SALVADOR, Brazil – This is Lula country. Still.
Brazil’s Northeast, the country’s poorest region, remains an enthusiastic hotbed of support for its native son Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who as president from 2003 to 2010 oversaw a historic improvement in living standards that was most pronounced here.
Even though economic boom turned to bust under Lula’s chosen successor Dilma Rousseff, even though Lula himself was ensnared in the “Car Wash” corruption scandal, even though Lula has been in jail on corruption charges since April, and even though Brazilian law stipulates that convicts cannot run for higher office, half of Northeasterners say they would vote for Lula again if given the chance.
A June poll by Datafolha showed that, if Lula were a candidate, he would win 30 percent of the vote nationally – good enough for first place. In the Northeast, Lula’s support jumps to 49 percent – compared to 23 percent in the wealthier Southeast, home to the big metropolises of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
While Lula’s enduring popularity may be baffling to the more urbane set, people here speak not only in terms of popular social programs like Bolsa Familia, or the other ways their lives improved in the 2000s. They also argue that whatever sins Lula committed pale in comparison to other politicians, including current President Michel Temer – the only Brazilian leader ever to be charged with a crime while in office.
In the poor Fortaleza neighborhood of Palmeiras, José Rodriguez de Freitas, a 64-year-old carpenter known locally as Seu Zé, said he is unpersuaded by evidence that Lula has done something wrong. “No one has been able to prove anything,” he said. “Anyway, he can’t defend himself because the rich have more power. (If he stole) it was to give to the poor.”
Seu Zé points across a football field to a row of cheap but clean and well-maintained houses built under the rule of Lula’s Workers’ Party, or PT for its initials in Portuguese. The Minha Casa Minha Vida (“My House, My Life”) program “improved life for people in the backlands. Nowadays you can hardly pay your bills,” he said.
For others, support for Lula is a question of identity. “I’m poor, I’m a petista (a PT supporter),” insisted Estela Motta de Cruz, a 62-year-old pensioner, as she did her morning grocery shopping in Brotas, a low-income neighborhood in Salvador.
A five-minute car journey away is the bright red two-story house that serves as the headquarters of the Matoshi Acupuncture and Massage Center. Antonia dos Santos de Jesus, who works at the center, is another firm fan of the former president. Dos Santos, 47, said conditions in her home village of Aguas Frias, a three-hour bus journey to the north of the state capital, were transformed during the governments of Lula and his successor Rousseff (who was impeached in 2016). “I don’t like the criticism of Lula because people suffered a lot before Lula came in. We used to have to walk three hours a day to get to school and back but now there is a bus. Roads and other things all improved a lot.”
Back in the Palmeiras neighborhood in Fortaleza, Francidélia Conceição Chaves de Moura, a 55-year-old principal of a local secondary school, is another firm PT supporter. “I am going to be honest: My candidates have always been from the left and if Lula were to be a candidate I would definitely vote for him.” She too is unhappy about the former president’s exclusion. “There has been great regression in our country regarding politics. Democracy has gone downhill. The constitution has been disrespected.”
Alberto Almeida, a sociologist, says that the pattern of voting intentions simply reflects a broader divergence in the pattern of political attachment between Brazil’s poorer Northeast and North and the richer South, Southeast and Midwest. Since Lula first took office in 2003, the Northeast’s attachment to the PT and Lula has grown ever stronger, while at the same time the Southeast became more attached to the center-right PSDB party.
In a recently published book, O Voto do Brasileiro, Almeida carefully details the way these voting patterns reflect various measures of social inequality. In general, Almeida finds that factors like the prevalence of the social program Bolsa Familia, low rates of water provision, and low average education rates all make it more likely that an area will vote for the PT and its candidates. This pattern of political preference has a racial component too, with black and pardo (mixed race) Brazilians, who are more heavily concentrated in the Northeast, more likely to vote for the PT than whites.
According to Almeida, although corruption and the weakness of traditional parties have dominated the debate about voting patterns in Brazil, this geographical and social polarization is a more notable long-term trend and could be a big factor in the outcome of the presidential election in October.
More than 27 percent of the country’s electorate is based in the Northeast, making the region central to any aspiring candidate’s campaign calculations. Datafolha’s poll showed that Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing candidate who is performing strongly in the rest of the country, is figuring less impressively here. Without Lula in the race, only 12 percent of Northeasterners would vote for Bolsonaro, compared with 19 percent nationwide.
In fact, I found that even right-wing voters in the Northeast were unenthusiastic about Bolsonaro. Raimundo Luiz Pereira, an 82-year-old retired military policeman from Salvador, told me: “I can’t see my country sink into this abyss. These communist rascals have made a mess of things. The military has to defend the constitution.” Yet he thought Bolsonaro “talks a lot of rubbish” and hoped another figure from the military would enter the race.
Despite the economic growth of the 2000s and the dramatic extension of consumer markets across the country, continuing social inequalities, as well as poorer education and health care provision and higher unemployment, will all be crucial factors in determining how Northeasterners vote.
André Torretta, a São Paulo-based pollster who was born in Salvador, said that it is essential for any would-be candidate in the Northeast to address social issues. “Northeasterners will vote for someone who presents a social discourse. It’s not just about Lula.”
Even so, the fact that Lula was born in the Northeast – in Caetés, in rural Pernambuco – and the social reforms introduced by his governments make him the outstanding preference. “In the Northeast Lula would win without any doubt at all if he were allowed to run,” said Georges Souto Rocha, a trade union activist and PT supporter. “His first government made mistakes but there was a lot of emphasis on social policies”.
The big issue going forward is whether PT voters will transfer their allegiance to their former candidate to an alternative. Datafolha’s poll suggests this is going to be a huge challenge for the PT’s election managers. When it asked respondents how they would vote if Lula is not in the race, 38 percent of Northeasterners said they would either spoil their ballots or leave them empty, compared to 27 percent in the Southeast. Were Lula in the race, only 15 percent of Northeasterners would respond this way, compared with 20 percent in the Southeast.
In Fortaleza, Seu Zé found it difficult to believe that Lula’s name would not be on the ballot. “I am going to vote for Lula. All my life I’ve voted for him because his is the party of the poor. If Lula’s name is not there I won’t vote. I’m not even going to go to the polling station. No, there is no way I’ll bother.”