Lula’s New Mandate for Change in Brazil

São Paulo—¡Sem Anistia!” The short refrain, “no amnesty,” reverberated down Avenida Paulista last Monday as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets here and across the country in an emotional rejection of the Jair Bolsonaro–inspired assault on the nation’s democratic institutions the previous day in Brasília. The simple phrase—chanted, painted on signs, and projected onto the looming facades of the storied modernist avenue—represented both an immediate demand for accountability, and a potentially fleeting rallying cry for unity in a politically fractured nation.

While the January 8 capitol-complex invasion can be seen as the tragic end to four years of antidemocratic leadership under Bolsonaro, it also presents the country’s newly reelected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with an unexpected opportunity to govern with a consensus mandate after his narrow comeback win. Polls suggest that over 90 percent of Brazilians condemn last Sunday’s attacks, and nearly two-thirds support the Lula administration’s response—significantly higher numbers than the slim 50.9 percent majority Lula himself received in October’s runoff. Despite Lula’s robust international reputation for poverty reduction and diplomatic leadership during his first tenure, deep mistrust of his Workers’ Party (PT) continues at home after damaging corruption scandals—a reality often undervalued in international coverage that pits Lula against Bolsonaro in a political binary.

Yet anger at the putschists seemed to mix with a renewed hope for Brazilian democracy among the diverse crowd in the streets of São Paulo last week. “I threw off everything I had to do today to come here and show that Brazil does not stand for fascism,” explained João, a 23-year-old philosophy student. “We are here not just for Lula, but for democracy as a whole.” While the demonstration was called together by several left-wing organizations—including Brasil Popular, Povo Sem Medo, and Coalizão Negra por Direitos—amid the crowd, with its bullhorns and smattering of hammer-and-sickle flags, were some voters from the right. “I am here because democracy needs to prevail. We can’t support any anti-democratic act, any criminal act” explained Renata Arruda. While she typically votes right and would “never support PT,” the 52-year-old insisted, “I am here to support the rule of law.”

In the shadow of the Museu de arte de São Paulo, Lina Bo Bardi’s architectural masterpiece, a float draped in movement ensigns and a banner proclaiming “Somos Pela Democracia” (“we are for democracy”) featured speeches from left-wing parliamentarians and syndicate leaders. At one point a leader of an anti-racist front called Uneafro declared, “We’ve already defeated Bolsonaro at the polls and now we’re going to defeat Bolsonarism in the streets,” to loud cheers. Unfortunately, this claim obscures the real balance of power. Bolsonaro’s Liberal party emerged from the October 2 congressional election with the largest share of seats in both lower and upper chambers. In fact, the new makeup of Brazil’s legislature is the most right-wing since the end of the dictatorship in the 1980s.

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