The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lula’s campaign missteps stir the question: Has he lost his touch?

Confetti showers former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after the announcement of his candidacy for president on May 7 in São Paulo, Brazil. (Andre Penner/AP)

RIO DE JANEIRO — For months, the candidate known simply as Lula barely had to say a thing. He didn’t need to. As President Jair Bolsonaro failed to control the coronavirus, soaring inflation or out-of-control gas prices, every election poll showed his challenger leading by a wide margin.

But now, with his bid to unseat his bitter rival in the October contest beginning in earnest, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is again before crowds and finally speaking up.

It hasn’t necessarily been a good thing.

Rather than show off what has always been his greatest political talent — dazzling oration — Lula, 76, has made uncharacteristic gaffes. A politician who has always found a way to talk himself out of trouble is now increasingly talking himself into it.

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In recent weeks, he has insulted the police, called Brazil’s elites “slavers,” accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of wanting the war that has devastated his country, and potentially most damaging in an election that could be decided by Brazil’s large evangelical vote, said abortion should be legalized and treated as a public health issue.

“Everyone should have the right and not be embarrassed: ’I don’t want to have a child, and I’m going to take care to not have a child,’” Lula said last month in São Paulo. “What is not right is to have the law require that she has the child.” As in most of Latin America, abortion is illegal in Brazil, with exceptions for rape or when the mother’s life is in danger.

Lula’s comments have come at an inopportune time. Recent polls show he still commands a large lead. But Bolsonaro, 67, whose supporters say Lula’s comments show he represents a “culture of death,” has gained ground. As the pandemic eases and unemployment falls, the race could become still more competitive.

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Prominent voices across the media have increasingly let him have it:

“A silent Lula is a poet,” one of Brazil’s leading newspapers said.

“Shown himself to be confused by the global picture,” added another.

“Verbal incontinence,” Brazil’s famed author Paulo Coelho said.

Lula’s campaign did not address questions about the candidate’s recent comments but disagreed that the race was tightening.

“I don’t think that Bolsonaro is gaining momentum in the polls,” said José Chrispiniano, a spokesman for Lula. “Lula has proposed to reunite Brazil, including those who oppose him or his party and don’t like him.”

Lula is widely considered to be among the most talented politicians Brazil has produced. He rose from extreme poverty in the country’s northeast to build a national political party that won four presidential elections and helped define leftist politics in Latin America for a generation. With little formal education, he has built his career on outsmarting the country’s political elite and giving a voice to millions of Brazilians historically shut out of power.

But he hasn’t run a presidential campaign in 16 years. From 2018 to 2019, he spent 18 months in prison on corruption charges, before being released on a technicality and eventually being cleared of wrongdoing. The country he governed is different from what it was: more polarized, more digitally connected, less economically secure.

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And there is concern that Lula is different, too, embittered by his time in prison and vengeful about the charges that were brought against him.

“He can’t let it go,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political analyst in Brasília. “He seems to be wanting to use the campaign as another trial to absolve himself. His preoccupation with this is a grave error. We need to hear more about the concerns facing the Brazilian people.”

The last time Lula ran a presidential campaign, George W. Bush was still in office. Twitter wasn’t a force in politics; nor were TikTok, WhatsApp, Telegram. Every word Lula uttered on the campaign trail wasn’t recorded on cellphones and instantaneously transmitted to thousands or millions. The stakes for saying something damaging were far lower.

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“The question is how quick will his learning curve be,” said Creomar de Souza, a political analyst and consultant in Brasília. “His party knows how to run a traditional campaign. They know how to build an infrastructure and make commercials for television. But do they know how to conduct a digital campaign and win on social media?

“This will be the biggest difficulty for Lula.”

The challenge could be especially great against Bolsonaro, whose team has mastered the more pugnacious elements of social media, pumping out viral memes, apocalyptic commentary (and, in the process, being ensnared by federal investigations into alleged fake news). Bolsonaro commands a digital army that he sustains with weekly Facebook Live appearances, combative tweets and frequent updates on Telegram, which has far looser controls against disinformation.

“It’s clear that Lula’s communication team doesn’t understand the electoral dynamic in the context of social media,” said Juliano Cortinhas, a political scientist at the University of Brasília. “They are still adapting to this new political world, and it’s a period of adaptation that brings with it errors.”

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In Brazil’s supercharged digital ecosystem, where any word can be amplified and twisted, no misstep ever truly fades away. That’s why, with both Bolsonaro and Lula trying to woo the evangelical vote, Lula’s comments on abortion could prove particularly damaging. Evangelicals account for around one-third of the electorate. Their weight increasingly swings elections.

Social issues are some of the most important to them, said Esther Solano, a sociologist at the Federal University of São Paulo. She has surveyed evangelical voters and found reason for Lula supporters to be alarmed.

“This part of the population is looking for security — material, economic, jobs, income — but it is also looking for moral security, and the question of abortion is central to this,” she said.

Bolsonaro has made abortion a key component of his reelection strategy. So, when Colombia this year decriminalized the procedure during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, Bolsonaro saw an opening. He said he would not let legalization happen in Brazil. “I will fight until the end to protect the life of children,” he said.

Lula appears to understand the importance of this issue. He soon walked back his comments, saying he was personally against abortion.

“He’s talking more about family issues,” Solano said. “Abortion is an issue that could, in fact, cost him the election.”