Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Difference Between Lula and Bolsonaro: What is at Stake?

Thomas Bustamante, Professor of Philosophy of Law, Federal University of Minas Gerais and Global Research Fellow, New York University

The Brazilian Worker’s Party has just released a jingle to promote former Brazilian president Lula da Silva on his 76th birthday, which anticipates the tone of Lula’s campaign for the 2022 presidential elections. The jingle marks a stark contrast between Lula’s and Bolsonaro’s political views.

Bolsonaro’s discourse is grounded in an ethos that presupposes two assumptions: first, the idea that society is divided between good citizens, who support the conservative values of Bolsonarism, and pseudo citizens that attach to less valuable forms of life; second, the thought that good citizens, unlike ordinary people, are entitled to a special liberty that can be described as freedom without responsibility.

Freedom without responsibility is the most central tenet of Bolsonarism. It rejects the liberal account of autonomy, which is based on the Kantian idea that we are free to the extent that we are rational beings who can control our instinct and bear responsibility for what we do to others or to ourselves. In contrast to the enlightenment’s conception about the world, Bolsonarism entitles its supporters (but no one else) to act on inclination without the burden to assess themselves.

Lula’s response is based in the opposite idea, a call for hope and a faith in the capacity of humble and ordinary people to decide their fate. Lula’s political marketing took no more than three sentences to pass this message. The jingle begins with the statement: ‘I wish so much to be governed by someone who can feel our pain’. The first value is thus the value of empathy, of the capacity to share the anguish of the people and to respond appropriately to their needs. In other words, it asserts a duty of the government to threat its citizens as equal subjects, worthy of the same kind of consideration and respect.

In the melody of a forró (the most popular rhythm in Brazil’s humble communities of the North-East), the video shows images of ordinary people from mixed races and introduces a second sentence: ‘Think about what you have seen and what is yet to come – and imagine Lula there [at the presidency]’. This is probably the most powerful message. Instead of promising revenge against his political opponents or responding to Bolsonaro, Lula is telling the Brazilian people (especially the vulnerable, oppressed, and ordinary people) that they can make responsible judgments about themselves. He is treating the people as capable of making inferences and imagining the consequences of their political choice. He is inviting the people to reflect on what we – as Brazilians – have lost in the past decade and appealing to our achievements in the first decade of the Century, to realize what we are capable to do.

The third quote is equally powerful: ‘Suffering requires immediate action – imagine [again] Lula there’. Lula is addressing a people who lost over 600,000 lives to COVID (500,000 after vaccines had become available in the global market), experienced the return of hunger, and has now more than 40 million people in extreme misery. He is calling voters to break the inertia and react to the skepticism that led to the ascension of Bolsonarism. In response to the moral, economic, and social crises that Bolsonaro’s presidency impinged on the Brazilian society, Lula is telling us that politics is the right place to emancipate ourselves.

The next Brazilian elections will be one of the most important political events of the 21st century. While Bolsonaro echoes Trump’s recipe and insists on a campaign of lies, science-denialism, environmental indifference, and resentment against institutions, Lula appeals to the best years of Brazilian history and reassures that reason and emotion can work together. He tells us that democratic politics is about making something valuable of our own lives, and he offers us confidence that Brazil can leave illiberalism behind. The diverging promises and commitments of Lula and Bolsonaro are at the center of the most fundamental political disagreement of our time.

Suggested citation: Thomas Bustamante, The Difference Between Lula and Bolsonaro: What is at Stake? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 17, 2021, at:


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