From London Review of Books:
Contrary to a well-known English dictum, stoical if self-exonerating, all political lives do not end in failure. In postwar Europe, it is enough to think of Adenauer or De Gasperi, or perhaps even more impressively, Franco. But it is true that, in democratic conditions, to be more popular at the close than at the outset of a prolonged period in office is rare. Rarer still – indeed, virtually unheard of – is for such popularity to reflect, not appeasement or moderation, but a radicalisation in government. Today, there is only one ruler in the world who can claim this achievement, the former worker who in January stepped down as president of Brazil, enjoying the approval of 80 per cent of its citizens. By any criterion, Luiz Inácio da Silva is the most successful politician of his time.
That success has owed much to an exceptional set of personal gifts, a mixture of warm social sensibility and cool political calculation, or – as his successor, Dilma Rousseff, puts it – rational assessment and emotional intelligence, not to speak of lively good humour and personal charm. But it was also, in its origins, inseparable from a major social movement. Lula’s rise from worker on the shop-floor to leader of his country was never just an individual triumph: what made it possible was the most remarkable trade-union insurgency of the last third of a century, creating Brazil’s first – and still only – modern political party, which became the vehicle of his ascent. The combination of a charismatic personality and a nationwide mass organisation were formidable assets.
Nevertheless, Lula’s success was far from a foregone conclusion. Elected in 2002, his regime got off to a dour start, and soon came close to disaster. His first year in office, dominated by the economic legacy of his predecessor, reversed virtually every hope on which the Workers’ Party had been founded. Under Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the public debt – nearly half of it denominated in dollars – had doubled, the current account deficit was twice the Latin American average, nominal interest rates were over 20 per cent, and the currency had lost half its value in the run-up to the election. Argentina had just declared the largest sovereign default in history, and Brazil looked – in the eyes of the financial markets – to be on the brink of the same precipice. To restore investor confidence, Lula installed an unblinkingly orthodox economic team at the Central Bank and Ministry of Finance, which hiked interest rates yet further and cut public investment, to achieve a primary fiscal surplus higher even than the figure the IMF had demanded. For citizens, prices and unemployment rose as growth fell by 50 per cent. But what was bitter medicine for militants was nectar to bond-holders: the spectre of default was banished. Growth resumed in 2004 as exports recovered. Even so the public debt continued to rise, and interest rates were hoisted once more. Adherents of the previous regime, who had smarted under Lula’s criticisms of Cardoso, pointed triumphantly to the continuities between the two. For the Partido dos Trabalhadores there was little to boast about.