Why you should care
The shadow of the charismatic former president could be hurting his Workers’ Party the most.
Every day scores of supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gather outside the prison where the former Brazilian president is incarcerated and use megaphones to wish him good morning, good afternoon and good night. Camping next to the jail in the southern city of Curitiba, the 60 or so devotees represent the most fanatical elements of the Lula Livre, or Free Lula, movement, an almost cultlike group demanding the release of the still-popular former left-wing leader.
More than a year after his arrest for corruption, Lula remains one of the most iconic yet divisive characters in Brazilian politics. For some he is an almost messianic figure, a political prisoner akin to Nelson Mandela. For others he personifies the corruption and cronyism that have roiled Brazil for much of the past decade.
We cannot tolerate a political prisoner in a democratic regime
Emídio de Souza, a lawmaker for the Workers’ Party
The left’s enduring obsession with the 73-year-old former president, however, is beginning to take a toll. His presence, even from his jail cell, prevents the emergence of a viable left-wing candidate to challenge far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, experts say. At a time of extreme rhetoric and strongman politics, the Brazilian opposition is looking helpless.
“In the case of [Lula da Silva’s] Workers’ Party, the whole party remains under his leadership,” says Carlos Alberto de Melo, a professor at Insper in São Paulo. “Sometimes it is almost like a religious organization.”
This religious intensity is borne out in the language and actions of the Lula Livre supporters, who organize rallies, daily vigils and petitions for his freedom across the nation. “The great leader of the Workers’ Party is Lula until the moment he dies,” says Rui Costa Pimenta, leader of PCO, a far-left group. “We do not see the need for new faces as a key issue.”
Much of Lula’s popularity stems from his charisma combined with the progressive polices he enacted as president between 2003–10. Most notably he spearheaded the Bolsa Família social welfare scheme, which ensures Brazil’s poorest citizens receive a financial stipend every month. He is also credited with steering Latin America’s largest economy through years of breakneck growth and poverty reduction, although critics argue much of that would have happened anyway because of the worldwide commodities boom.
For his detractors Lula also fostered a culture of corruption, which imploded with the 2014 Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption scandal that implicated scores of Brazil’s most prominent politicians and businesspeople. “Our democracy will only be complete when Lula is released. We cannot tolerate a political prisoner in a democratic regime,” says Emídio de Souza, a lawmaker for the Workers’ Party and lawyer for the former president.
The notion of Lula as political prisoner has been a constant refrain since his imprisonment in April last year for receiving kickbacks while he was president. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, a term subsequently reduced to eight years. His trial, however, was fraught with judicial missteps, and months after its conclusion, Sérgio Moro, the presiding judge, was promoted to justice minister under Bolsonaro, sparking claims of right-wing collusion.
Moro’s credentials were cast into further doubt in June after the release of leaked messages that appeared to show cooperation between the then judge and the prosecutors in the trial. The irregularities have raised the possibility that Lula could soon be released from prison, likely to some form of house arrest. The former president, however, still faces numerous other corruption charges that would probably imperil a return to politics.
“The evidence on the misdeeds of the Workers’ Party are still coming out. Could Lula now mount a coalition that is broad enough to bring him to power?” asks Matias Spektor, a professor of politics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “The fact is the 2018 election was a plebiscite on the Workers’ Party and it was the anti–Workers’ Party that won. The problem on the left is that they do not have a message that seriously tackles the concerns of the people.”
In elections last year the Workers’ Party was trounced following years of economic malaise under Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff. Fernando Haddad, who ran in lieu of Lula in the presidential race and for the most part operated in the former leader’s shadow, was roundly defeated by Bolsonaro. In the congressional races, the party dropped from 68 seats to 54 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies. “We have a leadership crisis in Brazil and it is because of the enduring presence of a generation that got old but refused to release power,” de Melo says.
Despite this, the devotees of Lula Livre continue their efforts to free their icon, with an eye squarely on the next presidential election, in 2022. “If Lula is free, he will be our candidate. There is not a better candidate,” says de Souza, the lawmaker. “But if he is not free, we are going to do as we did last year.”
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