The Return of Lula: What to expect in Brazil?

by Kevin Prest
Higher Education Institutions

In the last presidential elections, Brazil made a turn to the left again after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva beat by a wafer-thin victory Jair Bolsonaro. The presidential campaign was highly divisive, and the animosity that characterised it is unlikely to disappear in the long- term.

Lula’s return brings high hopes not only to Brazilians, but also to countries in Latin America and further afield: greater international cooperation, as well as improvement of national economic, social, and political conditions. However, Lula is not facing an easy term. It will prove to be extremely hard to reconcile economic growth with his ambitious political platform. Lula receives a country sunk in deep poverty, high crime rates, and stagnant economic development. Furthermore, unfavourable global economic conditions and high inflation could undermine Lula’s  plans.

The current political climate in Brazil cannot be compared with that of the early 2000s, when Lula was first elected. Back then, he won with a clear majority and with the absence of an opposition that today is firmly consolidated. Bolsonaro leaves behind serious political and social disruption, and Lula will be governing a deeply polarised country with a fragile parliamentary basis to pass legislation. Bolsonarism is alive and kicking in Brazil: the conservative Liberal Party (PL) and allies hold majority in the Parliament. Lula will, therefore, be forced to strike deals with an opposition that despises him and what he stands for, while, trying to preserve the support of millions of Brazilians.

Although Lula did not run with a specific platform concerning higher education (HE), there is hope that this sector will fare, if not well, at least particularly better than under Bolsonaro. Under the previous administration, the education ministry was at the centre of scandal and controversy due to allegations of corruption. Lula decided to appoint Camilo Santana, former governor of Ceará,  as the new minister of education. It is expected he will bring education back to the forefront of the agenda.

Bolsonaro perpetuated an enduring attack against public universities in an attempt to destroy their autonomy. University budgets and academic research experienced serious cuts in resources that crippled several HE institutions up to this day. Students were also badly affected. More than 100, 000 students rely on scholarships whose value has not increased for more than 9 years. Lula has promised that education will be a priority in his government, and he is expecting to gain the trust back of the HE sector.

Transnational Education and distance learning programmes may be one of the first steps Lula will take to boost education in Brazil. The last HE census showed that new enrolments in online education have, for the first time in history, surpassed on-campus study. The graduate sector may also experience considerable expansion, as well as the support for further international mobility. Although all this is positive, it is all conditioned by Lula’s ability to gain broad political support for his initiatives, if unable, he runs the risk of starting his presidency with a serious legitimacy crisis.

Lula faces an overloaded agenda when it comes to education: there are demands for restoring and increasing education’s federal budget; upgrading infrastructure in schools and universities; and widening access to information technology in HE. Students are also expecting new policies aimed at increasing financial support and number of scholarships available to them. Education, however, will also compete with other sectors such as health, security, housing, and public infrastructure that have faced reductions and are in serious need of an economic boost. The central question is: How will Lula manage so much need under a divided government, a polarised society and adverse economic prospects?

Many people have great expectations regarding Lula’s extensive agenda. During his previous presidential terms, his government was broad and differentiated. This was possible under the extraordinary circumstances created by the Brazilian economic boom of the 2000s. Unfortunately, today’s picture is completely different both internally and internationally. Brazil faces the prospect of long-term stagnation, high inflation, worsening insecurity, and unemployment. All of this will stretch the public budget to its maximum. It is true that under Lula, HE, as well as other sectors, have a reason to be hopeful and expect better days. How much better? Only time will tell.

About the author

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza is Head of Americas Education and Insight Hub and holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Aberdeen.

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