Brazilian ex-president Lula’s corruption verdict does not end his career
THE verdict was a bombshell but not a surprise. On January 24th, with police helicopters in the sky over Porto Alegre, a city in Brazil’s south, and snipers on rooftops, a three-judge panel at a federal court unanimously upheld the conviction of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president, on charges of corruption and money-laundering. Awaiting the decision, thousands of his supporters camped less than a mile away. They were both angry and defiant. “It’s political persecution,” insisted Everaldo de Souza, a construction worker from the southern state of Santa Catarina.
The court’s decision has big implications for Brazil’s presidential election, to be held in October. Lula is the most popular potential candidate by far. A recent poll suggested that 36% of voters would back him, double the share who support his nearest rival, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing extremist. The confirmation of Lula’s guilty verdict will not deter him from running. Indeed, he was expected to announce his candidacy as The Economist went to press. The presidential campaign has, in effect, started in a courtroom.
This means that the election, thought by some to be the most important since the end of dictatorship in 1985, will be a mess. The ficha limpa (clean record) law, signed by Lula himself in 2010, bars candidates whose convictions have been upheld by an appeals court from running for office for eight years. If Lula finds a way around that, and wins, Brazil may face a constitutional crisis. His candidacy would enrage voters who think the right place to send him is jail, not the presidential palace. Billboards in Porto Alegre depict him in prison uniform; 40% of Brazilians would never vote for him, the polls say. But if he is kept off the ballot in the first round on October 7th, the slightly smaller group that supports him will damn the election as illegitimate.
Lula left office at the start of 2011 with an approval rating of 83%. But in 2014 the economy entered its worst recession on record. Then, in 2016, his protégée and successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached. In September of that year Sérgio Moro, the federal judge in charge of Lava Jato (“Car Wash”), a vast corruption investigation, agreed to hear charges that Lula accepted a seaside apartment worth 2.2m reais ($690,000) from OAS, a construction firm. In return, prosecutors alleged, Lula encouraged Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, to award contracts to OAS during his time in office. Last July Mr Moro found Lula guilty and sentenced him to more than nine years in jail. The judgment was suspended pending appeal. The appeals-court judges increased the sentence to 12 years, but are not enforcing it immediately.
Lula says the apartment was never his and vigorously protests his innocence. He accuses Mr Moro of plotting to deny him a third term as president.
The original guilty verdict seemed to energise Lula. He embarked on a tour of Brazil, drawing enthusiastic crowds, especially in his native north-east, which benefited more than other regions from social-spending programmes that he initiated.
This week’s affirmation of the guilty verdict begins a race by the courts against the electoral calendar. The ficha limpa law can be invoked only after Lula registers as a candidate with the supreme electoral tribunal (TSE), which must happen by August 15th. Lula can appeal against any objection to his candidacy to the TSE and then to Brazil’s supreme court. In the meantime, he can campaign. If the courts move slowly, he could win the election only to have his candidacy annulled by the supreme court, perhaps triggering a new election. That dire prospect will spur the judges to act quickly, reckons Christopher Garman of Eurasia Group, a risk-analysis firm.
If they bar Lula before September 17th, his Workers’ Party (PT) could replace him with another candidate. Gleisi Hoffmann, the party’s president, says there is no “Plan B”. In fact, the PT would probably put up another candidate should Lula drop out, perhaps Fernando Haddad, an ex-mayor of the city of São Paulo, or Jaques Wagner, a former governor of Bahia, a north-eastern state. But the longer Lula stays in the contest before withdrawing, the more votes his understudy is likely to win.
The prospect of an election without Lula has cheered financial markets, which fear that he would resume Ms Rousseff’s spendthrift policies. After the news from Porto Alegre, Brazil’s currency jumped by more than 2% against the dollar.
Many of Lula’s foes would prefer him to stay in the race, in part to persuade his supporters to respect the outcome. “It would be better for him to be defeated politically,” said Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, to Folha de S. Paulo, a newspaper. Even rival candidates may want Lula’s name on the ballot. Mr Bolsonaro portrays himself, implausibly, as the only man who can vanquish him. “The chances of both are predicated on meeting each other in the second round,” says Mr Garman.
That is because a less divisive candidate would probably beat either of them. Plenty of people may be thinking of offering themselves for that role, including Geraldo Alckmin, the governor of São Paulo state, Henrique Meirelles, the finance minister, and Luciano Huck, a television star. None has so far made much impression on voters. Whether he is on or off the ballot, the passions that Lula stirs up will dominate the elections. “We won’t give up on him,” says Danielle, a primary-school teacher who travelled overnight to Porto Alegre expecting a negative ruling by the court. “He lost the battle but hasn’t lost the war.”
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Not beaten yet"