Quo vadis, Lula ? Problems of the united front and of the democratic front to oust Bolsonaro

The Bolsonarist demonstrations of 7 September concretely placed the coup against the established institutions of the Brazilian state and the 2022 elections as an ongoing process. This was immediately noticed by the liberal opposition, which until then refused to take on impeachment and is now moving in that direction. The first reactions on the left reflect the strategic impasses that we need to discuss and overcome, in particular the positioning of former president Lula on impeachment and the unity of the left with the anti-Bolsonaro right for this purpose. If these two Gordian knots are not cut, the campaign for Out Bolsonaro can never become a broad civic movement necessary for the defense of Brazil’s weak democracy, as the movement for “Direta Já” was in the outcome of the struggle against the military dictatorship in 1984.

1. The coup as a process. The Bolsonarist demonstrations of September 7 in Brasilia, São Paulo and Rio and in small rural towns showed that the ex-captain president has the capacity to mobilize a far-right, neo-fascist, minority but important militant sector in Brazilian society1 . The Bolsonaro government still has the approval of 24% of the population, and part of it is willing to mobilize for the anti-democratic and reactionary banners of the president, his children and supporters. He is the expression of a broader conservative movement, rooted among sectors of agribusiness, in the security apparatus, in religious fundamentalism (especially the neo-Pentecostal churches, but not only), and that has the majority support or connivance of the House of Representatives (of which the Centrists has control)2 .

2. The exasperation of the elites. The policy of the hegemonic sectors of the dominant classes and the liberal parties linked to the great globalized financial capital, was, until now, to let the crisis bleed Bolsonaro, while subjecting him to a growing institutional political siege – by portions of the business class (the “market”), STF and STE, media, portions of the legislature (especially in the Senate) and the majority of governors. But the Brazilian society entered, in 2020, in a phase of recession, anomie, and misgovernment, very unfavorable to the business environment of the big bourgeoisie. The pandemic crisis, approaching 600,000 official deaths, has evolved into a multiform crisis (besides the pandemic, unresolved, stagflation, hunger, despair and attack on the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable, water and energy crisis, the impact on the country of the disorganization of global production chains…). Bolsonaro is not able to deliver what he promised to his broader electorate and the business community; Paulo Guedes has become a pathetic figure3 . The broad bourgeois coalition that brought Bolsonaro to power is broken and his popularity has been slowly fading. And with Biden’s victory, the environmental policy of Bolsonaro and the military, especially for the Amazon, has become a major risk for Brazilian mega-exporters operating in the US and European markets.

3. The emergency rescue operation. When Bolsonaro’s process of tension with the Judiciary, the media, and big business reached almost a point of no return, former President Michel Temer, a central figure in the coup against Rousseff, stepped in on September 8 and orchestrated a letter of retreat and apology from Bolsonaro, recognizing the authority of the STF4 . Of course, this does not represent a retreat from the ongoing coup strategy, but only the realization that the September 7 operation had gone beyond what was acceptable to the “markets,” the mainstream media, and the STF – an operation of which the truckers’ strike, which also had to retreat, was a part. For now, a definitive confrontation has been avoided, although it remains on the horizon.

4. The liberal opposition takes to the streets. The liberal right-wing movements Movimento Brasil Livre5 and Vem para a Rua6 called this September 12 demonstrations for Out Bolsonaro in 18 capitals and in Brasilia – with tensions between them, with Vem para a Rua insisting on simultaneously rejecting Bolsonaro and Lula. They attracted sectors of the non-Bolsonaro right, from the center of the political spectrum, and even from the left, but they rivaled neither the demonstrations called by Bolsonaro nor those the left called after May; numerically they were small. Their relevance is not, however, in the street mobilization, but in the weight that these sectors can offer on the institutional terrain. No less than six presidential candidates were at the events: Ciro Gomes (PDT)7 , João Dória (PSDB)8 , Henrique Mandetta (DEM)9 , Simone Tebet (MDB)10 , Alessandro Vieira (Citizenship)11 and, in Porto Alegre, Eduardo Leite (PSDB)12 . This shift, added to the institutional weight of the left, begins to make the impeachment dispute (which needs 342 votes from 513 members of the Federal Chamber to approve the impeachment – with the left having just over a hundred deputies) viable.

