Lula is back in the game

After a court annulled all the sentences against him, Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is back in the running for the top job, writes Leonardo Sakamoto

Credit: Lula Marques/Agência PT/Partido dos Trabalhadores/Flickr

On 8 March, Brazil’s Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin annulled all convictions against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This caused a tsunami in Brazilian politics, as it placed the most important leader of Latin America’s Left back in the electoral game.

If the decision had been made earlier, Lula could have run against Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential elections, with a great chance of winning. How different Brazil would be today – with a leader who does not try to convince the population against vaccines, attack social distancing measures, or deny science.

According to Justice Fachin’s ruling, the federal court of Curitiba did not have the jurisdiction to put the former leader on trial. Fachin said the cases – involving allegations of corruption and money laundering, which Lula has always denied – should be sent to federal court in Brasilia, to be started again from scratch. This does not remove Lula’s political right to run in next year’s presidential elections.

Sergio Moro was the Curitiba federal judge in charge of the cases against Lula under the Lava Jato (‘Carwash’) anti-corruption operation. Moro’s reputation was tarnished after messages he exchanged with prosecutors came to light showing that they had conspired and used illegal procedures to convict the former president. It is worth remembering that after convicting Lula, Moro became Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice – until disagreements caused him to leave the government.

Lula can now spoil Bolsonaro’s re-election plans, but if sentenced by an appeals court before October 2022, Lula would be out of the race again. A social media campaign against him has already started.

After his sentences were annulled, Lula gave a powerful speech – at the headquarters of the Metalworkers’ Union where he began his career as a union leader – in which he criticized the current president’s Covid-19 denialism. Bolsonaro responded by suddenly becoming more open to supporting vaccination. This is an electoral calculation – the majority of people want to be vaccinated.

Politicians from a number of political parties that are strong in rural Brazil, and which had formed alliances with Bolsonaro, are already signalling they might come back to Lula’s lap, due to his popularity among the poor. In addition, some presidential hopefuls who fear that the election will be polarized between Lula and Bolsonaro are indicating they might withdraw from the race.

Critics of Lula have been peddling to the media the notion that he and Bolsonaro are two equivalent extremes. The comparison does not hold. Lula’s several flaws do not include flirting with a self-coup with the help of the military, police and urban militias or consorting with a group demanding the return of the dictatorship. He has not armed his allies by allowing the purchase of heavy rifles and large amounts of ammunition. While Lula’s Workers’ Party established instruments to fight corruption – which were used by the Lava Jato operation itself – Bolsonaro’s administration has undermined monitoring and enforcement agencies such as the federal police.

Bolsonaro’s greatest legacy will be a pile of people killed by Covid-19. In the most deadly war in Brazil’s history, he chose to side with the enemy – the novel coronavirus.

A lot can happen before Brazil’s 2022 presidential election, but Bolsonaro is no longer the only favourite in the running.