Challenging Populist-Fueled Authoritarianism: the Lula-Alckmin presidential ticket

Essay for Harvard Review of Latin America. Click here for the original publication.

Former President Lula da Silva of the leftist Worker’s Party (PT) leads the polls against far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential election in October. As his running mate, Lula has picked Geraldo Alckmin, a former rival and right-leaning two-time presidential candidate who governed the country’s largest state of São Paulo for four terms.

Such political engineering in Brazil, one of the most populous democracies in the world, is breaking news in and of itself. But beyond its relevance for international politics, if victorious, the partnership might also prompt a new strategy against populist-fueled authoritarianism worldwide.

From a personal standpoint, this surprising alliance feels like wearing a suit that I thought would never fit me. I’ve always balanced between groups with conflicting political views: my years as a registered member and campaign staffer for the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), Alckmin’s former party, used to put me far to the right of friends in Law School. Likewise, my years as a student activist and law student have always placed me far to the left of the party officers and candidates I worked for. Now, as the two factions gather to defeat a common enemy, my anxiety in trying to make sense of my political beliefs has transformed into an eagerness to work the room.

A New Hope

I was enjoying a New York winter when I first read speculation about the potential presidential ticket. Less than three years earlier, I had been a campaign staffer for Geraldo Alckmin’s presidential bid. I worked on the final draft of the human rights chapter of his policy plan, while also helping with the casting of television ads and organizing grassroots town hall meetings.

But after some traumatizing defeats—every single candidate I supported down the ballot lost their bid—I needed a break from politics. I went to Columbia University to pursue a Master of International Affairs degree at the School of International and Public Affairs, a dream that I had been postponing campaign after campaign since I graduated college.

At first, talk about Alckmin seemed like gossip, the kind of forecast that only someone with little knowledge of the nuts and bolts of everyday politics in Brazil could afford to be optimistic about. But a catch-up Zoom call with one of my best friends, now running for a seat in the National Congress, convinced me it was for real. My friend Marcos Saraiva, a long-time political operative in Alckmin’s party — whose realism and skepticism when talking shop would always upset me —indicated the talks had already reached the point of no return. Weeks later, the confirmation was all over the news, with both Lula and Alckmin showing up together in public events.

I was flabbergasted. So were most of the political observers back home. In the presidential election of 2006, Alckmin and Lula fought hard against each other. During a television debate, Lula labeled Alckmin a “mentally colonized politician,” someone nostalgic for “the times when the police could torture people to get fast answers to their investigations.” Alckmin called Lula as “incompetent, arrogant, unethical, disrespectful and incapable of answering any of the key questions for our country.”

In trying to think of a proportional plot twist in modern democratic regimes, I imagined Joe Biden picking Mitt Romney as his vice-president against Donald Trump in 2020. But in fact, the Lula-Alckmin ticket is even more daring: while Romney had been the governor of overwhelmingly democratic Massachusetts, Alckmin’s state of São Paulo has historically been the most strategic electoral enclave for PSDB and the opposition against Lula and PT.

PSDB has won every gubernatorial election in São Paulo since 1994 —  when Alckmin himself was elected lieutenant governor. In my comparison exercise, it’s as if Romney had been the governor of a big red state like Texas or Florida and had left the GOP to become a crucial piece in a broad front for democracy in his country. While Alckmin is a founding member of PSDB, his choice to join Lula’s ticket meant leaving the party under whose name and electorate he had built a successful career – in fact, he was leading the polls for yet another gubernatorial run in São Paulo.

The Age of Nemesis (1985 – 2014)

Most experts label the political era that began after the end of the Brazilian military dictatorship in 1985 as the New Republic. A good way to make sense of the political dynamics of the period is by looking at the rivalry between its two major parties, the center-left Worker’s Party (P.T.) and the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who governed Brazil for two terms in the 1990s, explains that, despite the electoral rivalry, the dispute between his PSDB and rival PT was more about who would get the right to rule over the country’s archaic political elites, rather than ideological differences.

In fact, the overlapping between both parties’ policy prescriptions has always been notable. Not only did Lula’s first term emulate Cardoso’s economic policies, but it also bolstered them. During the same period, state governments under PSDB’s command would emulate social policy benchmarked from the federal level. But, although conceptually accurate, even suggesting those points was cause for condescendence by supporters of both parties until a few years ago.

The havoc wreaked by Bolsonaro, however, reorganized the tectonic plaques of Brazilian politics. In an interview for a popular podcast among Brazilian youth, Lula told the story of how volunteering for Cardoso’s first campaign for senator in 1978 was a milestone in his transition process from an apolitical union leader to a political party leader. Such public signaling of his willingness to rearticulate bridges between the two historical — and somewhat artificial — rival forces did not go unnoticed by Alckmin. Or any of us on the other side.

