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Lula's challenges in Brazil

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Brazil's recent presidential runoff ended a long and bitter fight that's engulfed the country for months. But winning the extremely close election could have been the easy part. Leftist and President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva now has the huge task of uniting and governing a bitterly divided country. Current President Jair Bolsonaro, the loser, may have finally signaled he will step down peacefully, but supporters of the far-right nationalist have vowed to fight on. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Rio de Janeiro and joins us now. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

FLORIDO: This was a hard fight and dirty election in Brazil between two men with very different political outlooks. Can the winner really unite and govern this country?

KAHN: That's the big question. The vote was close, just about a 2 million vote difference, less than two percentage points. So you have some 58 million Brazilians who voted for the status quo, for President Bolsonaro. And he's a very provocative and polarizing politician, and so is Lula da Silva. You either love him or you hate him. Many believe he's corrupt. He spent nearly two years in prison on corruption charges that were later overturned. But many people still don't trust him. Then there are the 60 million people who voted for Lula da Silva and believe Bolsonaro should be in jail for a variety of crimes. So it's a divided nation.

FLORIDO: So how will the new president, you know, go about bringing people together?

KAHN: Lula da Silva is really good at uniting disparate interests. Look, he's been in politics for more than three decades, and you don't survive that long without compromising and being flexible. And his campaign was a coalition. He brought together a very different group of politicians and parties together to beat Bolsonaro. You have far leftists and his own Workers' Party to his VP running mate, who's the centrist and conservative. One analyst I was talking to said it's like bringing together Bernie Sanders and George Bush together to defeat Trump. And I spoke with Oliver Stuenkel. He's a Sao Paulo-based international relations professor. And he says Lula da Silva will have to put those skills to work right away because there are some 20 million Brazilians now who are hardcore Bolsonaro supporters. And they say, falsely, that the election was stolen, and their allies in government will get right to work trying to impeach Lula.

OLIVER STUENKEL: Sort of relentless attempts to destabilize the government, while not successful, all these are meant to divert attention and to force the government to put out fires.

KAHN: Stuenkel says relations with the U.S. will be better under Lula da Silva, but will he be too distracted with the internal turmoil to deal with neighbors and foreign interests? We'll just have to see.

FLORIDO: Carrie, let's talk a little bit about the Amazon rainforest and what Lula da Silva is facing there. Can he wrangle back control after so much of the current president's deregulation and deforestation policies there?

KAHN: Deforestation hit all-time highs under Bolsonaro and his pro-development, pro-ag government. The ag industry is strong and won a lot of seats in Congress. Bolsonaro's supporters won in more than half of the states that make up the rainforest. On election night, listen to Lula da Silva pledge to reverse Bolsonaro's dismantling of enforcement and protection of the Amazon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT-ELECT LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: He says Brazil and the planet need a living Amazon, and he will have a zero tolerance for deforestation. He had also pledged to find ways to generate wealth without destroying the environment. That's another tightrope for him to walk. He got some help this week from Brazil's Supreme Court that ruled that this thing called the Amazon Fund, which Bolsonaro dismantled, must be reinstated. And donor countries like Norway and Germany signaled that they're ready to resume support for the fund.

FLORIDO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.