Is Brazil ready for the next incarnation of President Lula? | Brazil

For weeks Hilton Acioli wrestled with the melodies and lyrics that would become the theme tune to one of the most remarkable political careers in recent history.

Finally, one morning in the winter of 1989, something clicked. “Lula lá – a star is sparkling. Lula lá – the flourishing of hope,” the Cat Stevens-loving Brazilian songsmith sang as he sat before his computer with a guitar.

The subject of Acioli’s ditty was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a shoeshine boy turned union leader who was preparing to launch a once-unimaginable bid to become Brazil’s first working-class president.

“I felt so excited,” Acioli said of the moment he composed the unforgettable jingle for Lula’s first presidential run. “I called everyone on the campaign and told them: ‘I think I’ve nailed it.’” Lula’s debut campaign ended in failure but Acioli’s song, Sem Medo de Ser Feliz [Unafraid of Being Happy], became an enduring hit, providing the soundtrack as the bearded leftist continued his quest for power over the coming years.

Lula lost two more elections, in 1994 and 1998, before finally triumphing in 2002 – a watershed moment for Latin America’s largest democracy that ushered in almost a decade of historic social inclusion and poverty reduction.

Many thought Lula’s extraordinary poverty-to-power tale was over when he stepped down in 2010 with sky-high approval ratings and having been declared “the most popular politician on Earth” by Barack Obama. When Lula was jailed for alleged corruption and barred from the 2018 election his political future looked in shreds.

But allies say the chaos unleashed by the man who won that year’s election, the far-right radical Jair Bolsonaro, and Lula’s unexpected political rehabilitation last year, persuaded the veteran leftist to postpone retirement and return to the fray.

“There’s just no way he would flee from this mission,” said Fátima Bezerra, a leading figure in Lula’s Worker’s party (PT) who has known him since its foundation in the 1980s.

“He understands perfectly the danger we are facing,” Bezerra said of the incessant authoritarian outbursts from Brazil’s dictatorship-admiring president. “What’s at risk right now is democracy itself.”

Fátima Bezerra, a leading figure in Lula’s Worker’s party. Photograph: Francisco Proner/Agence VU/The Observer

On 7 May Lula, now 76, will formally announce his sixth bid for the presidency, at an event in São Paulo. Acioli’s anthem is again on the playlist as a new generation of leftwingers look to bring the curtains down on Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative era.

“They’re going to have to swallow the fact that Lula will be our country’s next president,” said Nanda Matinny, a 24-year-old actor, after dancing to a remixed version of Acioli’s jingle at a pro-Lula rally near Rio.

Matinny, who was five when Lula first took power in 2003, said the song made her feel nostalgia for a past she was too young to have known. “I want to live through what I didn’t live through before. I need to,” she said. “We need this man to be elected to reconstruct Brazil.”

Tens of millions of Brazilians seem to agree, with polls giving Lula a substantial advantage over Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper who many blame for catastrophically botching Brazil’s response to a Covid outbreak that has killed more than 660,000 people, as well as undermining democracy and devastating the environment.

Felipe Nunes, the head of the pollster Quaest, said Lula’s lead did not mean he was seen as an “untainted character” or that voters had forgotten the major corruption scandals that marred his administration and that of his successor, Dilma Rousseff. But, unlike the incumbent, Lula was considered a dependable political expert who could bring stability. “People are looking for someone who can sort out the economy. People are looking for the hope of having a decent quality of life once again,” said Nunes.

Many progressive Brazilians worry about the lack of generational renewal at the top of Lula’s party, whose key figures are mostly now in their 60s or 70s. Lula will be 81 at the end of his term if elected. But the former president remains by far Brazil’s best-known leftwing politician and – with no immediate heir in sight – the one best placed to defeat Bolsonaro.

Jair Bolsonaro is welcomed by supporters during the inauguration of a new train station in Parnamirim, Rio Grande do Norte.
Jair Bolsonaro is welcomed by supporters during the inauguration of a new train station in Parnamirim, Rio Grande do Norte. Photograph: Francisco Proner/Agence VU/The Observer

During an interview at his home in Natal, the seaside capital of the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, Acioli expressed optimism Lula would be able to end four years of Bolsonarian misery in October’s election. “Everything suggests he’s going to win,” the 82-year-old composer enthused.

Bezerra, Rio Grande do Norte’s governor, said she was “immensely hopeful” her friend would lead Brazil out of “authoritarian and obscurantist nightmare”. “I’ve seen him and he’s full of energy and raring to go,” said Bezerra, 66, flanked by a red Lula banner stamped with the words: “Brazil Happy Again”.

