Brazil presidential elections: Lula’s campaign mistakes give opening to Bolsonaro

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RIO DE JANEIRO — For months, the candidate known simply since Lula barely had to say anything. She didn’t need to. With President Jair Bolsonaro unable to control the coronavirus, skyrocketing inflation or out-of-control gasoline prices, all election polls showed his rival leading by a wide margin.

But now, with his bid to unseat his bitter rival in October’s contest beginning in earnest, the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stands before the crowd again and finally speaks.

It hasn’t necessarily been a good thing.

Instead of displaying what has always been his greatest political talent, dazzling oratory, Lula, 76, has made unusual mistakes. A politician who has always found a way out of trouble by speaking for himself is now becoming more and more convinced to get into it.

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In recent weeks, he has insulted police, called Brazil’s elite “slave traders,” accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of wanting the war that has devastated his country, and potentially more damage in an election that could be decided by Brazil’s broad evangelical vote said abortion. it must be legalized and treated as a public health problem.

“Everyone should have the right and not feel ashamed: ‘I don’t want to have a child, and I’m going to take care not to have a child,’” Lula said last month in São Paulo. “What is not right is that the law requires her to have the child.” As in most of Latin America, abortion is illegal in Brazil, with the exception of rape or when the life of the mother is in danger.

Lula’s comments have come at an inopportune moment. Recent polls show that she still has a huge lead. But Bolsonaro 67, whose supporters say Lula’s comments show he represents a “culture of death,” has gained ground. As the pandemic eases and unemployment falls, the race could become even more competitive.

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Prominent voices in the media have increasingly criticized Lula:

“A silent Lula is a poet”, said one of the main newspapers in Brazil.

“He was confused by the global picture,” added another.

“verbal incontinence”, the famous the writer paulo coelho said.

Lula’s campaign did not address questions about the candidate’s recent comments, but did not agree that the race is tightening.

“I don’t think Bolsonaro is gaining momentum in the polls,” said José Chrispiniano, a spokesman for Lula. “Lula has proposed the reunification of Brazil, including those who oppose him or his party and they don’t like him.”

Lula is widely regarded as one of the most talented politicians Brazil has produced. He emerged from extreme poverty in the northeast of the country to build a national political party that won four presidential elections and helped define leftist politics in Latin America for a generation. With little formal education, he has built his career in outwitting the country’s political elite and giving a voice to millions of Brazilians historically excluded from power.

But he hasn’t run a presidential campaign in 16 years. From 2018 to 2019, he spent 18 months in prison on corruption charges, before being released on a technicality and ultimately acquitted of wrongdoing. The country he ruled is different than it was: more polarized, more digitally connected, less financially secure.

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And there is concern that Lula is also different, embittered by his time in prison and vengeful for the charges brought against him.

“He can’t let it go,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political analyst in Brasilia. “He seems to want to use the campaign as another trial to acquit himself. His concern for this is a serious mistake. We need to hear more about the concerns facing the Brazilian people.”

The last time Lula ran a presidential campaign, George W. Bush was still in office. Twitter was not a force in politics; neither were TikTok, WhatsApp, Telegram. Every word Lula spoke on the campaign trail was not recorded on cell phones or broadcast instantly to thousands or millions. The stakes for saying something damaging were much lower.

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“The question is how fast their learning curve will be,” said Creomar de Souza, a political analyst and consultant in Brasilia. “Your party knows how to run a traditional campaign. They know how to build an infrastructure and do TV commercials. But do you know how to run a digital campaign and win on social media?

“This will be the biggest difficulty for Lula.”

The challenge could be especially great against Bolsonaro, whose team has dominated the most aggressive elements of social networks, releasing viral memes, apocalyptic comments (and, in the process, being caught by federal investigations into alleged fake news). Bolsonaro commands a digital army that he sustains with weekly appearances on Facebook Live, combative tweets and frequent updates on Telegram, which has much looser controls against disinformation.

“It is clear that Lula’s communication team does not understand the electoral dynamics in the context of social networks,” said Juliano Cortinhas, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. “They are still adjusting to this new political world, and it is a period of adjustment that brings with it mistakes.”

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In Brazil’s supercharged digital ecosystem, where any word can be amplified and misrepresented, no misstep truly vanishes. That is why, with Bolsonaro and Lula trying to attract the evangelical vote, Lula’s comments on abortion could prove particularly damaging. Evangelicals make up about a third of the electorate. Its weight makes the elections more and more oscillate.

Social issues are some of the most important to them, said Esther Solano, a sociologist at the Federal University of São Paulo. She has surveyed evangelical voters and found reasons for Lula’s supporters to be alarmed.

“This part of the population is looking for security — material, economic, job, income — but they are also looking for moral security, and the issue of abortion is central to that,” he said.

Bolsonaro has made abortion a key component of his re-election strategy. So when Colombia this year decriminalized the procedure during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, Bolsonaro saw an opportunity. He said that he would not allow legalization in Brazil. “I will fight to the end to protect children’s lives,” he said.

Lula seems to understand the importance of this issue. She soon retracted her comments, saying that she was personally against abortion.

“He’s talking more about family matters,” Solano said. “Abortion is an issue that could actually cost him the election.”

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