Forrest Hylton | Lula Returns LRB 30 September 2022

In spite of a recent drug-related shooting – and mounting violence against PT supporters nationwide – the excitement and ebullience on the beach at Porto da Barra in Salvador are palpable, and barely contained. An older man dressed in yellow who sells cashews took a break for a beer late on Sunday morning, and said he could hardly wait; like many precarious baianos, he is at the end of his rope. The other day, a man who lives on the streets was dressed in a felt hat, rope sandals and an orange jumpsuit with red Lula stickers plastered all over it.

In the final days before the general election, Lula is hitting his stride: there is a real chance he will win in the first round (though of course he may not). It will come down to what the 2 or 3 per cent of undecided voters do on 2 October, and Lula has pivoted towards them, while Bolsonaro is paralysed in a sort of rigor mortis. Simone Tebet (of the centre-right) is polling at 5 per cent, Ciro Gomes (centre-left) at 6 per cent, but half these voters say they may change their mind. Gomes appears to have been losing votes to Lula recently.

Ninety per cent say they want the election decided in the first round, and polls have Lula hovering around 50 per cent though Bolsonaro still claims he is going to win on Sunday, using venues like the UN General Assembly and the queen’s funeral to campaign. His son Eduardo recently tried to censor a story about the family’s purchase of 51 properties in cash – an attempt which backfired, making headlines again. As for Lula, even the TV news anchor William Bonner has admitted his innocence. In the final presidential debate in Rio last night, Gomes and Tebet went after Bolsonaro, not Lula.

In the north-east (and perhaps elsewhere), where popular religion has a millenarian component, Lula’s return plays for many people as a story of redemption and resurrection. In the south-east, where demographic, political, economic and cultural power are located, artists and celebrities such as the Afro-Brazilian actor-director Lázaro Ramos and rapper Emecida take selfies with Lula; they represent a new, anti-racist cultural elite. Musicians and singers have made videos for his campaign. A catchy tune with a good chorus is one of the best ways to reach people, especially in Brazil. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil led crowds in Rio singing ‘Olé, olé olé olá, Lula, Lula’. This has been going on for months: in Bahia, the Lula song breaks out at concerts and rodas de samba. Following his interview with Bonner on TV Globo, the windows of Salvador were filled with people cheering (‘Fora Bolsonaroooooooo!’; ‘É o Lula, porra!’), and drumming and dancing in the streets.

Thanks in part to the efforts of Lula’s running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, key figures in the south-east in the business community, law, media, politics, universities, the arts – including a number of people who helped railroad Lula 2017 – have come out publicly in favor of him as the representative of democracy. High-level defects include two former heads of the Supreme Court, Celso de Mello and Joaquim Barbosa. In terms of building broad legitimacy and consensus with the people who run Brazil, such as the businessmen who assembled to speak with him in São Paulo, Lula’s campaign has been a resounding success. The US State Department met with him last week. Thomas Shannon, a former US ambassador to Brazil, says that Washington would prefer Lula, and expects Bolsonaro to respect the results on Sunday.

Campaign videos attacking Bolsonaro’s record in office have gone viral on TikTok, as Lula holds his own on social media, with a commanding lead among young voters, the elderly, women, the poor and and Afro-Brazilians (these categories overlap).

The feared or expected show of military, police and paramilitary force in support of Bolsonaro has not so far materialised; nothing indicates the military is with him, though there are doubts about the police. Independence Day on 7 September is usually marked by civic-military parades for primary and secondary school students, the police and armed forces, religious authorities, lay people and the faithful. For Brazil’s bicentennial celebrations, however, the grotesque spectacle was the order of the day: in his effort to speak to women – and attempt to win their votes – Bolsonaro declared his love for his wife with reference to his penis and his ability to use it, and forced a kiss on her lips. A leading journalist called it a ‘chanchada criminosa’. Bolsonaro spent the rest of the week jet-skiing, riding motorcycles and insulting women journalists.

Perhaps in anticipation of defeat, his followers are threatening, humiliating and murdering Lula’s supporters: no previous campaign season – not even 2018, when the composer and capoeira master Moa do Katend was stabbed to death in Brotas – has seen such a high level of violence and tension. Every day a petista is murdered by a bolsonarista, Cars and motorcycles with Brazilian flags, signaling support for Bolsonaro, circulate at high speed. Some of the occupants are armed and dangerous: arms imports are at an all-time high and weapons, including machine guns, are easy to buy. Bolsonaro and his sons are enthusiasts for the gun trade.

The far right is on a war footing, even though Bolsonaro, as a man of faith, believes he is going to win the elections – or did. He doesn’t trust the polls, which show him more than 10 per cent behind, but has already cried fraud and asked aloud: ‘What did I do wrong?’ To the extent that magic factors into electoral equations, it is all on Lula’s side, and the dark arts of fascist street violence cannot stop a democratic wave that has yet to reach its crest. Although people are alert, and on guard for more violence against PT supporters, especially once the result is announced on 2 October – my graduate students have advised each other to stay home – in Salvador they are also gearing up to party in the streets of Rio Vermelho (a PT stronghold) and Porto da Barra.

If Lula wins, it will be the second major festa democratica in South America this year, following Colombia, as winter turns to spring. And if not on the night of 2 October, then after the run-off on 30 October. As Lula told Bolsonaro in Rio last night, ‘the people are about to send you packing.’ In Porto da Barra, everyone who works on the beach – selling grilled cheese, nuts, açaí, picolé, bikinis, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, caipirinhas-caipiroskas, beer, soft drinks, water, coconut water, dried shrimp, acarajé – is ready and waiting. The time to celebrate has finally come, they hope. If they have to wait an extra month, so be it. Then the question becomes whether Bolsonaro and his sons are tried in a court of law, or head off into the sunset in one of the Gulf monarchies, possibly on motorcycles, and mostly alone.

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