Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Brazil

Lula’s “Team of Rivals” Strategy Could Reduce Polarization

The former president’s choice of a conservative running mate carries numerous benefits – but also conspicuous risks.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Mexico City on Mar 2 (right); then-presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin in 2018 (left).Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty Images; Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

SÃO PAULO – As former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gets ready to run in this year’s presidential election against current President Jair Bolsonaro, he is preparing to announce his widely anticipated choice of running mate. It’s expected to be an old adversary.

Lula’s decision to invite Geraldo Alckmin to join him on the presidential ticket – likely to be formally announced in early April – is the most conspicuous indication yet of Lula’s campaign strategy of reaching out to centrist voters and projecting himself as a moderate, “big-tent” alternative to current President Jair Bolsonaro.

Alckmin, a conservative who governed the state of São Paulo from 2001–2006 and 2011–2018, lost to Lula in the run-off in the 2006 presidential election. He strikes most voters as neither particularly inspiring nor offensive. Reaching out to him is meant to improve the “aerodynamics” of the Lula campaign – that is, to reduce resistance among voters who are unhappy with Bolsonaro but who are also uneasy about seeing his Workers’ Party (PT) back in government.

Lula’s decision to pick a conservative running mate does not come as a surprise. After years operating in “opposition mode,” focused largely on keeping loyal followers mobilized and avoiding the emergence of a rival to his left, the former president is now transitioning back to “governing mode,” freeing him to tilt towards the center and embrace pragmatism. It is this unusual capacity to move back and forth between a more ideological stance while in opposition and pragmatism when governing (or preparing to govern) that helps explain Lula’s political longevity.

Skeptics point out that it is easy to overestimate the influence of the vice president in Brazilian politics. It is tempting to dismiss Lula’s decision to pick Alckmin, a former anesthesiologist, as little more than an empty gesture to centrists. José Alencar, Lula’s vice president from 2003 to 2010, helped assuage fears among business elites during the 2002 campaign, but the former senator and self-made business tycoon did not play a significant role in Lula’s campaigns, nor did he have significant influence in the government. In the same way, former Vice President (later President) Michel Temer bitterly complained to president Dilma Rousseff about being a “decorative” vice president “without any political agency.” And most recently, current Vice President Hamilton Mourão, initially seen as a moderating force or even a potential rival to Bolsonaro, has lost all influence over the president and is no longer invited to participate in relevant meetings.

President Lula and then Vice President José Alencar in 2006. (Photo: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP via Getty Images)

But it is worth pointing out that, since Brazil’s last dictatorship ended in 1985, three out of a total of six vice presidents have ascended to the top job – one after a president died in office and the other two after the serving president was impeached. Considering these precedents, picking Alckmin could create an enormous political risk for Lula. If lawmakers saw his government as too radical, they could be tempted to throw him out in favor of his relatively moderate and politically experienced vice president.

In addition, Alckmin can be expected to play a more important role in Lula’s campaign than José Alencar did in 2002. Despite his humiliating fourth-place finish in the first round of the 2018 presidential elections, Alckmin remains a political heavyweight and an asset for the Lula campaign in the state of São Paulo and in the south, where the PT has struggled in past presidential elections.

Over the next months, Alckmin is set to focus on efforts to build bridges between powerful sectors that may have supported Lula in the past but were increasingly at odds with his party during the later years of Dilma Rousseff’s government (2013–2016) – groups like business elites, evangelicals, agribusiness as well as police groups and the armed forces. While ministerial posts are distributed after elections, recent rumors say Lula has offered Alckmin the ministry of agriculture in addition to his post as vice president in the case of their victory in the election. Such rumors could reduce resistance in the country’s powerful agribusiness lobby, long a stronghold of Bolsonaro supporters.

To some extent, Lula’s more moderate stance — paired with his fairly consistent lead in polls over the past months and growing disenchantment with Bolsonaro’s management of the economy — has already produced results. A growing number of fund managers, such as Luis Stuhlberger, who supported Bolsonaro in 2018, have said they do not expect Lula to govern as a radical. Lula is also seen to be warming to the idea of an independent central bank, and Brazil’s central bank head, Roberto Campos Neto, said market fears of a Lula victory were easing. The PT hopes Alckmin’s addition to the ticket will consolidate this trend.

Lula’s vice-presidential decision represents a clear defeat for the Workers’ Party’s left wing (which also criticized Lula’s choice of Alencar back in 2002). But it would be a mistake to believe that more radical elements in the party have lost all power. While the government’s overall direction, particularly regarding economic policy, seems likely to be more similar to Lula’s previous government (2003-2010) than that of Dilma (2011-2016), whose interventionist policies are widely seen to have contributed to Brazil’s economic malaise, former president Lula will have to find ways to accommodate more radical voices such as PT President Gleisi Hoffmann.

One way to energize the PT’s left-wing base is Latin American politics, where Lula continues to embrace – at least at times – more radical rhetoric, for example by refusing unequivocally to criticize the dictatorship in Nicaragua. Foreign policy pragmatism could also play a role. With the left sweeping back to power across the region, appetite for putting greater pressure on regimes in Managua or Caracas is likely to be very limited. The Bolsonaro campaign will seek to exploit these comments to argue that Lula remains a radical at heart.

Still, Lula’s “team of rivals” approach is likely to put the Bolsonaro campaign in a bind. As political scientist Claudio Couto has argued, Lula aims to “vaccinate himself against the accusation that he is a radical” by teaming up with Alckmin. While some have already tried labeling Alckmin a leftist – unlikely to convince centrists, given the former governor’s long track-record as a conservative – the most likely response will be to argue that Alckmin will fail to moderate Lula.

To prevent the perception that his vice-presidential choice is merely theatrical, Lula is likely to give Alckmin significant visibility during the campaign. That could reduce polarization, at least compared to the 2018 elections, when Lula was barred from running and PT candidate Fernando Haddad opted for a vice-presidential candidate to his left.

But perhaps the ultimate motivation for Lula’s choice of a centrist running mate lies in the electoral history of the PT. The party’s track record since Brazil’s return to democracy is clear. Whenever its candidate ran with a left-wing running mate (1989, 1994, 1998 and 2018), it lost. But each time its nominees chose running mates to their right (in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014), it won the presidency.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Oliver Stuenkel is a contributing columnist for Americas Quarterly and teaches International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. He is the author of The BRICS and the Future of Global Order (2015) and Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order (2016).


Tags: Brazilian politics, Elections 2022, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Vice president
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