Opinion: Brazil bids farewell to its ‘Trump of the Tropics.’ Now the hard work begins

screengrab lula speech
Hear what Lula said after narrowly beating Bolsonaro
02:16 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He holds a master’s degree in economics from the Universidade do Estado de São Paulo at Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil and has worked with the country for nearly 30 years advising corporate and political clients on communications strategies. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

This Sunday more than 120 million Brazilians went to the polls to vote in a run-off presidential election in which former President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva posted a stunning political comeback.

Arick Weirson

Lula beat incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro with 50.9% of the vote against Bolsonaro’s 49.1% – a difference of roughly two million of the eligible votes cast.

It was a nail-biter of an election with the final result coming only after nearly all of the votes from the country’s 577,000 electronic voting machines had been tabulated.

On one hand, Lula’s victory marked a sharp rebuke of Bolsonaro’s irreverent and often-times controversial governing style, which earned him the derisive moniker as the ‘Trump of the Tropics.’

Not only was Bolsonaro in fact endorsed by former US President Donald Trump, but like Trump, he was widely criticized for his handling of the coronavirus which resulted in nearly 700,000 deaths in the country, according to the World Health Organization.

Moreover, Bolsonaro’s aggressive anti-LGBT agenda, decidedly anti-environmental policies and authoritarian tendencies made him something of a pariah in the international media.

Lula’s comeback

Lula, who previously served two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, also brought his fair share of baggage to this election. In fact, if it were not for his conviction being annulled on a jurisdictional technicality for his role in “Operation Car Wash” – one of the largest public corruption scandals in the world – Lula would still be serving out his 12-year prison sentence.

His detractors have feared that his return to public office might usher in a new wave of large-scale graft and inefficiency with Brazil’s economically relevant state-owned companies.

Not since the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980s have Brazilians been faced with two more starkly contrasting candidates, each with diametrically opposing political outlooks for the country.

And with Lula winning by a little over two million votes while around five million votes were purposely left blank or spoiled by voters, it’s clear that a sizable percentage of the voting population didn’t buy into either of their visions for the country.

A deeply divided Brazil

Although it’s still early, fears that Bolsonaro might not accept the results or even stage a coup are quickly dissipating as even pro-Bolsonaro conservative media is accepting the results.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, now come January 1, when Lula is sworn in for his third term as President, he will have to find a way to govern a country that is deeply divided and highly mistrustful of the other side.

Unlike in his past victories where Lula came into office with a clear mandate, winning over 60% of the votes in both 2002 and 2006, this time not only did Lula eke out a the slimmest of victories, but he will face a congress that is still very much aligned with Bolsonaro.

In fact, in the first-round election in early October, allies of the current president took a plurality of seats in both the lower chamber as well as the Senate.

Moreover, with the down-ballot results of Sunday’s run-off elections for governorships across the country, it’s clear that allies of Bolsonaro will be in power in 14 of Brazil’s 27 states including the most economically important states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.

A hefty to-do list

And it’s in this context that Lula will have to confront seismic challenges on multiple fronts. Brazil has been in something of an economic freefall since the onset of the pandemic and has yet to fully recover.

Hunger has reemerged as a pressing social concern while racial inequities have been exacerbated in recent years. Urban violence continues to terrorize cities across the country and systemic corruption is still rampant.

Perhaps most importantly for the rest of the world, Brazil’s role in the fight against global warming is undeniable – the country is home to a large part of the Amazon rainforest. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation of the Amazon surged. Lula meanwhile, highlighted the need to protect the rainforest in his victory speech, saying his administration would “fight for zero deforestation.”

That said, mobilizing the requisite political force needed to address these issues in this country of 215 million will be anything but easy.

But if there is a silver lining to Lula’s victory it is that both regional powers and financial markets seem to be willing to extend a hand in helping the incoming president as he pursues his governing agenda.

Lula will be embraced with open arms by many of Latin America’s leftist leaders who have been propelled to victory in recent years, as well as across global financial markets where investors are cautiously bullish on the growth prospects of a Lula-led Brazil.

Lula would be wise to lean into these international partnerships as he begins to form a government.

But perhaps most importantly, Lula’s success – and that of the country as well – will likely hinge on the president’s well-honed political skills and his ability to extend an olive branch to key political leaders who supported Bolsonaro as he looks to build a coalition that can help him bring his political agenda to fruition.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    There is already talk on Brazil’s right about impeaching Lula – a very real possibility with ample historical precedent given that two of out of the eight presidents Brazil has had since the country’s return to democracy in the 1985 were removed from office before the end of their terms.

    The stakes are high for Brazil. And the stakes are high for Lula, not only politically but personally as well.

    Correction: An earlier version gave an incorrect number for the turnout in the Brazil election.