The Return of Lula

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—Now that the Supreme Court here has overturned Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s convictions in Operation Car Wash on March 7, Brazil’s leftist former president recovers his political rights and can stand as a candidate in the 2022 presidential election. Lula’s comeback might also force the current far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, to moderate his tone, but the prospect of a match between the two men has already fired up Brazil’s left and right.

Supreme Court Minister Edson Fachin ruled that the court in Curitiba, where Da Silva had been convicted on charges of corruption and Money laundering growing out of the Operation Car Wash investigations, did not have proper jurisdiction, ordering that the cases be pursued instead by the Federal Court in Brasília, the country’s capital.

The former President had been sentenced to 12 years in prison, and under Brazilian law the convictions meant Lula’s name could not appear on the ballot in 2018, when Bolsonaro was elected president.

For the past several years, Lula and his supporters have claimed that the convictions were a politically motivated frame-up. Those accusations gained credibility when Sérgio Moro, the former federal judge who oversaw Operation Carwash and presided over Lula’s conviction, was named Justice Minister by President Bolsonaro. But it was only when a source leaked a massive trove of documents to Glenn Greenwald, which he published in The Intercept, that Lula was able to prove that the judge had indeed colluded with prosecutors.

“We have always been correct in this long legal battle, in which we never had to change our fundamentals to demonstrate the innocence of former President Lula and the lawfare that was being practiced against him,” said Lula’s lawyers in a statement.

With his political rights restored now, Lula returned to the political game ready to fight. Last Wednesday the former president spoke publicly for the first time since his vindication. Although he said that it was still “too early” to think about running, his speech had a conciliatory tone which suggested a shift from the ferocity with which he’d maintained his innocence to an electoral strategy.

“This country is disorganized and disaggregated because it has no government,” said the former president, who also called Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic “moronic.”

Addressing his own voters, Lula enumerated the country’s economic challenges and defended income support policies, especially during the pandemic. However he also tried to calm the markets, urging business leaders “Don’t be afraid of me.”

Lula also tried to reassure the Armed Forces and the police—important components of in Bolsonaro’s support; and he thanked international figures, from Bernie Sanders to the Pope, who had spoken out in his defense.

Much of Lula’s speech seemed to hearken back to 2002, when after three unsuccessful attempts he was first elected to the presidency in a campaign that depicted him as “a conciliator in an attempt to appeal to the center,” said the political scientist Carlos Melo.

Lula’s comeback upends electoral politics in Brazil, with the potential to motivate both the left and the right.

“He returns comes at a time of great weakness in the Bolsonaro government,” said Melo. As an epicenter of Covid-19, Brazil has already counted more than 270,000 dead from the disease. The country is also suffering from a weakened economy amidst high unemployment—and the suspension of the government’s financial aid for poor families.

President Bolsonaro’s erratic behavior has also damaged his image. According to a survey conducted by IPEC (Intelligence in Research and Consultancy), 56 percent of respondents would not vote for Bolsonaro in the next Presidential election, while only 38 percent support him.

“It is an advantage for Lula to point out the countless errors of the current government and to exploit the strong rejection of Bolsonaro, that has emerged in recent years,” said Melo.

After the Court’s decision was announced, over 450,000 posts on social media mentioned Lula, mostly from his supporters. Bolsonaro’s base accounted for only 9 percent of the mentions in posts attacking the former president, according to a survey by the Archimedes consultancy for CNN Brazil.

Lula’s re-emergence has already had a visible effect. Soon after his speech, Bolsonaro appeared on his weekly Facebook live speech wearing a mask and promoting Covid-19 vaccination for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. In the same live video, he also compared the social isolation measured imposed by governors in some Brazilian states to the military dictatorship period. “How easy it is to impose a dictatorship. We are seeing municipal guard keeping everyone indoors. Imagine [what] the Armed Forces [could do] with a rifle.” He even went on to proclaim himself “the guarantor of democracy,” adding “they use the virus to oppress you, to break the economy.”

Bolsonaro called his leftist opponent a “donkey” and “carrion.” But Lula’s return could also allow the right-wing politician to rise again, furnishing ammunition for Bolsonaro to turn the election into a referendum on the Workers’ Party. In last year’s municipal elections the Worker’s Party did not elect a mayor in any of Brazil’s capital cities for the first time since 1985. Lula’s party also lost ground to government and center-right candidates in Congress.

Finally, with the country’s politics so unsettled, another scenario must also be considered: the case against Lula can still be reopened in Brasília, and all the evidence collected against him as part of Operation Car Wash can be used in any retrial. If a jury there returns the same verdict, Lula will not be able to be a candidate in 2022. But here the former president may have time on his side, as the slow pace of Brazilian justice means that a retrial—if it takes place—could well last until after the elections in October 2022.

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