It was minutes before 8 p.m. on October 30, 2022, and counting had reached 98 percent of the ballots, when the Electoral Court confirmed the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil for the next four years. It was a razor-thin victory, with a margin of just over 2 percent over opponent Jair Messias Bolsonaro, incumbent president and candidate for reelection. But it was enough for Lula to become the first democratically elected president three times, as he had already been president from 2003 to 2010, for two consecutive terms. At 77 he is also the oldest person to assume the presidency and the only person to have received more than 60 million votes in the country’s history. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, is the first president of Brazil not to be re-elected since democracy was established in 1985.
A brief history of Brazilian politics
The scandals which emerged between 2003 and 2010 involving corrupt practices within the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores [PT]), of which Lula, then president of Brazil, was a member, put his government in serious trouble, despite the fact that he had adopted a markedly socialist policy, aimed at improving welfare and eradicating hunger, especially in the northeastern region of the country. The scandals turned public opinion against him, undermining his credibility and the esteem he had enjoyed. However, this did not prevent Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s candidate and a member of the same party, from being elected president in turn for two terms (2011 and 2014). But in 2015, Rousseff was impeached and subsequently dismissed for alleged administrative malfeasance.
It was during this period that Congressman Bolsonaro came to prominence. When casting his vote in favor of Rousseff’s suspension, he dedicated his vote to the memory of Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who during the military dictatorship had persecuted and tortured people who opposed the regime, including Rousseff herself. With the ousting of President Rousseff, the presidency passed to her deputy, Michel Temer, who remained in power for a little over a year and then did not run for reelection.
In April 2018, Brazil’s presidential election year, Federal Judge Sérgio Moro ordered Lula’s arrest and sentenced him to 12 years and one month in prison for corruption and money laundering. The motive then alleged was the illicit purchase of an apartment in Guarujá, a coastal city in the state of São Paulo. Other charges were subsequently added. As a result, Lula, who was then a candidate and ahead in the polls on voting intentions, became ineligible because he had run afoul of the prohibitions of the Lei da ficha limpa, the law he himself had enacted when he was president in 2010 that prevents politicians with a confirmed conviction from running for office. At that point Lula nominated Fernando Haddad, until then his vice-presidential candidate, to run for president of the republic. But the propaganda campaign against the PT was overwhelming. And so the candidate of the extreme right, a retired military officer, Jair Bolsonaro, became the favorite to lead the country. After being elected he did not fail to reward Federal Judge Moro for his part in Lula’s trial, appointing him minister of justice.
The political landscape of 2022
Lula was in prison for about 580 days. He has only left prison once, to attend the wake of his grandson Arthur Lula da Silva, who died aged seven in March 2019. The former president has always claimed to be innocent of the charges and called the trials that led to his conviction nonsensical. He claimed he was a political prisoner. And the Brazilian justice system accepted his protests. In November 2019, he was acquitted by the Supreme Federal Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal [STF]), and subsequently the Brazilian Supreme Court itself annulled the sentences against him on the grounds of lack of jurisdiction, alteration of evidence, established bias, and wrongful actions of the one who presided at his trial, namely Judge Moro.
Once his liberty were restored, Lula decided to return to the political scene and in 2022 he ran for the presidency of Brazil. Surprisingly, he decided to have Geraldo Alckmin, who had been one of his opponents, join him on his list and designated him as vice president, a gesture through which the then-candidate promised that he would make a policy for all and, in the run-up to the election campaign, launched a historic nine-party alliance. This attitude earned him the support of disparate political and party ideologies, but were united in battle against what he called the common enemy, Bolsonaro.
Although the presidential election race included other candidates, popular attention focused on the two who represented Brazil’s political polarization, Bolsonaro and Lula. Lula’s strong alliances and the uniting of so many political forces in his campaign, on the one hand, and the failures in which the Bolsonaro government had been directly involved, such as the mismanagement of health policies during the Covid-19 pandemic, the increase in poverty, and the imbalances in the country’s democratic forces, on the other, fueled the expectation that the PT’s victory would come as early as the first round of the election. The polls also predicted this. But the expectations of Lula and his supporters were frustrated. In the first round, held on October 2, 2022, Lula got 48.43 percent of the valid votes, while Bolsonaro won 43.20 percent. The third most popular candidate was Senator Simone Tebet, with just over 4.16 percent. These surprising outcomes, which defied the polls, instilled confidence in Bolsonaro and his voters, convincing them that they were capable of turning the electoral tide. On the other hand, Lula received the support of the third candidate, Simone Tebet, and this allowed him to head into the electoral runoff with some added confidence.
