Lula’s corruption conviction is overturned – but can he defeat Bolsonaro?

By Thomas Judge

The ex-President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has seen his corruption charge overturned by the Brazillian supreme court, leaving him free to run for the presidency again, challenging far-right incumbent Bolsonaro.   

A founding member of Brazil’s left wing ‘Worker’s Party’ (PT), he became president for two terms between 2003 and 2011. During this period, the country saw sustained economic growth leading to Brazil becoming the world’s eighth-largest economy and saw around twenty million people rise out of poverty.  

The infamous “Operation Car Wash,” a criminal investigation into money laundering and corruption, implicated the ex-president. The operation also led to the impeachment of Lula’s successor and fellow PT President Dilma Rousseff, for whom Lula was the chief of staff. 

The investigation centred around the state-owned oil company Petrobras, which allegedly took brides to make sure individual firm attained contracts. It led to his conviction for accepting bribes, and he served over a year of his jail sentence, although he was later released pending appeal.  

However, with the conviction quashed, the question is whether he will run for president next year and what his chances are. Associate Professor in New Rising World Powers at the University of Warwick Tom Long spoke to Redaction Politics about the ruling and his prospects going forward: “With the annulment of Lula’s convictions, many on the Brazilian political scene are asking ‘what if?’ and ‘what now?’. That is, would Lula have kept Bolsonaro out of power, had he been permitted to run? And can he keep Bolsonaro from a second term now?” 

“In both cases, the crystal ball is cloudier than some of Lula’s admirers suggest. While Lula retains a strong personal following, there is lasting and deep anti-PT sentiment in Brazil. Removing the conviction won’t overturn widespread public associations between the PT’s period of rule and ensuing corruption. Brazil remains quite polarised, and the opposition to Bolsonaro is very divided.” 

Lula has himself claimed the charges had been fabricated to stop him from running for President again in 2018. Polling taken before the conviction preventing him from running showed him consistently beating Bolsonaro.

However, Lula’s return may not be so clear cut: “Many of the anti-PT factions that mobilised against Lula and Dilma and eventually supported Bolsonaro will continue to do so,” Professor Long said. “Some very early polls have placed former judge Sergio Moro as the leading alternative to Bolsonaro. That’s hardly a sympathetic pool of voters for Lula, despite their dissatisfaction with Bolsonaro.

“So, while Lula is a popular figure, he is also a profoundly polarising one. His decades on the political scene make it difficult for him to change the public’s views of him, whether those are positive or negative.”

A single recent opinion poll, conducted by Ipec, has shown Lula as the only prospective candidate to beat Bolsonaro out of a selection of ten politicians. However, like swarths of western democracies, Brazil remains incredibly polarised. Bolsonaro, despite terrible handling of the coronavirus, leaving Brazil with the highest death toll outside of the United States, remains popular with his base, although he has seen his polling numbers fall recently. 

Just as last November’s presidential election in the United States as shown, ousting a far-right figure is not an easy feat. Despite winning the popular vote margin significantly, Biden came closer than most like to admit in key states, and he didn’t have a massive corruption scandal hanging over his head.

Lula’s potential resurgence has given many people hope of ousting the divisive incumbent president, and putting the left back in charge, but it will not be as simple as it seems at first glance.

Featured Image: PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores @Flickr

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