Politics Society

Lula: From Disgraced Leader to Brazil’s Saviour?

By Nikhil Bandlish

“In Brazil, a poor man goes to jail when he steals. When a rich man steals, he becomes a minister.” 

Congressman Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, 1988

Accurate? Fairly. Ironic? It would appear so. But for a number of precarious years, the Brazilian political system has been marred with turmoil; scandals, combative rhetoric and controversial figures. Public trust or a lack thereof arguably pushed the voters into the arms of the rightwing populist Jair Bolsonaro, known for his outspoken nature, bullish rhetoric and apparent disregard for traditional political norms (whether or not this is a point in his tally is entirely subjective). 

Yet not so long ago, Brazilians were confident that among the ravenous cacophony of the national political system, there was an ally with the best of intentions, one that was prepared to champion the working class with no strings attached and nothing to lose. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, affectionately known as “Lula”, was a founding member of the “Partido dos Trabalhadores” party, the Workers’ Party, in 1980. Hailing from a working-class background himself, he became a central figure in the late nineties as Brazil transitioned from a military junta to a democratic system. 

Despite his charming personality that has endeared himself so emphatically with the people, in recent times he has found himself on the end of what can be described (depending on who you support) as either Brazil’s largest corruption scandal, or a conspiracy specifically designed to discredit his work and progress – whilst conveniently sentencing him to political oblivion.

So, just how has such a scrupulously curated figure found himself in this position?

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In a recent ruling, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the judge overseeing Lula’s case was biased, throwing out the corruption conviction against him and springing doubt into the other charges he presently faces, and has faced in the past. This saga has been a lengthy appeal for both the former president and the country as a whole. It comes at a time when Bolsonaro has been put under immense pressure from the opposition following his controversial approach to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But Lula himself is no stranger to controversy. The Mensalão scandal of 2005 refers to a vast vote-buying scheme, allegedly masterminded by the Workers’ Party, which involved bribing federal officials in numerous states through an advertising agency hired by the ruling party. Although Lula was not implicated in the aftermath, his allies and his party were charged with several offences. The reaction of his government drew widespread condemnation as they attempted to stop the formation of a parliamentary commission to investigate the allegations.

Yet it wasn’t until 2014 that Lula was directly implicated in a corruption scandal, known as ‘The Car Wash’ scandal. The allegations were that he, in his position as second-in-command to Dilma Rousseff, and the government, inflated the worth of government contracts awarded to the oil company Petrobras in exchange for bribes in the form of cash and real-estate. For this he was charged and found guilty of corruption in what was well-publicised as Brazil’s largest corruption scandal. The result was entirely predictable; a complete loss of trust in what was (and still is) the mainstream left-wing and drove the voters toward the hard-line politics of Bolsonaro. 

The effects were felt the hardest in rural towns and villages, relics of Lula’s own past. His reputation was paramount to his victories – as would be the case with any politician – but the idea that he could manipulate his voter-base would not only alienate the left. It would, crucially, garner support for his opposition. But somehow, despite his convictions and despite all the negative media attention, this entirely predictable and probable outcome did not happen.

A ‘Man of the People’?

It sounds like a cliché, and it is a term that is arguably overused in modern society. Hailing from a working-class family, Lula quit school after the second grade in order to help his family, he was unable to read until the age of 10, and his first job at 12 was as a shoe shiner in São Paulo before working in a warehouse at 14. His story is similar to many others; a large family migrating to an urban city in search of work only to find that financial perseverance is a luxury afforded only to those with the pre-existing resources to harness it. This concept resonates so vociferously with the millions that live below the poverty line, and continues to be a hallmark of his own cult of personality. 

What we might ask ourselves, considering his influential position and the nature of his crimes either guilty or not, is how Brazil is in a prime position to re-elect him so soon after his acquittal. Is his cult of personality so strong that it could overcome the mother of all setbacks? The answer is ‘perhaps’, but we won’t know with any certainty until the 2022 general election. Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the Bolsonaro administration; his approval rating dipped below 25% in May, with over 50% disapproval rating and his critics argue that this has opened the door for Lula’s return. However, experts also believe the Brazilian public aren’t thrilled with either candidate, leaving space for a potential third runner.

The Second Coming?

Nowadays the modern politician is well-versed in counter-scandal techniques, what with the proliferation of social media and the ease of access that comes with the internet. As much as society enjoys watching icons fall spectacularly from their pedestals, it just as much enjoys the phoenix element, those who have come good to restore their values and principles. This is such a case. Going from sharing victories with millions of supporters to sharing a jail cell for the better part of two years is difficult enough, but the resolute mentality Lula has displayed to not only push through to the other side but to put himself in a position to challenge for the presidency again shows the presence of a persistent, almost ruthless streak.

If the current polling and trends are anything to go by, it may not be such a shock to see the man who fell so drastically from grace a few years ago rise back up to take his place at the summit of Brazilian politics once again.

Nikhil Bandlish is The International’s Latin America correspondent.