Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has not had much of a honeymoon in his comeback as president of Brazil, delivering mixed results and nursing several wounds – some self-inflicted – after 100 days in office.
The 77-year-old left-wing icon, who basked in record approval ratings when he stepped down from his first two terms (2003-2010), came back for a third on January 1, taking over a country deeply divided by his brutal election battle with far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.
Lula hit the ground running, announcing a flurry of measures aimed at reversing Bolsonaro's legacy, reviving defunct social and environmental programmes, and restoring Brazil's international standing after four years of relative isolation.
But his first months were tarnished by a series of gaffes and a public spat with the Central Bank over the key interest rate – which he insists is too high, to the growing alarm of the business world.
Lula's approval rating stood at 38 percent three months in, according to polling firm Datafolha, a dip from the same period in his first two terms – 43 percent in 2003 and 48 percent in 2007.
While those figures are better than Bolsonaro's – who was polling at 32 percent at the same point in 2019 – Lula has a nearly identical disapproval rating as his predecessor at this point: 29 percent versus 30 percent for Bolsonaro.
Shots in the foot
Things got off to a tumultuous start a week after Lula's inauguration, when rioting Bolsonaro supporters invaded the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court.
Political scientist Denilde Holzhacker says Lula could have made better use of the surge of national unity that followed the attacks, which even right-wing leaders condemned.
"That spirit of unity is gone. The divisions are even bigger now than before," said Holzhacker, a political communication specialist at marketing school ESPM.
Lula has shown a gift for shooting himself in the foot.
A case in point: last month, he claimed a police operation to take out a gang accused of plotting to murder opposition Senator Sergio Moro – the former judge who sentenced Lula to prison in 2017 on since-quashed corruption charges – was just a "show" orchestrated by Moro himself.
That outraged a right-wing that had been "demobilised and isolated" after the January 8 riots, Holzhacker told AFP.
The reenergized right only grew more so when Bolsonaro returned last week from three months in the United States, ending his post-election political reclusion.
Lula "has made a series of unforced errors," economist Rodrigo Zeidan wrote in a column for newspaper Folha de São Paulo.
He cited the president's attacks on the central bank as an example of gaffes that can cause "perverse, unintended effects that stunt economic growth."
Lula "has his style," said economist Andre Perfeito of consulting firm Necton.
"He talks tough, he picks fights."
But "Lula Three" has actually been a relatively austere, market-friendly government so far, he told AFP.
He cited new fiscal rules unveiled last week by Finance Minister Fernando Haddad, which aim to let the government boost social spending without exploding the deficit, and got a warm welcome from markets.
Lula has chalked up some wins: he managed to relaunch his trademark social programme, Bolsa Familia, with increased benefits.
He also won plaudits for deploying the Army to reclaim Brazil's biggest indigenous reservation, the Yanomami territory, from thousands of illegal gold miners who had invaded it and triggered a humanitarian crisis.
His performance on foreign policy has been "relatively positive," said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.
"Lula has managed to normalise relations that had seriously suffered with some countries" under Bolsonaro, he said.
That includes top trading partners China – where Lula will travel next week, after pushing back his trip because of a mild case of pneumonia – the United States, and Argentina.
But Stuenkel warned Lula faces a tough balancing act as he seeks to position Brazil as a go-between and deal-broker on the international stage.
"It will be difficult to maintain a balance between the West, on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other," he said, recalling Lula's reluctance to condemn Moscow for invading Ukraine.
by by Louis Genot, AFP