5. The need for a broad civic movement for Out Bolsonaro. But the impeachment or disqualification of Bolsonaro, if he crosses the boundaries drawn by the STF (which is not ruled out – but with Temer’s advisory, he may be more cautious), is not solved only in the Legislative or in the Judiciary. The Bolsonaro Out campaign needs to become a broad civic movement in defense of Brazil’s weak democracy in the streets and in all terrains of society, as was the “Direta Já” movement at the end of the struggle against the dictatorship in 1984 (which, let’s remember, was defeated but led to the transition to the New Republic with the indirect election of the Tancredo-Sarney ticket and the agreement to push for the Constituent Assembly).

The two Gordian knots of the conjuncture

6. The left is not united on Bolsonaro Out. Almost all of the activism of the left, progressivism, and the Brazilian center-left is convinced of the need for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. But there is one decisive actor who does not seem to share this conviction, the former PT president. Lula seems to prefer that Bolsonaro “bleed” until the October 2022 election. Unlike much of the left, he shows signs of not sharing the idea that it is a huge risk even for the elections to leave Bolsonaro operating in the government. If this is really Lula’s policy, it means that the whole of the PT as a political machine, with its governors, mayors, and thousands of deputies and councilmen, will not move, and the movements of the petist camp, which have by far the largest material structure and capillarity throughout the left, will have a protocol presence in the process. Without this structure resolutely engaging in a broader campaign for impeachment, it will not be viable.

This likely electoral calculation by Lula is not officially assumed by the PT bench, which has signed several of the more than 130 impeachment petitions presented in Congress and stalled in the drawers of Arthur Lira, the president of the House and exponent of the Centrists. And it did not express itself, at least not until September 7th, in the decisive action of the popular movements of the PT camp, which co-directed the anti-government acts of July and August. Now, after September 7th, and with the call to the streets by right-wing movements (that were coup plotters), Lula and the PT are taking advantage of the distrust of the vanguard in this liberal right wing, to prevent a broader unity from materializing, a real democratic front for impeachment.

7. Quo vadis Lula? Quo vadis? means “Where are you going” in Latin. It refers to a passage in the apocryphal gospel “Acts of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul”, in which Peter, fleeing from Rome on the Appian Way, meets Jesus carrying a cross and asks him: Quo vadis? Jesus answers: Romam vado iterum crucifigi (“I am going to Rome to be crucified again”). Peter then gains courage to return to Rome to continue his ministry, but ends up crucified. Perhaps it is doubts like the ones Peter had fleeing Rome that are in Lula’s mind. But whatever his questions about impeachment, this central banner for Brazilian society will not advance unless he takes it up. And that should be charged to him. Will he allow the elections of October 2, 2022 to be a repeat, this time perhaps successful, of what Trump attempted in the US on January 6, 2021? Will he play a statesmanlike role, or will he let Brazil fall apart for another 16 months – assuming that there are elections, that Bolsonaro is defeated, and that the victor takes over in January 2023?

8. United front as a dispute. The Fora Bolsonaro Campaign is structured around the Frente Povo Sem Medo (People Without Fear Front), pulled by the MTST, the Frente Brasil Popular (Popular Brazil Front), pulled by the organizations of the petist camp, and the Coalizão Negra por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights). It would represent a large united front of the left in its goal of calling for street mobilization for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. Its polemics would apparently be with divisive leftists. In fact, it is strongly structured – and nationally, in a federal country – around organized movements and, over the last decade, these movements have lost strength, advocacy capacity and capillarity.