Yet recent weeks have suggested Lula’s mission may be tougher than some progressives had hoped. With public anger over Brazil’s Covid disaster apparently fading as normality returns, some polls have shown Bolsonaro gaining ground.

Around the corner from Natália Bonavides’s headquarters in Natal, a graffiti artist has painted a pun on the president’s name: “Acabou-sonaro” (Bolson-over). But Bonavides, the PT’s youngest member of congress, urged the president’s opponents not to underestimate him. “Even after all the tragedies that have been caused over the last three years, Bolsonaro remains an extremely strong candidate,” the 33-year-old insisted.

Bonavides, who is one of the leading lights of Brazil’s new left, said part of the danger was Bolsonaro’s ability to use the state machine and federal funds to buy political support and win over voters. She also worried about the dissemination of fake news, whether Bolsonaro would accept the election result, and the poisonous political atmosphere that has gripped Brazil under its pro-gun president. In recent weeks the Donald Trump-admiring populist has billed the 2022 election as an epic war between God-fearing “good” and communist “evil” leading some to fear violence.

Bonavides feels the toxic mood more than most. Last year a rightwing television pundit who is close to Bolsonaro publicly declared that people like her needed eliminating with machine guns and urged her to stick to washing her husband’s pants.

A picture of Marielle Franco, the leftist Rio politician who was assassinated in 2018, hangs outside Bonavides’s office – a reminder of the dangers of doing politics in 21st-century Brazil. But the young congresswoman vowed to persist. “I can’t say I’m not afraid … but it’s crucial we don’t allow these things to paralyse us.”

Natalia Bonavides, PT’s youngest member of congress, in her office in Natal. Photograph: Francisco Proner/Agence VU/The Observer

Bonavides believed one of the keys to beating Bolsonaro was engaging with the urban poor who were worst hit by the economic fallout from Covid. On a recent evening she drove north to an abandoned railway depot that had been occupied by dozens of impoverished families Bonavides said had been plunged further into destitution by Bolsonaro’s social policies, rising unemployment and inflation.

“Every day new families are arriving. It’s frightening,” said one of the occupation’s leaders, Matheus Araújo, as families used mud-caked sheets of plastic and planks of rotting wood to build shacks in the dank warehouse around him.

Outside, Bonavides pledged to help the squatters fight eviction and urged them to make the link between their plight and the policies of Brazil’s current leader. “The Bolsonaros of this world have never done anything to grant people their rights – and they never will. Because rights aren’t granted – they are seized,” she shouted through a loudhailer, as an activist clutched a red flag emblazoned with the words: “Fora Bolsonaro!” (Bolsonaro Out!).

For all his excitement over Lula’s comeback, the composer Acioli also sounded a note of caution, comparing the coming months to a political minefield. “Many pitfalls lie ahead,” the musician warned. “Even now, there are so many lies that people still believe.”

Despite the scale of Brazil’s coronavirus calamity and the corruption scandals that have blighted Bolsonaro’s administration and relatives, the president has retained the unwavering support of about 25% of voters. Hardcore followers remain convinced their leader is spearheading a righteous conservative crusade to stop Brazil becoming a communist dictatorship under Lula.

Thomas Traumann, a political commentator and former communications minister under the PT, said it was wishful thinking to imagine Bolsonaro stood no chance. “Lula is the favourite. It’s 70-30. But that doesn’t mean 70 always wins,” Traumann warned, urging Lula’s campaign not to underestimate the depth of anti-PT feeling and the association many still made between the party and economic crisis and corruption.

Helio Oliveira, an air force reservist and pro-Bolsonaro activist in Natal, said he would consider leaving Brazil or moving to a remote part of the countryside if Lula won: “He’s a bad character who lacks values.”

Hilton Acioli, composer of the song Sem Medo de Ser Feliz. Photograph: Francisco Proner/Agence VU/The Observer

As he pondered the coming showdown, Acioli sat down on his veranda and began to perform the song he had written to launch Lula’s first campaign more than three decades ago. “Unafraid to be happy! Unafraid to be happy! Unafraid to be happy!” he sang as he strummed his guitar.

“It’s unfortunate to talk about a saviour of the nation but that’s kind of what it is. There is no one else,” Acioli said.

Bonavides was a baby when Acioli wrote his most famous ballad but, like millions of Brazilians, knows its lyrics by heart. She said it reminded her of how close Lula came to succeeding in his first presidential bid, and how close to reclaiming power he is now.

“It’s song that brings me great hope,” she said, a portrait of her party’s leader hanging on the wall behind her.

“Bolsonaro represents the cesspool of politics and Lula represents hope,” Bonavides said. “Lula – as [Salvador] Allende would say – represents the great avenues down which free women and men will pass.”

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