He is – still – the most popular president in Brazil’s history.
He is as responsible as anyone for its worst recession on record.
He is facing numerous corruption-related charges that could imprison him for the rest of his life.
He is leading in the polls to be elected president again in 2018 – and rising every month.
He is charming, intelligent, genuinely compassionate about the poor, morally suspect, ideologically amorphous and profoundly self-destructive.
He is, of course, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – and despite all these contradictions, it would be deeply unwise to assume that his 30-year era as the chief protagonist of Brazilian politics has passed.
To be sure, when Lula travels to Curitiba this week to testify before federal Judge Sergio Moro, there will be plenty of political obituaries written in the Brazilian press. Accused of money laundering and corruption related to a beachfront apartment near São Paulo, he faces four other trials as well. The conventional wisdom is that, if this case doesn’t get Lula, another one will. Just last week, a former Petrobras board member declared that Lula “was fully aware” of the graft that pilfered at least $2 billion from the state-run oil company.
It’s possible this is indeed the end for the former metalworkers’ union leader who led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, overseeing a long economic boom that lifted millions out of poverty, but later collapsed under a tidal wave of hubris, graft and fiscal mismanagement. The so-called “Car Wash” investigation overseen by Judge Moro has repeatedly shown that no one in Brazil is above the law.
Ah, but as difficult as this is to write… there’s “no one,” and then there’s Lula.
Thanks to millions of Brazilians who – still – believe Lula is the only politician who ever did anything for them, the 71-year-old remains in a category of his own. He is a symbol of working class empowerment in a country where inequality is the central fact of life, and even Lula’s rivals have admitted that jailing him would carry a heavy political and social cost. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible; it does mean that the bar is higher. With that in mind, Lula appears much less vulnerable than he was six months ago, or even six weeks ago. Because his own political fortunes have improved, while those of the Car Wash team appear to be in decline. Both matter.
First, Car Wash: For their first three years, the prosecutors in Curitiba became accustomed to winning almost every battle in the courts and in public opinion. No longer. As the scope of their probe has widened to include nearly a third of President Michel Temer’s cabinet and a same proportion of the Senate, while also drawing ever closer to Lula, the probe’s enemies in Congress and the judiciary have become more united in their quest for survival. Meanwhile, a clear Car Wash fatigue has set in among society, meaning those forces can actively undermine the probe with less fear of backlash on Brazil’s streets. In the last month, the Senate passed legislation making it easier to prosecute prosecutors and judges for “abuse of authority,” while higher courts have freed several defendants and made a major procedural ruling against Judge Moro. More setbacks may be coming.
As for Lula, his standing in polls for 2018 has roughly doubled in the past year, and he now leads every potential opponent in a runoff except Marina Silva (who may not run) and Moro (who will not run). The standard explanation among Brazil’s elite, that Lula is supported by an impoverished, illiterate mass gripped by misplaced nostalgia, does not hold up under scrutiny. The latest Datafolha poll shows Lula’s support is strongest among the young (ages 16-34) and that roughly 30 percent of the wealthiest segment of the population (earning more than 10 times the minimum wage) is prepared to vote for him. That’s enough to win.
Why? Well, the memory of the booming 2000s is only part of the story, as is the theory that Lula’s alleged crimes now seem less severe as the probe has unearthed misdeeds by others. I keep coming back to the conclusion that, like him or not, Lula offers something Brazilians have struggled to find of late: Leadership. Both Lula’s disastrous chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, and President Temer are aloof, instinctively reclusive figures who never established any emotional connection with society at-large. Lula, for all his many defects, never left any doubt about his vision for a less unequal Brazil, nor has he ever stopped trying to seduce and cajole voters over to his side. His political resuscitation over the past year is a direct consequence of Temer’s refusal (or inability) to articulate a vision to anyone beyond the Esplanade of Ministries or the twin financial avenues of São Paulo. I still believe that Brazilians crave a clean, modern leader to lead them out of this crisis. But people also want stability and leadership. They would rather follow a profoundly flawed leader than none at all.
What we’re left with, then, is several parties racing against time – and each other. If Lula is convicted by Moro, and that ruling is then upheld by a higher court, he will be ineligible to run for president again under Brazilian law. That’s a taller order than it may sound. If Moro makes his ruling by, say, June, the average delay for the decision from a higher court can take as long as a year. The first round of the election is Oct. 7, 2018.
Knowing this, Lula’s lawyers are trying to stretch out the trial as much as possible – calling 87 witnesses to testify on his behalf. Meanwhile, Lula’s allies are bringing tens of thousands of people to demonstrate in Curitiba and try to ratchet up the political pressure even further, while also working with receptive members of Temer’s party to undermine the Car Wash probe in Congress and elsewhere. Much will play out in coming weeks, but for now there are two obvious conclusions. The first is: Don’t count Lula out just yet. The second is: Don’t bet on a healthy, smooth, predictable path for Brazilian democracy anytime soon.