Brazilian politics have been upended by the conviction of former president and 2018 presidential candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who earlier this month was charged with money laundering and corruption for accepting bribes from the construction firm Odebrecht. After months of appealing the charges and refusing to let them stand in the way of his bid for a third term as Brazil’s president, Lula surrendered to police on April 7 and began serving his 12-year sentence.
His conviction marks another milestone in the Lava Jato anti-corruption drive, that has so far resulted in the conviction of hundreds of people and the crippling of the state-oil company Petrobras and construction firm Oderbrecht.
Perhaps more worrisome, though, is the continued deterioration of Brazilians’ trust in democracy–with Lula’s conviction months before an upcoming presidential election sure to rattle emotions across the board. According to LAPOP’s 2016-2017 AmericasBarometer, only 57.8% of Latin American citizens support democracy–a decline of more than 10% from 2010–and only 17.5% support existing political parties. Moreover, Brazil’s active president, Michel Temer, has the lowest poll numbers of any Brazilian president since democracy’s return and faces lower approval rates than his impeached predecessor.
Lula’s conviction effectively withdraws him from the race and leaves other contenders scattered across the political spectrum but with room to polarize voters and exploit the frustration in democracy that exists not just in Brazil, but all over the world. Today, candidates like the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro are in a unique position to test the limits of Brazilian democracy.