On March 8th, a new development sent shockwaves throughout the entire landscape of Brazilian politics. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had his convictions for corruption and money laundering from 2017 overturned, leaving him, at least temporarily, as one of the leading contenders in the 2022 election, and current President Jair Bolsonaro’s most dangerous rival. Brazil’s right-wing populist superstar, conversely known by his follower as “a myth” and by his detractors as “fascist” might come into confrontation with the man former US President Barack Obama once called “The most popular politician on earth,” and the man at the center of one the greatest corruption scandals ever uncovered. What has brought us here, where are we going, and how are we getting there?
How Lula can run again
Lula was convicted in 2017 as part of the anti-corruption campaign “Operation Carwash” or “Lava-Jato.” His conviction came at the hands of a Curitiba court under the purview of Sergio Moro, who was appointed as Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, who connected the renovation of Lula’s luxury mansion in a beach town near São Paulo with the Petrobras bribery operation uncovered in Operation Carwash. The Supreme Federal Court Justice Luiz Edson Fachin, a minister introduced to the Court during the presidency of Lula’s protégé Dilma Rousseff, annulled Lula’s convictions for corruption and money-laundering. Fachin claimed that the 13th Federal Court of Curitiba, which originally convicted Lula, did not have proper jurisdiction, ordering the re-processing of both cases against Lula, this time through the Federal Court of Brasilia. Lula is not out of the woods quite yet, since even if the Supreme Court upholds Fachin’s ruling, a re-trial could still be conducted. Regardless, for now, his path back into politics has been cleared, promising to present a possible threat to the “Trump of the Tropics” in the upcoming 2022 Presidential election. In the wake of the reversal of Lula’s verdict and a speech he conducted at the ABC Metalworkers Union in São Bernardo do Campo, he disparaged Bolsonaro’s “imbecile” Covid-19 response, claiming under Bolsonaro “Brazil has no government.” Yet, despite rhetoric strongly indicative of an enthusiastic and sure-minded contender, Bolsonaro derided Lula as “having nothing good to show” and PT, the worker’s party of which Lula was, and still is, a leading figure, was waging a campaign “based on criticizing, lying, and misinforming.” But, who is Lula, and is Bolsonaro right to not be worried?
Lula: The man behind the myth
Lula is a former trade organizer who ran a successful campaign for the presidency and held office from 2003 to 2011. He is revered by his supporters for lifting millions out of extreme poverty with a series of generous welfare projects, such as Bolsa Familia, an aid program for poor families. Lula was born in the north-eastern region of Brazil, a region ravaged by poverty, and Brazil’s historical epicenter of radical left-wing politics, and remains incredibly popular there. He was the first democratically elected left-wing President and was hailed as the “most important political figure in Brazil since the end of the military dictatorship” by Eduardo Mello, a professor of politics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. Yet, Lula is nevertheless a profoundly divisive figure. Historically, Lula has refused to ally himself with centrists in congress, working closely with traditional local elites, building his political career along with a series of elaborate corruption schemes. He also distanced himself and Brazil from the US and the EU and aligned Brazil closely with countries such as Russia, China, and Cuba, striking a close relationship with Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro. Critics of Lula claim that his presidency marked a period of extreme corruption in Brazil where economic mismanagement by the PT entrenched private interests in political decision-making. The PT lost much of its popularity by the end of Lula’s second term in office, and his successor, Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 after an economic recession led to massive protests against the ruling left-wing establishment represented by Lula and Dilma.
“Lava-Jato”: The greatest corruption scandal of all time
The “Lava-Jato” or Operation Carwash, which began as a corruption investigation in 2014, implicated swathes of politicians and businessmen from all across Latin America in a gargantuan kickback scheme, where both parties collaborated to inflate the costs of public works to line their pockets at the expense of the population. One of the main companies implicated in the scheme, Odebrecht, and its petrochemical subsidiary, Braskem, admitted to paying 553 million euros in bribes. This construction firm bribed everyone from politicians, lawyers, bankers, and heads of state-owned enterprises, and even created an entire department with the sole purpose of managing its extensive bribery network. Lula was one of the politicians indicted under the operation. His indictment, upheld on appeal, disqualified him from running for political office and resulted in a 500-day imprisonment. Operation Carwash was an important rallying cry in the 2018 election, helping discredit the ruling left-wing coalition, and allowing Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing candidate running on an anti-crime and anti-corruption platform to sweep the election from under Fernando Haddad, PT’s 2018 candidate, and former mayor of São Paulo. Now that Lula might be back in the running, some manner of confrontation between the linchpins of Brazil’s political left and right is inevitable.
Lula VS. Bolsonaro
With 19 months between now and the next election, the field has become a true political arena with two powerful and polarising combatants. An Atlas poll from earlier this week found that 32.7% of interviewees would vote for Bolsonaro, meanwhile, 27.4% would vote for Lula. Bolsonaro has greatly benefited from the absence of a political figure around which the left could coalesce. But, if Lula can overcome the negative image gained through the criminal claims against him, he could potentially breathe new life into the left-wing movement, which was left demoralized after the failures of the Rousseff administration. It remains to be seen whether the PT and aging Lula can attract the young vote to overcome Bolsonaro’s numbers advantage, yet the impact of Covid-19 and the perceived failure of the Bolsonaro administration to contain it could play to his advantage. The current President previously undermined the use of masks and vaccinations, although after the introduction of Lula as a possible contender Bolsonaro has changed his tune on such subjects, by beginning to wear a mask for public appearances and promoting Brazil’s vaccination campaign. This contributes to the view that the threat of a race against Lula will cause Bolsonaro to tone down several of his more divisive views and politics in an attempt to expand his public acceptance. But, besides his effects on Bolsonaro, what is Lula’s strategy for this election?
Bolsonaro won the 2018 election riding a wave of discontent with the left-wing ruling establishment, which large swathes of the Brazilian population decried as inept bastions of corruption who did nothing to alleviate the poverty or violence problems in the country. Yet, to a certain extent, Lula remained insulated from the general criticism of the left and the PT in particular. In Wednesday’s speech at the Metalworkers’ Union, Lula presented himself as a market-friendly, Covid-concerned moderate, striking a decisive distinction with Bolsonaro, who is largely viewed as a radical, for better or worse. Law professor Michael Mogallem of the Getulio Vargas Foundation stated that “if the race goes to a Bolsonaro-Lula runoff, voters in the middle, many of whom disliked both – would lean towards Lula”, hinting at Lula’s ability to appropriate many undecided and independent voters who might agree with Bolsaro’s populist policies to a certain extent but find some aspects of Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and personality distasteful.
To some Lula is an artifact from a bygone era of economic prosperity, to others, he is a symbol of the corrupt political establishment that has siphoned the country of its riches and its promise. Regardless, he may change the course of the 2022 election. Bolsonaro’s term has been plagued by a worldwide pandemic that has wrought economic disaster in Brazil, for which some hold him responsible. Will Lula ride a wave of popularity inspired by growing discontent with the current right-leaning administration just like Bolsonaro once did with the last left-leaning administration? Furthermore, the annulment of the charges against Lula does not change the fact that he was implicated in an infamous corruption scandal, and was possibly at fault for furthering corruption within the halls of Brazilian political power. How will he attempt to overcome this incredible hurdle? Which path will Brazilian politics take? Which of these deeply divisive figures will the Brazilian nation place its hopes on? It remains to be seen.