Lula is back: Bolsonaro’s former enemy returns to haunt him

With a stroke of his pen on Monday, a Brazilian judge overturned not only the criminal convictions of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but most of the assumptions about the chances of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in the election. presidential election next year.

In a decision for which the adjective “surprise” hardly seems adequate, Supreme Court Justice Luiz Edson Fachin ruled that the provincial court in southern Brazil, which convicted and jailed the left-wing icon for corruption in 2017, was not competent to try the case.

The shockwaves of the decision were immense: Lula’s fate polarized the largest nation in Latin America for years, bitterly dividing the left who idolized him for his generous welfare policy from those on the right, who saw him and his Workers Party, or PT, as the epitome of mismanagement and corruption.

It doesn’t matter whether the question of the court’s jurisdiction has been decided four years after the case has been heard and sentencing: if the full Supreme Court upholds the decision, Lula will be free to stand for election. presidential election of next year against Bolsonaro. Corruption cases against him are set to start over in a new court.

“It shows that anything can happen in Brazil,” commented Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “It’s very influenced by political trends, it’s mostly a sign that the political winds are changing right now, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with Bolsonaro.”

The president was quick to dismiss the risk of a challenge from his 75-year-old socialist rival, who was released in early 2019 after a ruling he could be released from prison while appeals were considered. “I believe the Brazilian people don’t even want to have a candidate like this in 2022, let alone think about electing him eventually,” Bolsonaro said.

Not all opinion polls agree. An Ipec poll published on Sunday by the newspaper Estado de São Paulo, before the judge’s ruling, showed that 50% of people would definitely or probably vote for Lula compared to 38% for Bolsonaro.

This investigation confirmed what Brazilians have long suspected: that even a decade after the two-term leader left, no other opposition candidate comes close to the electoral magnetism of Lula, a politician once described by Barack Obama as “the man”.

Worryingly for Bolsonaro, Arthur Lira, the powerful leader of the lower house of congress elected with his backing last month, tweeted shortly after the decision that Lula could “even deserve” to be exonerated.

This verdict is more self-interested than anything else: Lula’s conviction was part of the huge “Car Wash” scandal, in which dozens of Brazilian politicians and businessmen were trapped in corruption investigations reminiscent of the “clean hands” affair in Italy in the 1990s. Brazil’s venal politicians have always hated the “Car Wash” investigation and made no secret of their joy when the task force leading it was disbanded last month.

Monica de Bolle, a senior researcher at the Peterson Institute in Washington, said she believed the surprise decision overturning Lula’s convictions was likely to hold up, not least because Bolsonaro had made so many enemies among the justice system with his constant attacks on judges. “What I see happening is taking into account the fact that Bolsonaro is a massive threat to institutional stability,” she said. “The calculation is therefore:” What is the least destabilizing? ”

Financial markets had little doubt about the threat a reborn Lula could pose: stocks fell 4% and the real slipped near its all-time low against the dollar.

Investor concerns reflected not only the risk of a Lula victory, but also the fear that, faced with an electoral challenge from his former nemesis, Bolsonaro would abandon any remaining claims to market-friendly reforms and look to even more expensive populist gifts that he has approved so far, straining the country’s finances.

But even if Lula succeeds in removing any remaining legal hurdles to another presidential election, it remains unclear whether he will succeed in defeating a right-wing leader who has already defied critics’ predictions on several occasions.

“The question is how many Brazilians too young to remember Lula are going to react,” Stuenkel said. “Then there’s the theory that it secures Bolsonaro’s re-election because, strategically, it’s much more comfortable for him to run against the PT than someone from the center.

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