Brazil’s Lula Inspires Hope — And Contention

Brazil’s presidential frontrunner and former President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has indicated that, if elected in the upcoming October vote, he will review the stalled European Union–Mercosur free trade agreement in order to address concerns about environmental protection, human rights and technology. 

Formally drafted in June 2019, after 20 years of negotiations, the EU and Mercosur, a South American trading bloc, established an agreement in principle. However, the deal — which would create the largest free trade area in the world — has not been ratified. Concerns that the Brazilian government under incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro will not only fail to address grave climate and deforestation concerns but also exacerbate them, have diminished confidence in Europe that this agreement would ever be put into action.

In a statement to Reuters, European Member of Parliament Anna Cavazzini contends that “with Bolsonaro in government, there cannot be any Mercosur agreement, that is crystal clear.”

Cavazzini’s recent assertion echoes sentiments expressed nearly two years prior in 2020 by Spanish diplomat and EU ambassador to Brazil, Ignacio Ybanez Rubio. Rubio told Euractiv that the EU has “been expressing [their] concern (about environmental issues) to the Brazilian government for some time now.” He continued to disclose that EU executive vice president Valdis Dombrovskis “has already said that unless we re-establish trust in the Brazilian government on that point, it’s going to be very difficult to move forward.”

Brazil’s October election may present such an opportunity to re-establish that trust with the election of a new president. Currently, Lula leads his far-right opponent, Bolsonaro, by 19 points according to a poll conducted by Datafolha, leaving room for reasonable expectations that change is on the horizon. With Bolsonaro — who is responsible for accelerating deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest toward irreversible damage — ousted, hopes of a fully realized EU-Mercosur agreement are viable. Though, for this to be possible, Lula will first need to overcome a number of significant challenges. 

First and foremost, Lula will need to actually win. Though Lula claims a lofty lead over Bolsonaro, the latter has managed to narrow the gap by more than 20 percentage points. The gap may continue to narrow if the economy performs better than expected or if inflation subsides. 

Additionally, Lula will need to tread more carefully to win over key demographics after various missteps; he too, is not an uncontroversial figure. In recent dialogue, Lula has been accused of insulting the police, calling Brazil’s elite “slavers,” criticizing middle-income Brazilians for their lifestyle, losing support from low-income voters, and igniting tensions with Evangelicals over pro-abortion remarks.

Finally, Lula will need to inspire unity. Brazil is more polarized than ever before and fears of insurrection are ripe. Bolsonaro has stoked fears of interference in the election process by casting doubts on the voting system and threatening to reject an election loss.  Correspondingly, suspicions toward Lula’s moral authority — following a now annulled money laundering and corruption conviction — threaten to further divide a populace already plagued by fears of misconduct. 

In a statement to Reuters, Vera Carvalho, 59, a Rio schoolteacher, said that if a coup occurs, it would be because the left attempted to install a corrupt president. She added that “Lula needs to go back to jail. He is vermin.”

Ultimately, much is at stake in Brazil’s upcoming election. Renegotiating clauses of the EU-Mercosur agreement is potentially only feasible under a new government. If Lula fails to secure the presidency and unite the country, ratifying this pact may be the least of Brazil’s troubles.