The figure of a diminishing patriarch is appealing to natural instincts of good drama; take the most recent and attention grabbing example, Succession’s Logan Roy. Owner of an all-powerful, firmly right wing media empire, Logan finds at the end of his life that his children – his expected successors – are all failures, products of his own defective parenting, incapable of handling the power he built by himself. In the last episode of the current series, he foils his haphazard heirs’ attempt to wrestle the legacy out of him; one by one, his children beg for mercy. Logan is thunderous: “You bust in here, guns in hand, and now you find they’ve turned to fucking sausages. You talk about love? You should have trusted me.”
Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is Logan Roy’s polar opposite on the ideological field, but finds himself in a similar predicament. At 76 and on a third attempt at a presidency, Lula is old. He bats away at that concern with his mix of charm and humourous crassness: “I’m as horny as a 20 year old in this fight”, he laughs.
Still, history will show that the president was drafted into this fight unwillingly: in 2010, with one of the most enviable runs at a presidency, Lula handed on the baton to Dilma Rousseff, a hardened left wing veteran. Though he was active and important in campaigning for Rousseff, there was a sense this would be his time to rest; it was Rousseff’s mismanagement of opposition in Congress and politically targeted investigations against his party and person that lead to his return to the arena. When he was arrested, in 2018, in an operation trialled by a now completely discredited man, Lula tried to make the mild and unpopular social democrat, Fernando Haddad, his successor. It failed, and far right populist Jair Bolsonaro was elected president. The implications for the country and the future of the left were many, and all of them were dire.
And so, by different means, Lula finds himself at the same place as Logan Roy: convinced that he, and only him, can beat Jair Bolsonaro and guide Brazilian democracy back into safety. The patriarch might have outlasted his successors, and he is certainly still capable of impressive manoeuvring. But inside Brazil’s most successful politician, that internal destroyer ticks away to chip at his qualities, and loyal followers and voters will wonder privately: is he losing strength?
The problems at the Lula campaign are evident to anyone willing to see it; he has already had to change campaign coordinators. More recently, the former president had to apologise for saying that Bolsonaro only cared for “policemen instead of people”, explaining that what he meant was “militia men” (that there is an fundamental overlap is beside the point – if Lula meant what he said, he should not have apologised for it; if he didn’t mean it, he should not have said it).
The truth is that the Lula campaign has so far run on the memory of Lula rather than Lula’s plans for the future. The Workers Party outwardly claims that nothing changed; that this is still the same Lula that ran the country in its age of prosperity. Yet the country changed its tastes; like a hair band of the 80s finding that the new generation has moved on to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Lula tries to adapt to the new landscape by playing the crowd pleasing old hits but failing to get a single in the charts.
Take for instance the hot gossip around the corridors of Brasilia of Lula’s inability to choose his new Finance Minister. The Workers Party talks of “building a plan”; that this is a deliberate choice to not have the entire project rest on one single man’s shoulders. When asked about the issues of credibility, the president and party simply point to their record in government – in the hopes of a collective amnesia for the Rousseff era. It will be well in the future because it was well in the past.
It’s hard to understate how this “trust me bro” approach differs from what Lula sought to do when he first sought the presidency: there were dinners, there was sweet talking, there were deals that would prove themselves to be less than perfectly clean. There was, fundamentally, an effort to engage with the business sector of Brazil and international ones as well. Lula’s current reluctance to engage is reciprocated; businesses have become radicalised to prefer the end of Brazilian democracy to the sort of soft redistribution Lula’s administration brought in. So the question remains, what is the point of bringing back our great fixer, the man whose envied skill was his capacity to build broad coalitions?
Like many left-wing leaders, his voters and his activists are often at odds. While so-called identity politics were a reasonably minor issue when he was first elected, they are now a very big part of the generation he raised, and it has become harder than ever to employ his skill of adjusting to the public he is talking to when everything is public. How does a man pull the trick of uniting very conservative Evangelicals and activists rightly who feel they’ve had to compromise their fundamental rights? He still has not shown himself to have the skill of his younger years in this campaign.
The world too has changed on Lula. On climate change and on international issues, Lula also sounds dangerously old. In one of the biggest interview’s of his campaign, in Time magazine, Lula bats away any pretence that he would be willing to take the sort of steps that climate change demands without a very good incentive; and one cannot help but remember while the situation in the Amazon improved under his government, activists such as Dorothy Stang were being murdered by thugs working for cattle ranchers. On the issue of Ukraine his anachronistic language of “we should sit down and talk” tips all the way into immorality and apologism for what is a bloody imperialist massacre by Russia, when he blames Zelensky for the invasion.
The truth is that more so than the issues of old age, Lula has seemingly bought the very nostalgia lenses that he’s selling to everyone else. It is true that his time in power was extremely important for Brazil; it is true that in his government many Brazilians were given the right to dream of a life that extended beyond the struggle to eat one full meal. Doors were opened for new opportunities that did not exist before. But the early 2000s were not an idyllic time; there was perverse ugliness circulating behind the optimism and the Lula government made mistakes even when considering it had luck on its side. The idea of Lula retreating into himself when faced with an enemy like Bolsonaro – so openly contemptuous of Brazilian democracy that he makes a point to praise torturers – should bring terror to all who need to believe his strength.
Still, this talk of doom comes much too early. Though Bolsonaro has shown a considerable recovery in polling, he is still on average 8 to 12 points behind his great rival, and on track to lose badly. It is possible that Lula doubters should, like the Roy children, talk less of love and trust him. To those who need the former president to save Brazilian democracy, however, the strength of the ageing patriarch is no longer a matter of drama, but one of the country’s fundamental future.