Lula's 'heir' sets his sights on becoming Brazil's youngest president.
It sounds like the longest of long shots.
Guilherme Boulos has never stood for political office of any kind, but he is somehow now aiming for the very top job.
“Clearly, it’s a David v Goliath battle,” the 35-year-old social activist admits of his unlikely quest to become Brazil’s youngest ever president. “But it’s something that we must face.”
Polls leave no doubt that Boulos – who is running alongside indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara for the leftist Socialism and Liberty party – has a wafer-thin chance of achieving his goal when Latin America’s biggest democracy votes on 7 October.
In the longer term, however, the São Paulo-born politician’s prospects look far brighter. As Brazil’s crisis-stricken left comes to terms with the sidelining of its torchbearer, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Boulos is being touted as a potential successor – not least by Lula himself.
In his last public speech before being jailed last month, Lula clutched Boulos’s hand and urged supporters to take note of this “companheiro of the highest quality”. Turning to Boulos next to him on stage, Lula added: “You’ve got a bright future, brother, just don’t ever give up.”
Lula made no fewer than five allusions to the activist during that parting address, Piauí magazine noted in a recent profile proclaiming Boulos “o herdeiro” or “the heir”: “Nobody was mentioned or praised as much.”
Boulos, who shares Lula’s eventually relinquished love of smoking and the Corinthians football club as well as his legendary charisma, has downplayed that nickname, while recognising parallels between his 16-year struggle for social justice with the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) and Lula’s championing of the poor. “Only the dead have heirs,” Boulos said during a high-profile television interview this week.
But that widely applauded TV appearance only intensified chatter over Boulos’s status as Lula’s inheritor. In an article headlined “The Star is Born”, political journalist Luis Nassif celebrated “the birth of a national leader”. Leonardo Boff, a leftist theologian and longtime Lula confidant, seconded the emotion, tweeting: “You are a new leadership in Brazil.”
During a recent interview with the Guardian – conducted while clattering around Rio in the back of a silver Honda compact – Boulos spoke of his desire to lead a long-term renewal of Brazil’s left, a movement at a crossroads after losing its leader of nearly four decades.
He insisted his presidential bid was a genuine attempt to gain power and hoped the anti-systemic frustrations rippling across the globe might boost his campaign. “People are tired of the the same old marketing tricks. People no longer have faith in the old ways of doing politics. This opens up an possibility,” said Boulos. “This is an election in which anything is possible.”
Boulos said combating “pornographic” levels of inequality would be his priority as president. “Brazil is the world’s seventh biggest economy and yet also one of the 10 most unequal,” he said as his car sped past Jacarezinho, a vast redbrick favela, on its way to the family home of murdered Rio councillor Marielle Franco.
“Brazil isn’t just one country,” Boulos added that afternoon. “Brazil is a fissure. Brazil is an abyss.”
He also vowed to build “a new kind of politics” reconnecting citizens with their detached and discredited political leaders. “So often we see the left, all over the world, claiming to speak for the people, in the name of the people, doing programs for the people,” he said. “What’s harder to find is the left standing together with the people, listening to the people [and hearing] … their most fundamental demands for change.”
On the campaign trail, Boulos, who holds a master’s in psychiatry from one of Brazil’s top universities, has been doing plenty of that.
After spending the morning with Franco’s sister and parents, he set off for a round table discussion with leftwing artists and activists who served up a bewildering smorgasbord of demands.
One called for academic quotas for Brazil’s transgender community; another demanded action against tyrannical media oligopolies; a third protested that the swimming pool of a local state school had become a dumping site for old sofas and dead dogs.
“We must roll up our sleeves, hang our pants on the washing line and demand from the government what is ours!” a fourth petitioner bellowed to furrowed brows and giggles.
Throughout the meandering session Boulos sat attentively taking notes before ending with a brief but rousing address delivered in a silky baritone not unlike that of his incarcerated political patron.
The would-be president railed against corruption, racism, gender discrimination, the “stupid” war on drugs and the failings of Brazil’s inward-looking left which spent too much time “preaching to the converted”.
“We’re in a moment of transition. We’re entering a new cycle,” intoned Boulos, whose purple T-shirt carried the words of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht: “Nothing should seem impossible to change.”
When Lula’s increasingly apparent heir concluded he was cheered off the stage and mobbed for selfies.
Back in his Honda and heading to Rio’s airport, Boulos said his travels around Brazil had convinced him the country needed a leader capable of hearing “the clamour of the people”.
“Perhaps one of the characteristics of our failed political system is that it is deaf … Politics is full of people who can come out and make big speeches … but someone who wants to govern a country must really know that country and listening is essential to knowing.”