July 20, 2024

ILONA SZABO: Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s election victory over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro last month sends a powerful message to the rest of the world. Though he won only narrowly, Lula, as he is known, succeeded by building a broad democratic coalition spanning from the far left to the center right.

Facing a deeply divided country, the president-elect is now setting the tone for a four-year term that will begin in January 2023. In his victory speech, he promised to establish a civil, inclusive, conciliatory and green government. And by calling for healing and solidarity, he offered a sharp contrast to his predecessor’s divisive rhetoric.

Make no mistake: Lula will face tremendous headwinds in governing the world’s fourth-largest democracy. Although his convictions were annulled, many Brazilians are outraged that a man formerly implicated in corruption scandals is returning to the presidency. Lula will also have to deal with a sizable far-right bloc of legislators, daunting economic challenges and a simmering culture war unleashed by Bolsonaro and his militant supporters.

Still, Lula has an opportunity to be a transformational president — and in ways that would exceed what he achieved during his hugely popular first presidency from 2003 to 2010. He will need to offer a blueprint that emphasizes four main priorities.


For starters, Lula must position Brazil as a green superpower and a global leader in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. Home to more than 60 percent of the world’s tropical forests, 20 percent of its fresh water and at least 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, Brazil is particularly well suited to assuming an environmental leadership role.


But both the public and private sectors will need to abandon business as usual and seize the opportunities offered by the global green and orange (creative) economies. That means supporting policies to align agricultural, livestock, pharmaceutical and commodity markets with conservation goals and investing in the technologies and skills needed to support the bioeconomy, biotechnology and environmental services and regeneration. With the right incentives in place, Brazil is capable of building a 100 percent renewable energy grid and a sustainable food production system.


Equally important, the deforestation must end, especially in the Amazon, where 94 percent of such activities are occurring illegally. Lula’s government will have to disrupt the complex illicit economies and supply chains that have been fueling this destruction. Enforcing forest protections, empowering environmental authorities and indigenous groups, strengthening the rule of law and ensuring that companies deliver full traceability and transparency in their supply chains are all essential. Brazil can and should also ramp up multilateral entrepreneurship in the Global South, including by promoting arcs of restoration and alliances to protect tropical forests across the Amazon, Great Lakes of Africa and Southeast Asia.


Second, Lula must promote reconciliation and coexistence at home. As he noted in his victory speech, political polarization has heightened the risk of violence. The new government will need to foster closer partnerships with civil society and the major digital platforms to rein in disinformation and safeguard civic and digital rights.


Brazil’s divisions are constantly amplified on social media and messaging services. But solutions are within reach. Brazil’s Superior Electoral Tribunal played a critical role during the recent election by working with eight leading social media platforms, fact-checking agencies and civil society organizations to detect and disrupt disinformation. But de-platforming anti-democratic actors and moderating digital harms is not enough. Brazil should absorb lessons from other countries that have reduced online and offline polarization.


For example, encouraging “intergroup contact,” such as through citizen assemblies, has been shown to reduce prejudices between constituencies, as have projects built around “superordinate goals” (like the effort to make Brazil a green superpower). Beyond that, Brazilian leaders need to foster a political culture in which citizens focus more on policies than on personalities — for example, by allowing for more open consultations and participatory decision-making.


Third, Lula should strive to reinvigorate global initiatives to address poverty, inequality and food insecurity. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, many lower and middle-income countries’ sustainable development efforts have suffered massive setbacks. And as global financial and monetary conditions have tightened, many countries have been barreling toward punishing debt crises that will hit the most vulnerable communities the hardest.


Under Lula, Brazil should advocate a global agenda to promote not just the UN Sustainable Development Goals but also closer “South-South cooperation” to deliver material benefits for the world’s poorest. Brazil has a venerable diplomatic tradition of supporting global cooperation through multilateral institutions and other forums designed to serve developing countries’ interests. In a fragmented and divided world, its ability to build consensus and foster partnerships will be more important than ever.


Lastly, Lula should leverage Brazil’s international credibility to spur multilateral action against new global risks. Political and diplomatic leadership is needed to reinforce fragile norms barring weapons of mass destruction, to reduce the harms associated with new technologies and to mobilize investments in climate-related mitigation and adaptation efforts, especially in countries that stand to incur the greatest costs from global warming despite being the least responsible for it.


Even though Brazil’s new government must attend to its domestic challenges, it can and should lead the charge against these systemic, interconnected global risks. The world needs Brazil’s voice, which means that Brazil now needs to emerge from the shadow of the past four years.


Author: Ilona Szabo, Co-Founder and President of the Igarape Institute, is a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism.

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