Brazil, Democracy, and Shared Priorities: New Momentum for Transatlantic Partnership?

December 12, 2022
On October 30, Brazilians chose to return former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to office. His victory opens a chapter of promise amid big challenges for the second-largest Atlantic democracy.

Much of that promise, for Brazilians and potential partners worldwide, is conditioned by Brazil's outsized capacity to address local and global priorities that include climate change and food and energy security. Lula has a chance to make serious progress. He will, however, face strong pushback in a country arguably more polarized than ever, and without the benefit of the global commodities boom that was integral to his previous successes.

This constellation of circumstances may nevertheless harbor opportunities for the once-and-future president. That also holds true for Lula’s counterparts throughout the wider Atlantic region, who immediately hailed his reelection. Creative new collaborations with influential partners could be instrumental in enabling Lula to advance some of his highest priorities and, perhaps, simultaneously change the world for the better.

A Victory for Democracy—And for Atlantic Cooperation

Lula's victory is powerful testimony to Brazilians' resilient and pragmatic commitment to democracy, and to Brazil's institutional competence and integrity, despite recent political, economic, and social upheaval. Brazil's electoral authorities and leaders in each branch of government, in a joint announcement, confirmed his win, by 2 million votes, within three hours of the polls’ closing. This was possible due to a high-quality, secure nationwide voting system, which worked well despite Brazil's sharp political divisions. It should be the envy of the United States and many other democracies.

Within minutes of that announcement, US President Joe Biden recognized Lula's victory, followed quickly by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (who hailed Lula as an "old friend of Ukraine"), and many other democratic leaders. All conveyed a strong desire for partnership and cooperation with Brazil.

These same leaders, during Brazil's electoral campaign, exhibited steadfast solidarity with Brazilian democracy. They rebuffed, publicly and privately, various feelers by Brazil's authoritarian-leaning president, Jair Bolsonaro, who sought to discredit Brazil's electoral system and build support for possible efforts to remain in office regardless of the election results. Bolsonaro went so far as to summon foreign ambassadors to a meeting on July 18 to try to sow doubts about the security of Brazil's electronic voting process.  

Strong Western support for Brazil's democratic institutions should be no surprise. Many people share a feeling that the legitimacy of liberal democracy itself is under siege in their countries. They see as endangered the future of national and international institutions that strive to protect accountability under the law, checks and balances, minority rights, and even sound public policy. They also understand that support for liberal democratic systems elsewhere bolsters the work of strengthening democratic values and practices at home.

Rulers of large non-democratic countries, embodying approaches to governance and civil rights that are at odds with the values of most Brazilians, were also quick to weigh in. Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed Lula’s election and called for taking “the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Brazil to a new level”. As the largest export market for Brazil’s mineral and food resources, China is keen to expand its influence over such an important trading partner. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, despite his close ties to Bolsonaro (who visited Moscow on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine), chimed in, too, if with an unusually worded message to Lula that noted "the vote has confirmed your high political authority".

Hard Tasks Ahead—Think Big, but Pragmatically

Much of Lula's success and soaring popularity as president from 2003 to 2010 (he left office with an approval rating of more than 80 percent) reflected his remarkable skill as a coalition builder. This ability may be even more important, and harder to sustain, as he returns to office in January 2023. Brazil and the world, after all, have changed dramatically in the intervening dozen years.

Almost half of Brazil tilts conservative, in varying hues. Lula's election performance benefited from a large anti-incumbent vote from citizens who saw him as the lesser evil and the safer bet for protecting Brazil's democracy. (Some Bolsonaro votes were likewise purely anti-Lula.) The victor's left-of-center Workers Party (PT) did not match its leader’s success. It now has only 69 seats in Brazil's 513-seat Chamber of Deputies. Bolsonaro's conservative Liberal Party (PL) and its allies, and the heterodox economic and social interests they represent, dominate the legislature.

