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Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, has had his political rights restored after The Supreme Court’s new ruling allowed a judge to annul his criminal convictions. The Supreme Court’s ruling decided that a person can only be imprisoned once all appeals to higher courts have been exhausted, arguing immediate detention violated the constitution by not respecting the presumption of innocence.
What is the history of Lula and his conviction? What does his freedom means for the political landscape of Brazil?
Lula governed Brazil from 2003-2010 as the leader and founding member of the Worker’s Party. Born in 1945 in Caetés, Pernambuco, he grew up as a shoe-shiner and then a warehouse worker in São Paulo. He has always been an avid union supporter, becoming President of the Steel Workers’ Union of São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema for which he was arrested under the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985) for organizing strikes.
Together with a group of academics, he founded the Worker’s Party in 1980, a left-wing progressive party. Lula and the party were heavily involved in the popular direct elections campaign (‘Diretas Já!’) which sought to put an end to the widely recognized “sham” elections that, since the 1964 military coup d’état, had only elected retired generals as Presidents in a closed military caucus. The campaign was finally successful in 1989 when the first president was elected by direct popular vote.
Lula’s presidency was marked by extensive social programs, including the Zero Hunger (‘Fome Zero’) and Family Allowance (‘Bolsa Familia’) programs which introduced large infrastructure investments, distribution of money to the poor, and raised the minimum wage well above the rate of inflation. The Family Allowance program has been praised internationally for its achievements in reducing poverty in Brazil by 27.7% in Lula’s first term.
OPERATION “CAR WASH”
An investigation began in 2014 called ‘Operation Car Wash’ (‘Lava Jato’) which eventually led to the arrest of Lula and other politicians. The investigation found that Petrobras, a state-run global oil and gas company, had been taking bribes from construction companies in return for lucrative contracts. Construction giant Odebrecht admitted to having paid around £800m (over $6 billion reais) in bribes. These bribes had allegedly been funneled into politicians’ pockets and, in particular, to the political party campaign coffers. The operation implicated the Worker’s Party and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and led to virtually all mainstream politicians coming under fire.
Lula was one of the most senior politicians to fall under Operation Car Wash, is being accused of receiving an £800,000 apartment ($3.7 million reais) as a bribe by engineering firm OAS. However, his defense argued that the ownership of the apartment has never been proven, and thus it remains only an accusation by the former chairman of OAS, who has already been convicted of corruption. Despite losing his first appeal, Lula was sentenced to 12 years in jail he was nominated as the presidential candidate for the Worker’s Party and in 2018 he was leading the polls with almost double the support of his nearest rivals.
One month before the election, an electoral court banned Lula from running on the grounds that he had been sentenced, when he held a 20-point lead over his closest rival, and current president, Jair Bolsonaro.
THE LULA LIVRE CAMPAIGN STARTS
With Bolsonaro elected and Lula in prison, Brazil’s political landscape had dramatically changed within the space of a month and many left-wing and international commentators were disappointed with the course of events. A movement began arguing that Lula’s imprisonment was politically motivated and unconstitutional, supported by powerful national figures such as the then president of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (the central union of Brazil), Vagner Freitas, as well as international figures such as Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, Danny Glover, and more.
Their movement was especially bolstered when the Car Wash Leaks (‘Vaza Jato’) were discovered and published by The Intercept in June 2019 which leaked conversations from the Telegram app involving former judge Sergio Moro, the judge who sentenced Lula on the charges of money laundering and passive corruption in 2018, and other prosecutors and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPF). In the leak, Moro, the judge, was shown to be the one leading the trial, not the prosecutors, giving strategic advice, informal clues, and pressuring the ruling to be sped up despite a lack of evidence. The leak showed evidence of a bias against Lula displayed by judge Moro and his appointment as Minister of Justice and Public Security by the Bolsonaro administration shortly after Lula’s imprisonment implicated his impartiality even further.
In 2020, Moro left the government citing Bolsonaro’s interference in the Ministry of Justice’s affairs and his departure was widely recognized to be due to a falling out between President and Minister.
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil found a country heavily divided. Whilst many were supportive of Bolsonaro and he won a landslide, many felt severely ostracized from the political scene with two of the most prominent left-wing politicians, Lula and Dilma Rousseff, out of office. A staunchly right-wing politician, often compared to Trump, Bolsonaro is a divisive figure. His supporters have praised him for more than doubling the pace of economic growth (2.3%) in (pre-Covid-19) 2020 and for a decline in unemployment and homicide rates.
His critics have highlighted his implication in the international scandal when wildfires ran through the Amazon, a disaster enabled by his environmental policy, and possibly extended by his refusal of $22 million USD offered as disaster relief at the 2019 G7 summit. International NGOs have also highlighted at a United Nations Humans Rights Council session in March 2020 his malignant treatment of Brazilian indigenous peoples with the Arns Commission finding in a new report that his administration’s socio-environmental policy is putting indigenous peoples at risk of ethnocide, and potentially genocide. During the pandemic, he has again be criticized for his neglectful handling of the crisis with 260,000 dead and responsibility for the second-highest death toll in the world. His Covid-19 response has also had a detrimental effect on the economy as The World Bank forecasted Brazil’s 2021 GDP as 0.8% higher than its June estimate, not enough to offset a likely 4.5% drop in 2020 amid the world’s worst COVID-19 death toll outside the United States. Recently, the cases have increased even more with the spread of the highly contagious Manaus variant, but even with this new crisis Bolsonaro announced at an event:
“Stop whining. How long are you going to keep crying about it? How much longer will you stay at home and close everything? No one can stand it anymore. We regret the deaths, again, but we need a solution.”BBC (04/03/2021)
“Lula is back in the game”Valor Econômico (2021).
Before his annulment, Lula had downplayed hopes that he would run again in 2022 as his sentence stripped him of the political right to do so. However, now that he is free, many have speculated that he will be running in the 2022 elections and thus challenge a re-election attempt by Bolsonaro (if he chooses to do so).
Lula has always been a very popular figure, leading polls and harkening support from national and international figures such as Barack Obama who called him “the most popular politician on Earth”. However, the effect of his conviction and imprisonment on this popularity should not be underestimated, with Bolsonaro’s landslide election being attributed by many political scientists as a sign of the desire for change and the end of corrupt politics by Brazilians. If Bolsonaro runs for re-election, and Lula chooses to rival him, we will be witnessing an election that “in American terms, it’s going to be like Sanders versus Trump” (Thomas Traumann).
- How will Lula’s conviction, despite his annulment, affect his popularity?
- Will Bolsonaro run again for re-election, and will Lula rival him?
- How will the Brazilian people react to this political bombshell?