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Left wing has no response to Bolsonaro’s popularity surge in poor areas

and . Aug 23, 2020
lula speaks to supporters Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva during event with supporters, in January 2020. Photo: Paulo Pinto/FP

Though his administration was plagued with multiple corruption scandals, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva remains one of Brazil’s most popular politicians. His detractors claimed his support was a byproduct of wealth transfer policies, which they dismiss as ‘cash-for-votes’ schemes. Lula’s followers, on the other hand, claim this evaluation is classist and argue his popularity is down to an ensemble of progressive policies, particularly in Brazil’s poor Northeast — the only region of the country where Jair Bolsonaro lost in the 2018 election.

Now, however, Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity is on the rise in the Northeast, according to several opinion polls, leaving Lula’s supporters dumbstruck. This rise in approval coincides with the creation of the coronavirus emergency salary in March, which paid a BRL 600 (USD 110) monthly stipend to unemployed and informal workers, preventing tens of millions from falling below the extreme poverty line.

</p> <p>According to pollster <a href="http://datafolha.folha.uol.com.br/">Datafolha</a>, opposition to Mr. Bolsonaro in the Northeast declined significantly, from 52 to 33 percent. Another <a href="https://www.poder360.com.br/poderdata/aprovacao-do-governo-sobe-para-52-desaprovacao-cai-para-40/">poll</a>, by DataPoder360, suggests that his supporters in the region now outnumber his detractors — something unthinkable just a few months ago.</p> <p>On Twitter, <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/08/26/brazil-northeast-lula-stronghold/">supporters of the Workers&#8217; Party</a> appear flabbergasted that voters would rather back Mr. Bolsonaro’s government in exchange for monthly cash transfers, despite his open bigotry against vulnerable groups and the government’s attacks against public institutions.</p> <p>In light of these polling numbers, the Workers&#8217; Party central committee had to tell governors in the Northeast to &#8220;find a way to counter&#8221; Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s advances in the region.</p> <p>&#8220;The first mistake on the left was believing that <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/10/27/northeast-workers-party-stronghold/">Lula&#8217;s popularity</a> came from his charisma, popular roots, and progressive agenda. But voters in Brazil do not act based on ideology, but rather based on their most immediate needs. And in a country as unequal as Brazil, can you blame them?,&#8221; argues sociologist Carlos Melo, a professor at the São Paulo-based Insper Business School.</p> <p>Interestingly, the government was initially against the coronavirus aid program — having proposed just one-third of what is being paid to informal and unemployed workers, single mothers, and vulnerable populations. But the administration has excelled in reaping the benefits of the initiative, even though Congress arguably had a bigger hand in ensuring it was approved.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/1emM0oO0osG1HINQnKHvGB" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Lula and the left still have no strategy to fight Bolsonaro</h2> <p>The Workers&#8217; Party — which is <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2018/08/22/brazil-podcast-brazilian-left/">still&nbsp;the largest political organization on Brazil’s left</a> — lacks coordinated action to counter Mr. Bolsonaro’s government. The opposition has been toothless since he took office, and the Workers&#8217; Party has so refused to join or create any effort into building a broader opposition front.</p> <p>&#8220;Their calculation, according to a top adviser within the party, is that they retain at least 30 percent of the electorate. That would be enough to take the party to the runoff stage in 2022, and anti-Bolsonaro sentiment would take care of winning the race for them,&#8221; Mr. Melo tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. &#8220;It is the same mistake they made in 2018,&#8221; he adds.</p> <p>But the effects of the emergency salary shows that money can, in fact, buy you love. Meanwhile, Workers&#8217; Party supporters are left to place their hope in the perverse calculation that its prohibitive BRL 50-billion-a-month <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/08/19/brazil-2021-budget-can-belt-get-any-tighter/">price tag</a> will make the aid impossible to sustain, and that a whiplash effect to Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s popularity will occur <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/08/20/what-happens-when-brazils-coronavirus-emergency-aid-ends/">when payments are cut or halted</a>.</p> <p>&#8220;This surge in popularity has a lot to do with the government&#8217;s intense propaganda to take ownership of a policy it didn&#8217;t create,&#8221; says Senator Humberto Costa, the opposition whip in the Senate. &#8220;The aid program will soon end. The economic crisis will worsen, unemployment rates will spike.&#8221;</p> <p>Senator Rogério Carvalho, who, like Mr. Costa, belongs to the Workers&#8217; Party, says the same. &#8220;That [rise] has a limit. This narrative will be deconstructed and he will face an even bigger crisis,&#8221; he told<strong> The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Curiously, that is the same strategy the center-right adopted 15 years ago, when the Lula administration was against the ropes, facing numerous corruption scandals and even talks of impeachment. The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) — the main opposition group at the time — decided to &#8220;let Lula bleed&#8221; until the 2006 campaign, when the PSDB hoped to retake the presidency.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/2QHSrZ4wDNUjva9SfKQMty" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>But cash-transfer policies had a huge effect on voters&#8217; wellbeing and Lula managed a landslide runoff-stage win, cementing himself as the defining political force in Brazil. Of course, he was helped by an unprecedented commodities boom — which fueled economic growth and brought about historically low unemployment rates. Mr. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, will have to face the <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/04/02/explaining-brazil-podcast-brazil-facing-a-job-apocalypse/">worst economic crisis</a> since the Great Depression.</p> <p>Since day one of the Bolsonaro government, his detractors have predicted its imminent downfall. His administration, however, has proven to be surprisingly resilient — considering the sheer amount of controversy it has generated.</p> <p>Still, even if Mr. Bolsonaro limps to the 2022 election, alive but broken, the Workers&#8217; Party might not find itself in the position to claim the mantle of his main rival.&nbsp;</p> <p>To the right, figures such as São Paulo Governor João Doria are so far winning the battle to become Mr. Bolsonaro’s official opposition. And to the left, former presidential candidate Ciro Gomes and Maranhão state governor Flávio Dino are seeking to win over the progressive camp.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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