Religious discourse in election campaigns
It is well known that Brazil is a deeply religious country. At least 80 percent of Brazilians claim to be Christians, of which 50 percent are Catholics and the remaining 30 percent are evangelicals and neo-Pentecostals. In this context, it is clear that declarations on religious issues and what candidates think about them in elections are crucial. Bolsonaro had already exploited this strategy extensively in the 2018 elections, and he used it even more in 2022. He is avowedly Catholic, but his friendliness with Brazil’s neo-Pentecostal religious communities gained him more popularity among conservative Christians, given also the fact that there is a significant number of deputies who support conservative neo-Pentecostal politics in the National Congress. In the aftermath of his election in 2018, Bolsonaro flaunted messianic religious messages. The Brazilian seat of government itself has not infrequently become the scene of religious events, either Catholic or neo-Pentecostal in nature. It is no coincidence that President Bolsonaro has been pointed to by many religious people as an envoy of God.
Wanting to embrace the conservative and religious masses, he has changed his stance on abortion, disavowing his previous pro-abortion pronouncements, and has gone on to proudly defend anti-abortion policies and to promote traditional family values. Moreover, to please influential and wealthy neo-Pentecostal leaders, he has included favorable references to their business interests in his speeches. By this behavior he neglected other religious values present in Brazil and fostered a climate of contempt and intolerance toward such minorities.
Throughout his presidential term, Bolsonaro repeatedly expressed opinions that were detrimental to the country’s reverence for the Constitution and the secular nature of the state, particularly when he stated that the book that was to guide the nation was the Bible. Proof of this is the slogan he incessantly repeated in his speeches, “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.” Moreover, he marked his campaign with strong opposition to an alleged communist threat: “Yes, because even if there is no communism in Brazil, we know there is anti-communism.” Especially in the second round of elections, the campaign conducted by him and his followers claimed that Lula’s communism would close churches, persecute Christians and seize private property. To symbolize their adamant opposition to Lula, Bolsonaro’s supporters appropriated the colors of the Brazilian flag and the national soccer team jersey, setting themselves up as defenders of the nation against the threat of the red flag, that is, the flag in the distinctive color of the PT, Lula’s party.
One of the most symptomatic events of this appropriation of religious discourse by the Bolsonaro campaign took place on October 12, 2022 the day dedicated to the feast of Our Lady of Aparecida, patroness of Brazil. The city of Aparecida is home to the national shrine that bears her name and is a center of great devotion. After inaugurating a neo-Pentecostal church in Minas Gerais in the morning, Bolsonaro arrived in Aparecida on the same day. In front of the basilica, surrounded by his supporters, he improvised an initiative parallel to official activities, a recital of the rosary. But it caused uproar and hostility among the pilgrims who were celebrating the feast of their patron, Mary. On that occasion, Archbishop Orlando Brandes of Aparecida delivered strong words during the homily at the solemn Mass, especially against the armaments policy, which Bolsonaro supports, and aroused enormous indignation among his supporters. In the midst of celebrations of Brazil’s patron, demonstrations against the archbishop and attacks on pilgrims who did not support Bolsonaro broke out.
Archbishop Brandes was not the only bishop to suffer accusations and threats from Bolsonaro supporters. In some cases even more serious instances have come to light. The archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Scherer, was accused of being a communist priest simply for posting a photo of himself wearing the red cardinal’s robe on his social media profile. To the insults he received he responded with strong words on his Twitter profile, “Strange times, ours! I know the history quite well. Sometimes I feel like I am reliving the rise to power of totalitarian regimes, especially fascism. Much serenity and discernment is needed at this time!” Elsewhere, again in response to the accusations, the cardinal said, “Those who care for the poor are communists. Jeepers. So Jesus was a communist. Jesus commanded us to do that. No, no, that is not being a communist.”
