort to reclaim it; he posted photos of himself to social media, and said green and yellow “are the colors of 213 million people who love this country.” Salesman Elias Gaspar said yellow jerseys started flying off his rack as the team’s flamboyant performances trickled in.
“Before the World Cup I would sell on average six blue shirts and four yellow out of every ten,” Gaspar, 43, said on Dec. 4. “Now it is almost all yellow.”
Soccer was a short-lived unifying force. Brazil exited the tournament earlier than expected after a surprise penalty shootout loss to Croatia in the quarterfinals, and most Brazilians stuffed their jerseys back in their drawers. Bolsonaro’s backers are the only ones still sporting the national colors.
Lula has avoided inflaming tensions, mostly refraining from public attacks against Bolsonaro or his supporters, and instead focusing speeches on helping the most disadvantaged Brazilians once he returns to the office he held from 2003 to 2010. At times, though, us-versus-them comments have slipped past his lips. On Dec. 22, while announcing new ministers, he said Bolsonarismo remains alive and angry among those who refuse to recognize the electoral loss, so it must be defeated on Brazil’s streets.
For defense minister, Lula picked conservative José Múcio Monteiro after four years of Bolsonaro striving to secure the armed forces’ allegiance.
Other Lula appointments seem crafted to please his base and party, such as Anielle Franco, sister of slain Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco, for minister of racial equality. He also tapped long-time ally Aloizio Mercadante to head the country’s development bank — precisely the sort of position business leaders expected to remain clear of Workers’ Party hands.
Gleisi Hoffmann, the chairwoman of Lula’s Workers’ Party, said building a Cabinet would be a challenge even if Lula were only selecting progressives. Complicating decisions further is the fact that some would-be ministers are likely 2026 presidential candidates, as Lula has indicated he won’t run for reelection.
“We have our differences within the Workers’ Party, now go figure what happens when we bring a dozen other parties,” Hoffmann said on her social media channels Dec. 16. “It is a puzzle, it takes time.”
That may help explain why the number of ministries will nearly double, to 37.
Centrist endorsements from former environment minister Marina Silva and Simone Tebet, who finished third in the presidential race’s first round, brought in votes from Brazil’s moderates — a demographic that grew leery of Lula since the sprawling Car Wash corruption probe landed him in jail in 2018. With their support, he beat Bolsonaro by less than two percentage points. Many expected them to be quickly announced as ministers, but negotiations have dragged on.
Thomas Traumann, a political consultant, said delays reflect the fact the president-elect has had a central role in negotiations for positions.
“People who helped him like Marina and Simone will have less stature than they would have had they been appointed shortly after he won,” Traumann said. “Lula’s luck is that moderates will view his administration like many leftist Democrats see (U.S. President Joe) Biden: they might not like what they see, but it is better than the alternative.”
Biden’s attempt to bridge the political chasm could offer an instructional, albeit dispiriting, model, said Brian Ott, a professor of communication at Missouri State University who has researched the stratifying impact of social media on American political discourse.
Early in his presidency, Biden did not shy away from the fact that he was governing in a polarized country and played up his bonafides as a throwback to a different era when Democrats and Republicans could battle on the Senate floor before repairing to the dining room to hammer out compromises.
“The problem that Biden faces and the problem that politicians face in 51% countries like Brazil is there may no longer be smart strategies to deliver big tent messages without alienating your base,” said Ott. “We are now in a period where politics is so intensely, deeply divided culturally, where people don’t have to be exposed to different points.”
On Dec. 22, Lula named 16 ministers, bringing his total thus far to 21. Neither Tebet nor Silva are among them.
“It is harder to assemble a government than to win elections,” he said while counseling his appointees to hire staffers from diverse backgrounds. “We’re trying to make a government that, as much as we can, represents the political forces that participated in our campaign.”
He added that people who helped and haven’t yet been named will be taken into account, and are owed a debt for “daring to stick their necks out to confront fascism.”
Still, many new Lula voters already feel inclined to jump ship. One is Thereza Bittencourt, 65, who spoke at a military club in Rio and said initial signs worry her.
“I took a lot of criticism from my friends at the club because I voted for Lula. All of them chose Bolsonaro. I told them the management of the economy would be better,” Bittencourt said as she sipped her caipirinha. “If I only see members of the Workers’ Party in the government, goodbye.” ___
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.
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