Lula Is Back, But What About Brazilian Democracy?

By Fábio Kerche and Marjorie Marona*

Rally in Support of Lula/ Ricardo Cifuentes/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva recovered his political rights last month when the Supreme Court overturned his convictions on corruption charges, but Brazil will need more than a simple court decision to restore the country’s confidence in its democracy and institutions after years of political turmoil.

  • The court ruled that the conduct and decisions of then-Judge Sergio Moro and the Operação Lava Jato (Carwash) investigators that landed Lula in prison were not impartial and, therefore, the justices invalidated the conviction of the former president (2003-2011). The case began to unravel in 2019 when a Brazil-based U.S. journalist, Glenn Greenwald, published leaked private conversations between Moro and the prosecutors showing a highly politicized agenda. The ruling reinforced the public perception that Lula was innocent and that Lava Jato was used as a political weapon against him and his Workers’ Party (PT).
  • The action opened the door for Lula to be a presidential candidate in 2022. It also demands restarting the trial from ground zero, but the consensus among legal experts is that a re-trial cannot be mounted before the election.

Lula’s return coincides with a period in which President Jair Bolsonaro faces enormous difficulties. The Senate is currently investigating his government’s alleged negligence in the 400,000 deaths caused by its COVID policies. Furthermore, the Brazilian economy is not recovering, as the Bolsonaro team asserts. Unemployment is over 14 percent, and hunger has reemerged as a perverse reality for millions of Brazilians. According to a Datafolha poll, only 24 percent of Brazilians consider the government to be good. Bolsonaro suffers from the lowest polls among presidents in the democratic period, except for Fernando Collor as he resigned in the face of impeachment.

  • The same poll shows that Lula would handily beat Bolsonaro in a presidential election – 41 percent to 23 percent among intending voters. In a second round, Lula would beat Bolsonaro 55 percent to 32 percent. Moreover, the public narratives pushed by Bolsonaro supporters trying to identify Lula as a radical left-winger are being put aside. The press, despite repeated attacks by the current government, portrays Lula as a much more reasonable alternative than Bolsonaro. Lula is emerging as a conciliator and a moderate center-left politician.
  • Attempts to build a center-right candidacy, a so-called terceira via (third way), seem to be getting little traction so far. The growth of center-right parties in the 2020 municipal elections is not being reflected at the national level, and the TV pop stars cited as potential 2022 Presidential candidates are not gaining momentum.  

Far from radicalizing him, Lula’s 580 days in prison seem to have softened his sharp edges, and his immediate full-time focus on looking for solutions to the COVID crisis fits his strategy of reminding the public that Brazil was a better country under his government. He is not in a rush to officially launch his candidacy, but he’s talking to several parties and leaders – even those in favor of Dilma Rousseff’s controversial impeachment and of Lava Jato, which portrayed the Workers’ Party as a criminal enterprise. He is also looking into possible alliances in state elections in exchange for broad support for his candidacy. There are indications that his vice-presidential running mate will be someone closer to the center-right, signaling that his government will be of reconstruction and not of polarization. But the path ahead isn’t necessarily easy for Lula. Bolsonaro has a group of loyal supporters and, even with a slow pace of vaccinations, there is a chance that all Brazilians will be protected from COVID by the end of this year, bringing hope for better times. Bolsonaro is also providing financial aid to the poor, which will help him recover voter share.

  • The 2022 election is perhaps the most critical test for Brazil’s fragile democracy since redemocratization. The Bolsonaro government, whose handling of national challenges has been highly problematic, continues to flirt with authoritarian measures. Civil and human rights are being weakened. Whether Bolsonaro ultimately succeeds in consolidating a regime of his own design or becomes merely a stumbling block in Brazil’s democratic history now looks likely to depend on a 75-year-old former president and former union leader who’s returned from prison to provide, yet again, an alternative to the status quo.

May 19, 2021

* Fábio Kerche is a professor at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) and former CLALS Research Fellow. Marjorie Marona is a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: