Lula 2022? Brazil poised for sensational political comeback
Anazir Maria de Oliveira has a simple message for the man they call Lula.
“Comrade, I want you back,” said the 88-year-old union veteran and black activist as she celebrated the return of her “guru” to Brazil’s political fray.
Until just a few months ago, Lula – full name Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – seemed to have reached the melancholy twilight of a mythical political career. The former factory worker rose to become one of the world’s most popular leaders before, in a dramatic fall from grace, he was jailed and barred from office.
But the quashing of corruption convictions against Brazil’s first working-class president has scrambled the South American country’s politics and given believers such as Oliveira the tantalising hope that the septuagenarian politician could make a comeback.
Five months after Lula’s political rights were restored, polls suggest that in next year’s election he would thrash Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is facing mounting anger over his response to a Covid outbreak that has killed more than half a million Brazilians.
“Seeing him in the presidency again is everything we want … I’m heart and soul Lula,” enthused Oliveira, or Dona Zica as she is known in Vila Aliança, the favela where she lives on Rio’s deprived western limits.
Lula, a two-term president from 2003 to 2010, has yet to formally announce what would be his sixth presidential campaign since he first sought to become Brazil’s leader in 1989 aged 44. In a recent interview the 75-year-old stopped short of confirming his plans but said he had been inspired by Joe Biden’s election at 78. “I’m a boy compared with Biden,” Lula joked.
John D French, the author of a new biography charting Lula’s rise from unionist to president, said he had no doubt Lula would run – and was well-placed to win.
“He’s the Pelé of international presidential electoral politics – nobody has a record like he does anywhere in the world,” said French, remembering how either Lula or Lula’s anointed candidate had come either first or second in six successive elections going back to 1998.
Lula lost that year’s contest to the centrist intellectual Fernando Henrique Cardoso but won a historic landslide four years later, in 2002, telling voters “hope had overcome fear”. Members of Lula’s Workers’ party (PT) are pushing a similarly upbeat message now, as Brazil reels from a coronavirus-driven health and economic catastrophe that has killed more than 550,000 people and plunged the country into a profound funk.
“The fact is [Lula] represents a moment when things went well, when Brazil felt it was moving forwards, when things were happening, when the minimum wage was going up, when your children could go to school, when 10m houses were built,” said French. Bolsonaro, in contrast, was widely associated with today’s “suffering, crisis and desperation”.
“Everybody feels in their daily life what is going on right now,” French said. “I don’t just mean the unemployment … People are losing large numbers of members of their family. It’s very real.”
Many conservatives are horrified by the thought of Lula’s return and some on the left are wary, too, even if they concede his political dominance may mean he is best positioned to defeat Bolsonaro.
Ciro Gomes, a former Lula minister who is now his main leftwing rival, called a third Lula presidency an “awful” prospect. “What is it that Lula wants to do at the age of 78 [sic], that he didn’t do during the four terms he managed to win for himself or for the representative he put forward?” Gomes asked, referring to Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, who won elections in 2010 and 2014.
Gomes claimed voter fury over “the economic and moral debacle” of past PT governments – when key Lula associates, including his chief of staff and finance minister were jailed for corruption – had paved the way for Bolsonaro’s election. He argued Lula’s involvement in the 2022 vote threaten returning Bolsonaro to office by creating an election “in which Bolsonaro calls Lula a crook, and Lula calls Bolsonaro a murderer”.
There is far greater excitement among PT devotees, who have started attending anti-Bolsonaro protests in bright red T-shirts bearing the slogan: “Lula 2022.” A helium-filled Lula caricature has towered over recent opposition rallies in Rio while in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, one Lulista hung a banner from his window describing the leftist’s resurrection in biblical terms. “Thy will be done: Lula 2022 presidente,” it said, alongside the bearded leftist’s image.
Dona Zica, a retired cleaning lady and campaigner who keeps a stash of PT paraphernalia in her immaculately neat home, said she was also rooting for the return of a politician whose life story and social crusade mirrors her own. Like Lula, she was born into rural poverty in the small town of Manhumirim and, after a childhood harvesting peanuts and corn, moved to Rio in 1948, four years before Lula’s impoverished family set off for São Paulo on an open-back truck.
During the 1970s and 80s, as Lula championed metalworkers’ rights and Zica those of domestic workers, they crossed paths at union events. In 1994, during his second presidential campaign, he visited Vila Aliança. And in 2002, after Lula was finally elected on his fourth attempt, an overjoyed Dona Zica travelled to Brasília to witness his inauguration. “I felt fulfilled. It was my dream come true,” she said of that day, when the former lathe operator vowed that one of the world’s most unequal countries would “tread a new path” of growth and social change.
Nearly two decades later, Dona Zica hoped history might repeat itself but warned Bolsonaro’s defeat was not assured. She believed many Vila Aliança residents regretted voting Bolsonaro in 2018, having lost jobs or relatives to a pandemic their president has repeatedly trivialised. One neighbour recently apologised to Dona Zica, whose son spent 25 days in hospital fighting Covid, for backing Bolsonaro – but other locals remained loyal.
“If Lula does run in 2022, it won’t be an easy election. Today he’s ahead – but politics is constantly changing,” Dona Zica said.
“I’ll tell you one thing though,” added the great-grandmother-of-34. “Things can’t stay the way they are. Poor Brazilians have been utterly abandoned by the federal government … So many people have died.”