Lula’s attitude has been different, although he too uses religious discourse from time to time in campaigning. In fact, he presents himself as a Catholic, and from the beginning of his political engagement he was involved in the pastoral care of workers in the greater São Paulo region. Although socialist perspectives were more pronounced in his political past, today he describes himself as a social democrat. A widower, he recently remarried in church. On the occasion of his marriage, he had as his witness Monsignor Angélico Sândalo Bernardino, Bishop Emeritus of Blumenau, who has been close to him since his youth, when Lula headed social movements. It should also be noted that Bolsonaro, although he traveled to Rome in 2021, has never requested an audience with Pope Francis during his term in office; in contrast, Lula, as soon as he was released from prison, rushed to the Vatican to obtain a personal audience with the Pope.
In the face of Bolsonaro’s strong attacks on him, especially with regard to accusations of persecution of churches and relaxation of anti-abortion policies, Lula also sought support during his campaign through meetings with Catholic and evangelical leaders, especially those openly in tune with his candidacy and political platform. In these meetings he reiterated his commitment to religious freedom and referred to future mitigations of the law that now bans abortion. He has shown himself in public reverencing Our Lady of Aparecida, but religious leaders who opposed him have not been satisfied with this. On social media, in particular, messages against him, signed by priests and pastors, began to flow. Likewise, people began to use Masses and religious ceremonies as platforms for politically motivated speeches, mainly in favor of Bolsonaro. In homilies and sermons, it was stated and repeated that Lula’s voters would be condemned to hell if they did not change their ways by casting their vote for the incumbent president.
Support for Bolsonaro’s candidacy was, in fact, significant among priests and Catholic-inspired singers. Lula also received explicit support from some clergy, who claimed that Bolsonaro’s victory posed a danger to the democratic order. Despite being distrusted by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil and leaders of dioceses in general, various clerics and lay leaders openly supported Bolsonaro’s election and launched strong attacks against Lula both on social media and through concerts, public rosaries, times of Eucharistic adoration, and Masses. On the other hand, priests and pastors who disagreed with those attitudes and statements also took a stand through video messages posted on social networks, warning the faithful not to be manipulated by religious discourses that they called “terrifying.”
Faced with the excessive involvement of clerics in these party disputes, several dioceses released statements affirming the importance of neutrality in elections. A note signed by the presidency of the bishops’ conference on October 11 stated, “We deplore, at this time of the election campaign, the intensification of the exploitation of faith and religion as a means of gathering votes on the ballot. Specifically religious moments cannot be used by candidates to present their electoral proposals and other election-related issues. The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil denounces and condemns such actions and behavior.”
These actions show how during the election campaigns of both candidates religious issues relegated to the background the debate on Brazil’s most crucial concerns. Issues such as hunger, unemployment, education and health have become peripheral to religious discourse. Yet, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, they had worsened. There was little talk of government programs and practical proposals to combat Brazil’s real problems. During the public debate, the electoral energies of both candidates were engaged in a strategy exclusively aimed at countering news and arguments likely to influence the ballot box results.
Lula’s election and anti-democratic demonstrations
Political polarization is not just an issue in Brazil. But the circumstances in which Brazil has existed, at least in the last decade, have brought it increasingly to the forefront. With the recent presidential elections, this polarization has been felt in all spheres, from the private to the ecclesial and social. Not a few families have experienced divisions within themselves caused by differing individuals’ politics. In parishes, any talk that even indirectly involved a stance pertaining to politics became the subject of arguments and disagreements, even during celebrations. An example of this sad state of affairs is the assault suffered by Auxiliary Bishop Vicente de Paula Ferreira of Belo Horizonte, who, at the end of the celebration of a Mass in the city’s metropolitan region, was threatened by a gunman who disagreed with the prelate’s political positions. The Archdiocese of Belo Horizonte circulated a note of solidarity with Dom Vicente, in which Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo said, “The auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Belo Horizonte has been the victim of intolerance, of the lack of even the slightest sense of coexistence, of the cowardly contempt that has put some lives – including his own, that of a consecrated person – at risk. These are serious symptoms of a sick society.” He concluded, “In a free, democratic society, difference of opinion cannot justify belligerent attitudes opposed to fraternity. The Gospel teaches that all, regardless of their beliefs, are equally brothers, sons and daughters of God.” The episode shows, unfortunately, how intolerance and aggression have prevailed in Brazilian society. And even after the vote counting was completed, similar situations not only did not diminish but multiplied.
Lula won the popular vote in 13 states in Brazil, Bolsonaro in 13 other states and also in the Federal District. The region of the country that gave the most votes to Lula was the northeast, while Bolsonaro gained more support in the central and southern regions. This situation can be explained by a number of factors. Lula, in addition to coming from the northeast himself, has always looked to that region, one of the poorest in the country. Moreover, when he was in power, his government had greatly favored its development, especially by promoting social policies aimed at improving the living conditions of its inhabitants. As for the southern and southeastern regions of the country, where Bolsonaro won the majority of votes, there is a long-standing, more conservative political tradition, and Lula’s social programs aimed at the northeast are regarded with disdain. In the center-west, the outgoing president also won more votes, as it is a predominantly agricultural region, and Bolsonaro has been one of the Brazilian heads of state most likely to promote policies that favor this sector.
After the proclamation of the October 30 presidential election result, as Avenida Paulista was already packed with Lula supporters waiting for him to celebrate his victory, thousands of truck drivers and other pro-Bolsonaro protesters staged a protest, blocking the country’s main roads. A crowd of supporters, dressed in green and yellow, took over the streets to express rejection of the election results. Social media overflowed with videos and live feeds in which enraged protesters, in front of burning tires and roadblocks, sang the national anthem, called for army intervention, and called for a coup and the return of military dictatorship.
President Bolsonaro, while all this was happening, remained silent until two days after the election. Finally, on November 2, he recorded a video in which he called on his supporters to clear the streets. His words caused uproar and opposition among those who had expected their defeated candidate to come out openly against the election result. For his part, after the election Bolsonaro chose not to phone Lula to congratulate him, that is, the traditional act of courtesy expressing recognition of the election results and respect for democracy. Only 44 hours after the announcement of the election results, Bolsonaro broke the silence and gave, in Brasilia, his first speech, lasting just two minutes. In this he said he was grateful for the 58 million votes cast for him and criticized the demonstrations that had blocked the country’s streets, but did not mention Lula or his own defeat at the polls.
During the election campaigns, Bolsonaro had repeatedly expressed doubts about the reliability of electronic ballot boxes, and had repeatedly demanded that votes also be printed to facilitate verification of the accuracy of the results. In response, the Superior Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral [TSE]), the institutional body in charge of the country’s electoral procedures, had to rule several times to attest to the credibility and integrity of the ballot boxes. To avoid more controversy, the TSE invited the armed forces and other institutions in the country to join the commission to ensure transparency and control of electronic ballot boxes.
On November 9, the Defense Ministry put an end to doubts about the outcome of the vote by declaring that “in the 2022 elections, our monitoring commissions found no evidence of manipulation of results that could constitute fraud.” This statement and the very fact that it was the Defense Ministry itself that signed it prompted an uprising by pro-Bolsonaro supporters and protesters scattered across the country, who expected a declaration of fraud and the annulment of the elections. To prevent the advent of Lula’s government in January 2023, they called for a military coup like the one in 1964. Groups of protesters began surrounding barracks, kneeling in prayer and calling for the coup, imploring the military to free them from the supposed onset of communism. However, in response to these largely undemocratic demonstrations, the armed forces, in a press release, rejected any unconstitutional acts and reaffirmed their adherence to the country’s Constitution and democracy: “Regarding the popular demonstrations that have taken place in numerous places in the country, the Brazilian Navy, Brazilian Army and Brazilian Air Force reaffirm their unlimited and unwavering commitment to the Brazilian people, to democracy and to the political and social harmony of Brazil.” Despite these “hitches,” the Bolsonaro government has authorized the start of the transition process to the Lula government, which has already assembled a team and set to work.
What kind of Brazil will Lula find on taking power? Certainly a country torn apart by polarization, wounded by division, and also by a major ethical, social and economic crisis. Aware of this far from easy reality, in his first speech as president-elect, a few hours after the confirmation of the election results, Lula first thanked God and affirmed that his most urgent commitment is the fight against the hunger that plagues the country. He also called on all Brazilians to rebuild friendships and family ties compromised by election disputes. He professed he would be president of all and promised to govern for all, but paying special attention to the poorest. He cited the preservation of the Amazon, the protection of indigenous peoples, the fight against racism, and the fight against the climate crisis. Shortly after the election results, world leaders and heads of state from around the world, such as U.S. President Joe Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and China’s Xi Jinping, conveyed their greetings to the newly elected president.
