Why Lula’s Return Is Bad News for Brazil’s Left

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s return is likely have deep ramifications as he reclaims leadership of the left.

Source MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty

Why you should care

Brazil’s already tumultuous politics could get even crazier.

Less than a day after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was released from prison two weeks ago, the former Brazilian leader gathered supporters for a fiery stump speech in which he vowed to save the country from “ultra-right” President Jair Bolsonaro.

It was a message rapturously received by the thousands of assembled Lula devotees. But fears are growing that the reemergence of one of the icons of Latin America’s left after 580 days in jail is more likely to sow discord than unite a bitterly divided nation.

Rather than saving Brazil, Lula — as he is widely known — is poised to polarize it further by preventing the emergence of new left-wing or centrist figures to challenge Bolsonaro and reigniting fears on the right of a return to Workers’ Party rule, say political observers.

Since prison, Lula has become increasingly left-wing and populist.… The result of his release will be more polarization.

Eduardo Mello, Getúlio Vargas Foundation

The situation is further complicated by the nature of Lula’s release from prison — it followed a stunning ruling by Brazil’s Supreme Court that allows inmates with appeals pending to be freed. The move has been criticized as a blow to governance and accountability in a country plagued by corruption. 

“We are going back to business as usual,” says Eduardo Mello, a professor of politics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “[The court decision] is terrible news for our long-term growth and the development of democracy in Brazil.”

The country’s president during the heady days of the commodities boom from 2003 to 2010, Lula was last year sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption, a term subsequently reduced to nine years.

But it was a trial fraught with judicial and political missteps. Leaked recordings released earlier this year appeared to show prosecutors cooperating with Sergio Moro, the presiding judge, who went on to become justice minister in Bolsonaro’s Cabinet. 

The problems with the case, combined with Lula’s long-standing popularity, fueled an almost fanatical Lula Livre — Free Lula — movement, which erupted into celebration after his release.

“It is a thrill because it is a return of democracy. Today represents the hope that better days will come,” says Selma Regina Pereira, one of thousands who attended the São Paulo rally clad in the red of Lula’s Workers’ Party.

But the 74-year-old’s swift return to the fray is likely have deep ramifications as he reclaims leadership of the left. 

“Since prison, Lula has become increasingly left-wing and increasingly populist. He is a radical Lula now. The result of his release will be more polarization,” says Mello.

His release could also benefit Bolsonaro, say analysts, presenting the Brazilian president with a clear enemy whom he can use to galvanize and unite his conservative base.

“Bolsonaro needs controversy and with Lula in jail he neglected the opposition and consistently turned against his own entourage, Cabinet and party for conflict. Now, he will have a clear target,” says Mario Marconini, managing director at consulting firm Teneo.

The main political victims are likely to be centrist figures, who will increasingly find their political space constrained.

“The release of Lula from jail only enhances a situation that was present in the 2018 elections, when the center was incapable of producing a viable alternative to Bolsonaro and [left-wing candidate Fernando] Haddad,” says Marconini.

Tensions are also likely to be exacerbated by the ruling that allowed the former president to leave jail. The Supreme Court said its decision to allow those convicted to remain free until they have exhausted the appeals process was made to uphold the letter of Brazil’s Constitution.

Former President Lula of Brazil Makes a Speech at the Sindicato dos Metalurgicos do ABC After Being Released from Prison

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, greets supporters outside of the Sindicato dos Metalurgicos do ABC in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil.

Source Pedro Vilela/Getty

“It is the right understanding of the constitution.… It’s a delicate balance between the rule of law and fighting corruption,” says Monica Herz, a senior fellow at the Brazilian Center for International Relations.

But for some Brazilians, the ruling smacked of a return to the days when the wealthy could avoid jail through seemingly endless appeals, legal delays and backroom deals.

For many the court ruling also symbolized the death knell of the Lava Jato — Car Wash — corruption probe, which over the past five years has put scores of white-collar criminals, including politicians and business leaders, behind bars. Many will now be released.

“This Supreme Court ruling frustrates all Brazilians who are against corruption. Just as Lula has already been released from prison, another 5,000 prisoners will be able to appeal,” says Alex Manente, a lawmaker with the centrist Cidadania party.

“Lula’s release puts Brazil on a collision with civil unrest,” says Steve Bannon, the former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump who is close to the Bolsonaro family.

Both houses of Brazil’s Congress have tabled bills to restore the previous system in which convicts were incarcerated following the failure of their first appeal. But the move is unlikely to succeed as many in Congress stand to benefit from the court decision, Marconini says.

Bolsonaro himself is facing claims that some relatives are engaged in corruption and linked to violent militias in Rio de Janeiro — allegations they deny.

In addition, popular support for cracking down on corruption is waning, with few political leaders left to carry the torch, say analysts.

“The establishment is pushing back [against the corruption crackdown] and there is no one to call people to protest in their millions,” Mello says. “This is not good and could get worse.”

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By Bryan Harris and Andreas Schipani

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