Corruption allegations and imprisonment – Brazil’s ex-president divides the mind. In the 2022 presidential election, he could pose a threat to incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil – A screaming, cheering crowd in the midst of which a bearded man is standing on an improvised platform made of tables. The Vila Euclides stadium in São Bernardo do Campo, São Paulo state, is full to the limit, 150,000 people came in 1979 to hear what the union leader had to say. Military dictatorship helicopters circling over the stadium as he speaks.
The still young man screaming into the microphone from the wobbly podium is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula for short. Over 20 years later, he was elected President of Brazil in 2002 and will remain so for eight years. After the presidential election in October 2022, he could become president again.
The scene in the stadium is firmly established in the minds of millions of Brazilians, they are something like the myth of the origin of the political career of the great trade union and freedom fighter Lula. While he is a hero for one half of Brazilians, for the other half he is the ultimate enemy. Few politicians in Brazil polarize as much as he does. To understand how this came about, it is worth taking a closer look at Lula’s political career.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil: From the union to parliament
On the one hand, the strong polarization around the character “Lula” is due to the fact that a lot has happened in the 40 years that have passed since the performance in the stadium in São Bernardo do Campo Military dictatorship arrested and released 31 days later. He then founded the Brazilian Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) together with other trade unionists.
After the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, Lula entered Congress for the PT, and from 1989 he stood in all presidential elections – but in the first attempts he was defeated by various candidates. “At that time he was still acting as a classic worker,” says Tomas Kestler. He is a political scientist at the University of Würzburg and researches democracies in Latin America. “In Brazil, however, there is no majority for left-wing issues”.
This also became clear to young Lula at some point. He then changed his image from a worker to a statesman, campaigned for the first time in a suit and tie, focused less on classic left-wing issues than on programs such as “No Hunger” (Zero Forme) and a better training system. “Lula had to adapt to the rules of the game in Brazilian politics,” summarizes Kestler.
In 2002 the former trade unionist Lula became president, and in 2006 he was re-elected for a second term. Since the Brazilian constitution only allows two terms in a row, he was no longer allowed to run in 2010. He then proposed Dilma Rousseff, also from the PT Workers’ Party, and she became president.
Brazil’s Ex-President Lula: Between Poverty Reduction and Corruption
Many Brazilians have positive memories of Lula’s early years in government: They were years of economic boom and various social programs, according to studies, lifted more than 30 million people out of extreme poverty. The social welfare program “Bolsa Familia” is particularly well-known, which linked the payment of social benefits to, for example, school attendance for children and to going to medical check-ups.
The last few years were significantly less positive for Lula and the Labor Party: There were numerous allegations of corruption against PT members, although the party had always vehemently spoken out against taking advantage and nepotism. Lula’s reputation reached its first low point with the Mensalão scandal, in which votes were bought by MPs. Lula was found guilty of involvement in it in 2012.
After that, things continued downhill: in 2016, Prime Minister Dilma Rousseff lost her post through impeachment proceedings, and left-wing Brazilian circles in particular still refer to this process as a coup to this day. Finally, in 2017, Lula was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison for corruption. Nevertheless, he wanted to run again in the 2018 presidential election – but when he actually had to be arrested, that became impossible. Jair Bolsonaro *, meanwhile independent, then won the election against Fernando Haddad of the PT.
Brazil: Ex-President Lula released from prison – polarization around him continues to grow
In 2019, Lula was released because the appeal process was still ongoing. In the spring of this year, all judgments against him were overturned by the Brazilian constitutional court: not because Lula’s innocence was subsequently proven, but, according to the court, because the court in Curitiba had no jurisdiction.
As a result, the polarization around the figure of Lula has continued to grow: One half of Brazilians now see Lula as someone wrongly accused and convicted, as a resistance fighter against an unfair system – both now and during the military dictatorship. For the other half, he’s just another cog in the corrupt system.
Lula in the presidential election in Brazil: “Chances of voting are completely open”
The fact that the judgments were overturned at least washes Lula’s legal vest white again and enables him to run again in the presidential election: there are increasing indications that the now 75-year-old wants to do the same in the coming year. Surveys are currently coming to the conclusion that Lula could possibly win in the first ballot. “He is the only left-wing candidate who could have a chance,” says Thomas Kestler. Until recently, he was convinced that someone who could have a chance against Bolsonaro had to come from the right-wing camp.
But Kestler also says: “How the election chances really are is completely open”. This is mainly due to the fact that a large proportion of Brazilians are politically independent, which means they decide relatively spontaneously in each election which candidate they want to support. At the moment it is not even clear who will be eligible for election in Brazil in October 2022.
The chances of a duel between Lula and Bolsonaro are high. “Then a strong polarization will shape the election campaign,” says Kestler. Lula’s candidacy will definitely mobilize voters, both for and against him. “Lula is a stimulus for the right-wing and conservatives in Brazil,” he says.
Presidential election in Brazil 2022: voters pay attention to financial advantages
From the point of view of political scientist Kestler, the economic development until then could be decisive for the 2022 election. In Brazil, so-called “economic voting”, ie making the voting decision dependent on what one expects the greatest financial advantage from, is widespread. “The worse the economic situation in the coming year, the better for Lula,” explains Kestler. “And the better the economy recovers by then, the better for Bolsonaro”.
It will also be important which allies Lula brings on board by then. Because there are currently 25 parties in the Brazilian parliament, so broad coalitions are needed for majorities. For example, Jair Bolsonaro is currently governing with a coalition of 14 parties. Lula seems to be working on that too – in May he met his former rival Fernando Henrique Cardoso from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party. Allegedly to discuss a possible coalition against the right-wing extremist President Jair Bolsonaro. This is a remarkable move that shows not only polarized ex-President Lula, but also the current President Bolsonaro.
List: Brazilian presidents after the military dictatorship
- 1985-1990 José Sarney
- 1990-1992 Fernando Collor de Mello
- 1992-1995 Itamar Franco
- 1995-2003 Fernando Henrique Cardoso
- 2003-2011 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
- 2011-2016 Dilma Rousseff
- 2016-2019 Michel Temer
- 2019 – until now Jair Bolsonaro
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