Can the opposition unite against Duterte?
Earlier this month, a major political earthquake shook Brazil. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as “Lula,” is now on the verge of a historic political comeback, as he seeks to dislodge the notoriously incompetent populist incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro. Over the past year of the pandemic, Brazil has been among the worst-hit nations on earth, with Bolsonaro resisting desperately-needed lockdowns, defying basic science, and preferring mask-free protests over an effective public health policy.
Ironically, the very populist who promised to save his nation from disaster has plunged a once Latin America superpower into an unprecedented crisis. And Bolsonaro’s blunders have provided an opportunity for the once-disgraced and demoralized opposition to climb its way back to power.
The fall and rise of Lula should make for one of the greatest political dramas of our times. Crucially, his saga also carries indispensable lessons for the Philippine opposition, which is also confronting a similarly inept populist. For sure, Lula is not out of the woods yet, given the organized hostility across sections of the bureaucracy, the defense establishment, the upper class, and the broader frontier-like geographic region known as interiorzão. The right-wing elite’s legal warfare (guerra jurídica) against Lula is far from over.
Yet, it’s hard to discount the relevance of the unexpected decision by Brazil’s Supreme Court to annul what leading historians such as Perry Anderson have described as highly politicized corruption charges against the former president.
A recent poll by O Estado de S. Paulo showed that at least half of the electorate “would certainly” or “could” vote for Lula, significantly higher than the 38 percent who are hanging on to Bolsonaro in defiance of facts and their shared hatred of the liberal-left politicians.
Should Lula astutely play his cards, and maintain his current momentum, he could avoid re-conviction by hostile lower courts or, more ominously, political intervention by reactionary generals.
Along with its mind-boggling levels of inequality and corruption-infested institutions, Brazil’s tempestuous politics is something eerily familiar to us Filipinos.
Only a decade ago, during the G20 summit in London, former US president Barack Obama praised his then Brazilian counterpart, Lula, as “my man” and “[t]he most popular politician on earth.” By the time he stepped down from office, Lula had an 80-percent approval rating, a remarkable feat by any democratically elected leader in modern times.
But soon, a combination of corruption scandals (Operação Lava Jato), an economic downturn, and Bolsonaro’s enigmatic charisma conspired against not only Lula and his Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores), but also his entire progressive project. All of a sudden, Lula and his party were held responsible for all the ills of Brazilian society, which clearly transcended his term as well as that of his successor-protégé, Dilma Rousseff. The award-winning documentary “The Edge of Democracy” (2019) compellingly captures this dramatic turn in fortunes.
Both the temporal and political parallels with the fate of the Liberal Party in the Philippines is remarkable. In recent years, right-wing populists in Brazil and the Philippines have been reigning by default, namely on the ashes of a seemingly discredited liberal establishment.
Lula’s political comeback, however, is possible not only because of his personal charisma, but, even more importantly, the concrete organization prowess of his political base. In their magisterial “Why Nations Fail?” (2012), social scientists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson prominently cite Lula’s grassroots movement as an encouraging case of “inclusive” institution-building.
Lula’s decades-long leadership in the labor movement and genuine immersion in grassroots politics created an enduring progressive-liberal coalition, which has withstood the vicissitudes of middle-class ideological swings as well as fierce oligarchic animosity.
And here lies the big lesson for the Philippine democratic opposition in light of the launching of the 1Sambayan united front ahead of the 2022 elections. As important as “dialogue” and “process” are to pluralistic politics, any effective democratic opposition requires a sustained and potent combination of organizational coherence and charismatic leadership.
From Lula’s Workers’ Party in Brazil to Stacy Abrams’ enfranchisement movement in Georgia, it’s crystal-clear that any effective resistance to right-wing populism will require way more than moralistic discourse and ideological posturing. What are needed the most are organizational devotion and audacious, charismatic leadership. Otherwise, right-wing populists will continue to reign by default.
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