However a campaign with the objective of weighing on the mood and consciousness of large portions of the population to overthrow the president-elect in 2018 should be strongly decentralized, capillarized, and organized from the base (as was the Campaign against the FTAA in 2001 and 2002).But this hierarchization reflects the great regression in the understanding of mass democracy of the Brazilian left in recent decades and it is naive to think that these directions will become more democratic, dialogical and more transparent without a popular explosion in the country.

On the other hand, and here is the sword capable of cutting the first Gordian knot, why do the movements and the streets not demand the effective commitment of Lula and the broader PT structure in the struggle for impeachment? Let us recall that the concept of united front was formulated by the Third International, between 1921 and 1922, as a tactic of dispute for the leadership of the movement against the conciliatory leaderships. To reduce the idea of a united front to agreements between leaderships for a unitary action is to empty it of 90% of its meaning. It is necessary to demand that the institutional left take to the streets and put unity to defeat Bolsonaro above any differences between Lula and other leaders and candidates. It is necessary to get the PT and the petistas out of the comfortable position of affirming that they are in favor of the impeachment, when what they have been doing lately is surfing electorally on the government's wear and tear. It is necessary that those who refuse to move forward to broaden the movement for impeachment pay a high price in front of the vanguard of the workers and the people.

9. Unity of action with the center and the liberal right. The second knot to untie is to constitute a broad democratic front capable of incorporating all sectors that can engage in pressures and mobilizations to oust Bolsonaro, with no other considerations than support for the impeachment vote. In the political polarizations of the last decade, the idea that a civic movement essential to the country can (and should) put on the same platform political forces with very opposing projects was lost. The best example of this is the "Diretas Já" Campaign. For an act of one million people to be held in Candelária, in Rio de Janeiro, on April 10, 1984, and another of one and a half million to be held in Anhangabaú, in São Paulo, on April 16, 1984, a unitary process was deflagrated by the initial act of 15 thousand people in São Paulo, in Charles Miller Square, on November 27, 1983. Dozens of events, concerts and protests, large and small, were held on different dates in the main cities of the country, creating the sensation of a snowball process, involving from governors to artists, union leaders and soccer players. No political leader of the opposition thought of staying out of the process and no one was able to say that he or she would not get on the platform with so-and-so or so-and-so. The Fora Bolsonaro process will only be successful if it includes Lula, Doria, Ciro Gomes and Kim Kataguiri13 .

10. Time and electoral contagion. Time is the key to capitalize on the window of opportunity opened at this juncture, in any of the possible ways: impeachment - in the best case scenario -, annulment of the candidacy, disqualification. If the mobilization process does not gain momentum in the coming weeks, by the end of this year, it will simply not take off. The movements are already contaminated by electoral disputes (as shown by the actions of Vem para a Rua, against Lula, on September 12) and this is already an essential problem to involve the PT and Lula. But without this, the 2022 election will be a roller coaster of possibilities and adventures on the edge of the abyss - for the democratic political forces and for Brazilian society.

São Paulo, 13 September 2021

* José Correa Leite, a political scientist and university lecturer, was a facilitator of the World Social Forum and an activist of the Socialist Democracy Tendency of the Workers' Party until 2005. He joined the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) in September 2005. He is a member of the leadership of the Insurgencia tendency (member of the Fourth International) of the PSOL.



