Lula Convicted: End of an Era?

By Anthony W. Pereira*

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Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva / Jeso Carneiro / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s conviction last week on corruption charges was more than a legal decision and could mark a political watershed – the beginning of the end of “Lula-ism,” a political and redistributive pact that lasted from 2003 until 2010 which Lula has been offering to revive as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections.  On July 12, Federal Judge Sergio Moro found Lula guilty of taking a bribe and laundering money, sentenced him to nine years and six months in prison, and banned him from taking public office for seven years.  This judgment, the first to convict an ex-president in Brazil, was the result of the Carwash anti-corruption investigations begun in March 2014.

  • The decision will be appealed to the Federal court for the Fourth Region in Porto Alegre. This court will probably rule on the case before the 2018 filing deadline for presidential candidates (yet to be decided, but usually in mid-August), and is expected to uphold the conviction.  Lula would be legally barred from being a candidate at that point, although he might mount some sort of challenge to such a ruling.  Lula’s strategy for now is to press on with his campaign, to criticize his conviction as political persecution that was not based on evidence, and to portray himself as a man of the people capable of taking on the “elite.”

Lula still has great strengths.  The basis of Lula-ism has been his personal appeal – he captured twice as many voters as did his political party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in 2002 and 2006 – boosted by economic forces and public policies that raised the living standards of the poor.  With his finely-tuned ability to communicate to ordinary people, he showed that it was possible to both grow the economy and redistribute its fruits.  His government reduced poverty significantly, offered the poor inclusion in the consumer society and the chance of social mobility, and even achieved a modest reduction in income inequality – while promoting the interests of big companies.

  • But he may not have achieved the long-term realignment his supporters claim. Lula-ism proper only lasted for eight years, the length of his two presidential terms.  His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, ruled for almost six more years, but by the last year of her first term, poverty had stopped declining.  The current government of President Michel Temer has passed a constitutional amendment freezing federal spending in real terms for 20 years; the measure does not automatically reduce spending on social programs, but in the absence of tax increases that is what it has produced.  Temer’s own bribery scandal may take him down, perhaps within the next couple of weeks, but his policies raise a more fundamental question:  whether Brazil can return to economic redistribution, diminishing the severe inequality that still marks its society, without Lula-ism.

The organs of anti-corruption investigation and control that have challenged Lula, Dilma, and Temer – the media, the Federal Police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the judiciary – are neither consistently politically neutral nor free of corruption themselves.  They are not a Deus ex machina that can free the Brazilian polity of corruption all by themselves.  For that, Brazil needs political reform, further changes in at least some of the rules that regulate elections and governance, a realignment of incentives faced by elected officials, state bureaucrats, business people, trade unions, and the electorate.

  • The PT and the other two most important parties, however, seem incapable of renovation despite leaders’ awareness of the low level of legitimacy with which they are viewed by voters. The PT has few viable new leaders and is clinging to Lula’s candidacy as its only hope of a return to power.  The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) still nominally supports Temer.  And Temer’s own party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), is torn between defending the president in an act of self-preservation, and fearing the wrath of the voters in 2018.

Brazilians face a “trilemma”: they yearn for the three long hoped-for goals of sustained and successful anti-corruption investigations, political reform, and a return to economic redistribution.  Achieving two of those goals at the same time, let alone three, seems impossible.  The 2018 elections therefore will reveal a country in which anti-corruption investigations continue to knock major figures out of the political game, while political reform and economic redistribution are postponed.  The old cliché that Brazil is the country of the future takes on a new meaning in light of this somber possibility.

July 17, 2017

*Anthony W. Pereira is a Professor and Director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London.

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1 Comment

  1. Stefano Palestini

     /  July 19, 2017

    Excellent note Anthony! My big doubt with what is going on in Brazil, but also in Peru with the prosecution of former Presidents, is where to draw the line between a perhaps unexpected but still laudable horizontal accountability over the executives, and what Cristina Kirchner (among others) used to call “institutional coups”? You slightly support the “institutional coup” hypothesis when you say that there is no Deus ex machina, and when you suggest that the judiciary is not free of corruption. To put it a little bit provocative, is it maybe that what we call “Deus ex machina” or “politicized judiciary” in the case of Latin American democracies, we call “check and balances” in OECD democracies?

    Reply

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