The Interregnum (2013 – 2022)

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The thought of Italian political scientist Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks, written in the 1920’s, offers the best framework for the understanding of Brazil in the 2010’s.

Brazilian democracy was prepared to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2013 when demonstrations demanding a cap on public transportation prices took over the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The anti-establishment energy unleashed by these protests fueled violent rhetoric between PT and PSDB in the presidential elections the following year when incumbent Dilma Rousseff narrowly defeated then-Senator Aécio Neves of PSDB. Alckmin was re-elected governor of São Paulo in a landslide for the second time in his career.

My official registration as a PSDB member was signed that year, in December. After three years of learning the ropes in student government, I was eager to engage in “real life” politics.

But one could smell the bad blood in the country’s political conversation after the polls closed in 2014. To keep his newly conquered base mobilized, the almost victorious but defeated Aécio Neves pushed for an unprecedented audit of the electoral process. Meanwhile, Brazil entered the worst economic crisis in its history—still ongoing. Operation Car Wash (“Operação Lava Jato”) uncovered dozens of corruption scandals involving the elite of Brazilian politics, from Alckmin’s PSDB to Lula’s PT and almost every political party across the spectrum.

By the end of the first half of her second term in 2016, president Dilma Rousseff was impeached, with the decisive support of PSDB, which won a record number of city-level elections that same year. Like millions of other Brazilians, I participated in massive street demonstrations demanding Dilma’s impeachment. PSDB seemed poised to come back to national power.

When the election of 2018 came, the victory of far-right outsider Jair Bolsonaro, a marginal congressman for twenty years, was not a given. Under the leadership of former Federal Judge Sergio Moro, who went on to be Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice, Operation Car Wash had reached its climax with the arrest of Lula – a move now declared illegal by Brazil’s Supreme Court. As the governor of Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous state, Alckmin had galvanized a broad coalition of parties, entitling his campaign to large chunks of prime-time television ads, which most analysts interpreted as a proxy of electoral competitiveness. Not only did Alckmin lose, but PSDB experienced its worst performance in presidential campaigns ever since the party’s foundation in 1988.

The Gathering Storm

Winning an election is not enough. The aftermath of the U.S. presidential election in 2020 has demonstrated that, despite Donald Trump’s defeat, Trumpism and the radical agenda stemming from the GOP remain able to shape public discourse, as well as elections down the ballot and even the administrative state of the United States. The U.S. experience has taught us that, albeit crucial, electoral victory is no more than a first step in the healing process from populist-fueled authoritarianism.

After almost four years of discursive attacks to the Brazilian constitution and the structural defunding of the Brazilian administrative state, the Bolsonaro administration has undermined the political legitimacy of government and imposed severe damages to the country’s state capacity. The examples of how the Brazilian state has lost power, agency and authority over specific regions or policy areas are too many to count.

In Rio de Janeiro, para-military militia groups gathering drug traffickers, corrupt police officers, members of the judiciary system and elected officials have grown their power beyond drug trafficking—a historical problem—and have started making money by selling public real estate to vulnerable people in need of housing. In the Amazon, the defunding of environmental law enforcement policies has created a safe haven for Brazil’s organized crime: money laundering schemes for criminal organizations from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Ceará invest profits from drug trafficking in the purchase of government or indigenous territory deforested for land-grabbing. In the capital, Brasília, through the new Secret Budget policy (“orçamento secreto”) , the executive branch handed the mandate to make budgetary decisions over to a pork-barrel congressional elite led by the Speaker of the House.

Lula knows that, should victory come in October, the challenge becomes about ensuring the political feasibility of a reconstruction agenda. A successful strategy toward that end is still a matter of great debate in democracies. How can democracies engineer coalitions that ensure the implementation of Build Back Better policies?

Looking Forward

When the final results of the presidential election of 2018 came in, I was in Alckmin’s campaign headquarters in downtown São Paulo. After his concession speech, I hugged him. A few weeks later, I wrote an open letter to the party’s leadership in São Paulo, urging them not to support Jair Bolsonaro in the run-offs. Of course, I failed miserably.

The Lula-Alckmin presidential ticket has allowed me to be optimistic about my country again. I can’t help but worry about how difficult it will be to convince some of our long-time supporters that they should vote for one of our old rivals. But if we pull it off, I can’t help but be excited with the opportunity to test a breakthrough tactic against the greatest of contemporary threats to democracies worldwide.

The days ahead will be tough. At this point, it seems unlikely that Bolsonaro won’t at least try to stage a similar move to what happened in Washington on January 6th, 2021. I’ll land in São Paulo just a few days before the first round of the election and only fly back to the U.S. after celebrating Lula’s victory, with Alckmin, in the run-off.


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