  • 11. The demonstrations on September 7, 2021, Independence Day, organized by Jair Bolsonaro, gathered several hundred thousand people in 160 cities. In São Paulo the Bolsonarists numbered 125,000 (according to the military police) and a similar number on the esplanade of the ministries in Brasilia.
  • 2Grouping of center-right parties, formed in the spring of 2014 at the initiative of Eduardo Cunha, then president of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) to oppose President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers' Party (PT), then including, in addition to the PMDB, the Progressive Party (PP), the Republic Party (PR), the Social Christian Party (PSC), the Republican Party of Social Order (PROS), the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) and Solidariedade. After Cunha's resignation on charges of corruption, the leaderless Centrão became a collection of centre-right parties, without a strong ideology but united to gain greater influence or positions in Brazilian institutions. Under Jair Bolsonaro, the Centrão remains a force to be reckoned with in parliament and trades its support for the president for positions in the administration. It won about half of Brazil's municipalities in the 2020 municipal elections, from which it emerged stronger.
  • 3Paulo Guedes, an ultra-liberal Brazilian economist and member of the "Chicago Boys" known for his climate skepticism, campaigned for Bolsonaro and was appointed Minister of the Economy.
  • 4Two days after his September 7, 2021 mobilization, Bolsonaro signed a letter written by former president Michel Temer in which he said he never intended to attack the powers that be.
  • 5The Free Brazil Movement (MBL), founded in 2014 "to promote free-market responses to the country's problems" (according to The Economist) organized protests for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and then helped the Temer government promote counter-reforms, such as the social security reform. He has recently abandoned Bolsonism and opposed the government.
  • 6Come to the Streets (VPR) is a political-social movement that declares itself nonpartisan and opposed to authoritarian governments, founded in October 2014 to secure the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. It has organized anti-corruption protests, including those of March 15, 2015 and March 13, 2016, considered the largest popular mobilizations since the beginning of the New Republic. He has recently opposed the Bolsonaro government.
  • 7Ciro Gomes was a minister in the governments of Itamar Franco (1994-1995) and Lula (2003-2006) after serving as the state government of Ceará (1991-1994). Candidate of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT, center-left) in the 2018 presidential election, he had received 12.5% of the votes cast. While announcing that he will fight Bolsonaro "for democracy and against fascism," he did not go so far as to call for a second round vote for Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate.
  • 8João Dória, businessman and multimillionaire, member of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB, center-right), governor of the state of São Paulo since 2019, former mayor of São Paulo (2017-2018), had supported Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election, before breaking with him and trying to seduce the disappointed of Bolsonarism. He aspires to be his party's presidential candidate in 2022.
  • 9Henrique Mandetta, a physician, member of the Democrats party (DEM, liberal-conservative), was Minister of Health (2019-2020) of Bolsonaro, whom he opposed by proposing social distancing from Covid and opposing the use of chloroquine, which caused him to lose his position.
  • 10Simone Tebet, lawyer, teacher and writer, affiliated with the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB, formerly PMDB, social-liberal and conservative), senator of Mato Grosso do Sul since 2015, she defended a bill to suspend the demarcation of indigenous lands.
  • 11Alessandro Vieira, center politician, member of Cidadania (Citizenship, center). A former police chief in the state of Sergipe, he was removed from office by the governor after initiating a process of arrests of local corrupt individuals. Elected senator in 2018 with the support of the Sustainability Network party (REDE, center-left environmentalist), he broke away from it by supporting Bolsonaro's election in the presidential runoff. He proposed the criminalization of LGBTphobia and the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes. He declared Bolsonaro's conduct during the pandemic a crime of responsibility punishable by impeachment.
  • 12Eduardo Leite, governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul since 2019 (Brazil's first openly gay governor), a member of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB, center-right). He supports the privatization of public companies (including the Rio Grande do Sul water supply company), gay marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana, he opposes the decriminalization of abortion. In February 2021 he announced his pre-candidacy within the PSDB for the presidency of the Republic in 2022. He had supported Bolsonaro in the second round in 2018, but criticized his "radical" position during the health crisis.
  • 13Kim Kataguiri, neoliberal journalist, one of the co-founders of the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), spoke out in favor of lifting the habeas corpus of former president Lula in 2018. Federal deputy of the DEM since 2019. He called for a "useful vote" in favor of Bolsonaro in the second round in 2018, but in 2021 he calls for his impeachment and co-organized the September 12 protests of the liberal right in this sense.

José Correa Leite