This outcome will complicate the new president's pursuit of his highest domestic priorities, such as increasing assistance to the poorest Brazilians and reining in Amazon deforestation. He will also lack the fiscal flexibility he had two decades ago, at the start of a major boom in commodity prices. Maintaining the cohesion of a diverse governing alliance capable and advancing key goals will require adroit compromise, moderation, and careful coalition building on virtually all policy. Brazilian political scientist Matias Spektor is cleareyed about the strong headwinds Lula will face from, for instance, interest groups opposed to reducing deforestation that will "work hard to block climate bills and … funds to protect the Amazon".

Foreign Policy: Common Success, Not Zero-Sum?

The Brazilian president will have more autonomy in foreign policy than in domestic affairs, but he will not have a free hand. Here, too, Lula will need to work carefully with domestic interests and international partners to advance his agenda, nurturing a practical and results-focused Brazilian global profile that can also help him advance his domestic agenda.

Early signs of Lula’s ability to do this are mixed. His recent participation, as president-elect, at COP27 was a clear and positive signal, as he said, that "Brazil is back." Yet suggestions he may want to reopen negotiations on the terms of the long-stalled MERCOSUR-EU trade agreement led some observers to question whether the accord will ever enter force.

Achieving foreign policy success will require Lula to act pragmatically and to override advice he is sure to get to project leadership by reverting to old policies. Some of Brazil's foreign policy during Lula's previous tenure, and that of his immediate successor, Dilma Rousseff, seemed to reflect a belief that weakening major western democracies' roles or interests in the global order would assist Brazil's rise. These beliefs undercut trust between Brazil's foreign policy establishment and its U.S. and European counterparts. Some commentators point to that dynamic, and to Lula's former embrace of undemocratic leaders in the region, and argue that expectations of pragmatic transatlantic partnership with Brazil now may represent the triumph of hope over experience.

But that argument may misread current circumstances. These include a largely shared global agenda, one that notably embraces the need to address the climate crisis. This new confluence of interests and constraints may justify more optimism. Much depends on the choices the new president will make, including his senior appointments. Correspondingly, much also depends on the Atlantic partners' willingness to engage.

The current volatile and contested nature of national and geopolitics, combined with an increasingly pressing need for tangible results on key global priorities, may generate interesting new incentives all around. If Brazil and other Atlantic democracies engage fully and in good faith, in ways that respect and leverage the attributes all can bring to a powerful and shared agenda, substantial achievements may be within reach.

Brazil's relationship with the United States in particular may assume an outsized role. Ambassador Thomas Shannon, former US under secretary of state and ambassador to Brazil (and longtime supporter of GMF's programs with Brazilian partner organizations) is clear on this point. "First, the US can offer a strategic partnership that no one else can match. And second, a good relationship with the US will [have great value for Lula because] it will be received well within Brazil, especially the nearly half of Brazil that is right of center."

Atlantic leaders, for their part, seem broadly bullish on new partnership prospects, judging from the many upbeat statements from capitals that seem to surpass the hortatory and zero in on concrete areas of potential new cooperation, including recapitalization of the Amazon Fund. If the MERCOSUR-EU trade agreement does enter into force it would be the world’s largest such accord, extending to an area that encompasses 780 million people and 25 percent of global GDP.


Wide Visions

Some experts are thinking big. Thomas Silberhorn, a German Bundestag member who heads its Brazil group, spoke recently about an opportunity to write "a new chapter in bilateral and bi-regional relations" after notable deterioration in the last four years. He noted that, historically, official European engagement with Brazil has tended to come from a development perspective. He sees a reinvigorated relationship with Brazil now as a more active collaboration-based endeavor, "an extended transatlantic dialogue" that explicitly encompasses the south.

Biden's senior Western Hemisphere advisor, Juan González, agrees. "While Russia's war against Ukraine may have necessarily refocused us on our traditional relations with Europe, Brazil is just key to wider Atlantic partnership to advance so many priorities we all share. Brazil is an important actor.” Still, he cautions, the parties will not agree on everything, "but our common interests are so strong that we need to think of Brazil as a partner of choice, as we do key European partners. The quality of our engagement needs to reflect that. So, we need to show up. And if we don't, others will"