Illustration Credit: Osmani Simanca, Cagle Cartoons
This past week, a supreme court judge in Brazil restored former President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva’s political rights, annulling a series of corruption convictions against the left-wing icon and all but ensuring that Lula will challenge incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro in 2022. Lula’s potential presidential candidacy will still hinge on whether or not Brazilian courts elect to re-commence judicial proceedings against him, a scenario that appears unlikely given the cumbersome and slow-moving Brazilian judicial bureaucracy. (The invalidation of Lula’s newly restored eligibility to stand for political office would both require him to be convicted again and for an appeals court to uphold such a conviction).
Lula, who governed Brazil for two terms between 2003 and 2011, oversaw a period of commodity-fueled economic growth. Although he had planned to seek a third presidential term in 2018, he was stripped of his right to run for public office after being jailed on disputed corruption charges, and not released from prison until November 2019. While supporters of Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party (PT)) rejoiced at the recent announcement, some Brazilians may chafe at the prospect of a presidential race dominated by two uniquely polarizing figures—Lula and Bolsonaro—and the marginalization of Brazil’s political center that such a matchup would seemingly entail.
In his first public statements since the annulment of his convictions, Lula claimed that he has not yet decided whether he will run for president in 2022. However, in an address to the nation on Wednesday, Lula appeared to have already pivoted to campaign mode: attacking Bolsonaro for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis while casting himself as a veteran statesman, eager to restore stability and prosperity to Brazil; stressing his respect for the free press, business leaders and the military; and calling for the formation of a broad electoral coalition to defeat Bolsonaro. While Bolsonaro shrugged off his rival’s initial attacks, within hours of Lula’s speech, he and his aides appeared at an official government event wearing masks — a rare sighting for a president who has generally disparaged mask-wearing and said he would refuse to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Lula’s prospective return to the political arena comes just one month after Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash)—the years-long corruption inquiry that arguably reached its zenith with Lula’s 2018 arrest—quietly concluded, following the dissolution of its prosecutorial task force. Lava Jato, which at its peak was regarded as the most expansive anti-corruption investigation in the world, initially yielded impressive results, implicating numerous high-level politicians and businessmen in corruption and bribery schemes and recovering millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. Despite such notable successes, Lava Jato eventually came to be widely viewed as one of the greatest judicial scandals in Brazilian history, with critics alleging that the campaign ultimately failed in its goals of eradicating corruption, promoting political transparency, and strengthening democracy; and succeeded only in paving the way for Bolsonaro’s political rise to the presidency.
Lula—simultaneously adored by some Brazilians for his redistributionist economic policies (such as his flagship social welfare program, the Bolsa Família) and loathed by others for his role in several scandal-plagued PT governments—has already begun to make his influence on the Brazilian economy known. On Monday, as news broke that Justice Edson Fachin had dismissed Lula’s criminal convictions, the Brazilian real and stock market dropped precipitously, reflecting investors’ worries that the specter of Lula’s political comeback will derail the implementation of urgently-needed fiscal reforms. In his speech—which he gave at the metalworkers’ union headquarters in São Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo, where he first launched his political career decades ago—Lula did little to dampen such concerns, as he denounced privatizations, the autonomy of Brazil’s central bank, and asset sales by state-run oil firm Petrobras. Although the market rebounded slightly within 24 hours, the financial aftershocks of Fachin’s announcement only worsened what has already been a historically poor year for the Brazilian economy. The Brazilian real is down 11 percent so far in 2021—the worst showing among all major global currencies—as surging COVID-19 case counts and resulting lockdowns continue to impede a sustained economic recovery.