Faced with this situation, we can ask: What major challenges will Lula face in a country of nearly 215 million? The alliance headed by Bolsonaro is represented by 14 state governors. Moreover, Lula cannot count on a significant majority in either the National Congress or the Federal Senate. A major challenge for him will be first and foremost to build dialogue and establish a working relationship with other parties in parliament.
In terms of foreign policy, Brazil will have to get back into the context from which it has isolated itself in recent years. The elected government is already arousing interest and promises of support from many countries. Brazil is still suffering the painful consequences of the pandemic and also from the economic destabilization caused by the war in Ukraine. In addition, at least 33 million Brazilians live on or near the poverty line and many of them are unemployed. Remediating precarious health care and education, from basic schooling to university, will also be major challenges for the next government. Added to all these challenging problems is the strong opposition from that part of the population that has remained unhappy about Lula’s victory.
Lula will have a lot of work to do to come to grips with this polarization. It is hoped that he will not repeat past mistakes and that his previous experience in governing will help Brazil overcome its serious problems. It is hoped that he will put into practice what he said in his first speech as president-designate: “I was elected to govern on behalf of 215 million Brazilians. I will govern for everyone indiscriminately, without looking at whether you are rich or poor, without looking at whether you are left or right. But I want one thing to be known: even though I will govern for everyone, the policies of my government will be aimed first and foremost at those most in need.”
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.2 art. 2, 0223: 10.32009/22072446.0223.2
. The period of the dominance of the Brazilian Military Regime, which ran from 1964 to 1985, was marked by a combination of expansion of social rights, drastic reduction of civil rights and restriction of political rights. The highpoint of that regime’s severity was enshrined in Institutional Law No. 5, December 13, 1968. It assigned to the president of the Republic the power to decree the closure of Parliament, which would return to its functions only if summoned by the head of state . It was made possible to suspend the political rights of anyone for 10 years. Persons thus sanctioned could also come under probation, a ban on traveling to certain places and a forced domicile. The guarantee of habeas corpus was suspended for those charged with crimes against national security and infractions that harmed the economic order and the people’s economy. In addition, the law removed from judicial review all acts performed within its scope, as well as their effects. Cf. Tribunal Superior Eleitoral, Eleições no Brasil. Uma História de 500 anos. Secretaria de gestão da informação, Brasília, 2014.
. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the documentary Democracia em vertigem (Brazil, 2019), directed by Petra Costa. This film production, nominated for several awards, including the 2020 Oscar for Best Documentary, not only recounts the process that led to Roussef’s ousting, but also presents the judicial persecution suffered by Lula and the events that favored Bolsonaro’s election.
. TSE, Resultado das eleições, November 10, 2022 (resultados.tse.jus.br/oficial/app/index.html#/eleicao;e=e544/resultados).
. Cf. M. Bergamo, “Bolsonaro já defendeu aborto como ‘escolha do casal’ e relatou experiência”, in Folha de S. Paulo, October 5, 2022 (https://tinyurl.com/4pu72eay).
. C. Saint-Clair, Bolsonaro, o homem que peitou o exército e desafia a democracia, Belo Horizonte, Máquina de livros, 2018, 281.
. During the homily, Dom Orlando Brandes, among other statements in stark contrast to the armaments policy, took words from the Brazilian national anthem, declaring: “A beloved homeland cannot be an armed homeland”: cf. L. Pedra, “Arcebispo de Aparecida: ‘Pátria amada não pode ser pátria armada’”, in Correio Brasiliense, October 12, 2022 (https://tinyurl.com/yc73u6ea).
. Cf. the personal Twitter profile of Cardinal Dom Odilo Scherer: @DomOdiloScherer.
. Cf. M. Lopes, “Cardeal Scherer: Se quem fala dos pobres é comunista, então Jesus foi comunista”, in O Povo, October 28, 2022 (https://tinyurl.com/3aus297u).
. CNBB, “Nota da presidência”, November 12, 2022: cf. https://tinyurl.com/yfkztc5r
. Cf. Arquidiocese de Belo Horizonte, “Solidariedade a Dom Vicente”, November 13, 2022 (https://tinyurl.com/uemremep).
. Ministério da Defesa, Nota oficial, November 12, 2022.
. Exército Brasileiro, Nota à imprensa, November 11, 2022 (https://tinyurl.com/4dbkyx69).
. Speech by newly appointed president Lula in Avenida Paulista, October 31, 2022 (https://tinyurl.com/2p9yjanb).